Dissent: Working Too Hard for Too Little: An Interview with Senator Sherrod Brown

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Dissent: Working Too Hard for Too Little: An Interview with Senator Sherrod Brown

Sherrod Brown is a politician ahead of his time. Decades before most progressives began campaigning hard against economic inequality, he was warning about the loss of good jobs and the decline of labor unions in his home state of Ohio and elsewhere in the country. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, Brown has distinguished himself as perhaps the most class-conscious Democrat in Washington. For years, he has worn a canary pin on his lapel to honor the workers’ rights movement that “gave us all food-safety laws, civil rights, rights for the disabled, pensions, and the minimum wage.”

In 2006, Brown won a seat in the U.S. Senate and was reelected in 2012, both times by healthy margins. However, Ohio, traditionally a swing state, swung hard to the Republicans last year, and Brown begins his 2018 campaign essentially tied in the polls.

This spring, the senator issued a lengthy document, “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America,” which lays out a set of innovative ideas about how to raise wages, make jobs more secure, and compel employers to adhere to decent standards on the job. In late April, Michael Kazin interviewed the senator in his office on Capitol Hill.

Michael Kazin: Why did Hillary Clinton do so badly in Ohio last year? Trump won by 8 percent and took eighty out of eighty-eight counties. This was a state that Obama won twice.

Sherrod Brown: I wish I fully understood it. In a couple of urban counties—Franklin [where Columbus is located] and Hamilton [whose seat is Cincinnati]—Hillary actually did better than Obama did in 2008. Franklin, with the big state university and the state government, has become a more liberal county, particularly on social issues, over the years.

Anyway, why did we lose Ohio? I just think people had seen wage stagnation, and they wanted somebody to blame. Hillary was the establishment and Trump made big promises about coal jobs and steel jobs and auto jobs. But the situation in two industrial counties—Mahoning and Trumbull—was more complicated. In my races for Senate, I won both counties by well over 60 percent. Hillary won Mahoning, but she lost Trumbull by a little more than she won Mahoning by. The voters in both places are mostly white and blue collar. A lot are union members but a lot are non-union too.

I don’t buy that a lot of Obama voters voted for Trump. I also don’t buy that a lot of union voters, more than the normal number, voted for Trump. It was the non-union workers who made the difference. And a big part of that is where they’re getting their information. We’re not talking to them loudly enough, we’re not full-throated enough in defending working-class voters. There’s a view in Ohio that people on the coasts look down on them. And this is curious because Republicans are as elitist as many people see Democrats, if not more so. And Donald Trump—I mean, my God—is he not elitist by any measurement? But he talked like he wasn’t.

Kazin: The cultural factor does seem critical. At least nationally, the image of Democrats, too often, is that it’s a party of well-off, college-educated people who live in big cities. I’m afraid Hillary played into this with her Wall Street speeches.

Brown: Yes, and on the coasts. I think that’s what we fight against. I think that narrative is deeper and broader than many people thought before the 2016 elections. I also think it’s a narrative in part created by Fox News. This sounds a bit whiny, but there is clearly a partisan media on the right. There’s Fox and there’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which hates deficits when it’s a Democratic president and says we’ll grow out of them now. They are party cheerleaders and enforcers of discipline. Talk radio too. We don’t really have any of that. Now, the New York Times editorial page is liberal, but it is not a Democratic organ.

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