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The New Yorker: Sherrod Brown Wants to Bring a Working-Class Ethos Back to the Democratic Party

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The New Yorker: Sherrod Brown Wants to Bring a Working-Class Ethos Back to the Democratic Party

The New Yorker: Sherrod Brown Wants to Bring a Working-Class Ethos Back to the Democratic Party

Benjamin Wallace-Wells – December 13, 2018

Sherrod Brown, the liberal Democratic senator from Ohio, has often seemed a politician from the radio era, with a baritone thick with particulate matter, suits whose pressed lines disintegrate as the day wears on, and curly gray hair that can swell into an accidental bouffant. When Brown appeared on CNN two weeks ago with his hair neatly trimmed, it prompted speculation about whether he was débuting a more polished look for a Presidential run.

In fact, for several weeks now, Brown has been openly considering declaring his candidacy, flying out of state to meet with mega-donors, and becoming a familiar face on the Sunday shows. He is an unlikely candidate, in part because Brown, whose manner is unshowy and slightly grave, firmly believes that the public is “not interested in the inner terrain of his life,” as his wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, told me recently. He is also unlikely because his politics belong so squarely to the Democratic Party’s trade-unionist past. “Sherrod’s a very, very committed person for standing up for—I’m not sure what to call it—the non–rich and powerful,” Leo Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers and an ally of Brown’s, told me. “I’m not quite sure we’re still the middle class.”

Now those commitments recommend him. In his campaign this summer for a third term in the Senate, Brown spoke relentlessly of the “dignity of work,” a phrase he had drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Francis. This was always his message to voters in Ohio, but, as the Midwest has slipped away from the Democrats, a liberal who can win there has become precious to the Party. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Ohio by eight points, and, as her support collapsed across the Midwest, she lost the Presidency. Last month, Brown won Ohio by over six points, running fifteen points ahead of Clinton’s statewide numbers and twenty-one points ahead in the Appalachian counties. The press, the Party, its donors, the amateur strategists toying with electoral maps in their browsers—everyone discovered Sherrod Brown as a Presidential candidate at once. The tactical logic is bracing, undeniable: if the Democrats can win Ohio, they can almost surely win the more liberal states in the Midwest—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And if they take those, they will win back the White House.

Last Wednesday afternoon, a cold, bare day whose main appointment had been the morning funeral service for President George H. W. Bush, Brown, a bit less rumpled than usual, sat in a chair in his conference room and talked, as he has for much of the past half-century, about jobs and trade. He was preparing to meet Mary Barra, the composed, unfussy C.E.O. of General Motors, the daughter of a tool-and-die maker at Pontiac and as impeccably Midwestern a figure as Brown himself. The two have recently become adversaries, over a G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, outside Youngstown, which once employed forty-five hundred workers and which Barra has been closing down. One of its three shifts shuttered just after the Presidential election, and then a second, this June, a development that G.M. announced on the same day that it made public the opening of a new plant in Mexico. Two weeks ago, the company announced that five North American plants, Lordstown among them, will be closed by March. Brown ticked off the reasons this offended him. Eight years ago the government had bailed G.M. out, he pointed out, and more recently the company had spent billions of dollars on stock buybacks. What seemed especially galling to him was that the Lordstown plant had recently been rated the most efficient in North America by the auto analysts at J.D. Power. “These people do good work,” he said.

The gradual extermination of Midwestern factories is an old story that seemed, with Trump’s election, like it might take a new turn. Brown, who voted against nafta and in 2004 published a book titled “Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed,” talked himself into the idea that Trump might be an ally on the issue. “I think the President’s sentiments are generally right on trade,” Brown told me. His staff sent lengthy memos to the Presidential transition offices, suggesting how, for instance, the U.S.-China Hundred-Day Plan ought to be adjusted. In July, 2017, Trump had held a rally in Youngstown, at which he was emphatic that G.M.’s presence there would remain strong. “They’re all coming back,” he said, of Ohio’s factory jobs. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house.” This summer, when G.M. shut down the Youngstown plant’s second shift, Brown called the White House. “The President was just not aware,” Brown said. “He’d gone into Youngstown and made those very specific promises.” Brown asked the President to talk with Barra, to try to keep the plant from closing, but Trump didn’t commit to it.

In September, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada agreed to the terms of the U.S.M.C.A., the trade agreement that will replace nafta. The deal, Trump said, “will stop auto jobs from going overseas and bring back auto jobs that have already left.” But on November 26th, four days before the agreement was signed, G.M. announced that the last shift in Lordstown and four other locations would shut down by March. Brown called Trump again, this time to ask him to support a bill, the American Cars,American Jobs Act, which would diminish the benefits for outsourcing in the tax code and create a thirty-five-hundred-dollar credit for buying an American-made car. Brown recalled that Trump said, “ ‘You mean they shut down in Youngstown because, if they move overseas, they get fifty per cent off their taxes?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Where’d that come from?’ ‘I don’t know what to say, Mr. President, it’s your tax bill.’ ‘Oh. We should change that.’ ” Brown said that Trump committed three times on the phone to supporting his bill, but that he was not convinced that this private commitment would mean much. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.) Brown grinned. “Trying to establish the four corners for a conceptual framework for how Donald Trump thinks . . .” and then he shrugged. It was impossible.

The negotiations between Brown, Barra, and Trump seemed like a classic twentieth-century political tableau—the C.E.O. of a major company arriving in the capital to negotiate with the pro-business President and a pro-labor senator—but all three parties were weaker now than in the oil-painting version. “We don’t have the dominance in the world economy that we had sixty years ago,” Brown told me. “It makes the labor movement weaker because of foreign competition. It makes G.M. less dominant. I don’t know what you compare Trump to, he just doesn’t engage in much detail.” Trump had won the Midwest with the promise that a master dealmaker in the White House could bring back jobs and, with them, a way of life. But that hadn’t happened, whether you measured that failure in the news reports of G.M.-plant relocations or the Democratic wave in the midterms. Trump’s political idea of the Midwest is not working, which makes room, perhaps, for another.

Brown grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, midway between Columbus and Cleveland, within the professional class. His father was a physician and his mother, a Georgia native and social-justice activist, was at one point the chair of the state Y.W.C.A. Brown, who inherited his mother’s Lutheran faith and progressive politics, went to Yale, and won his first race, for the state legislature in Ohio, the fall after he graduated. On Fridays, when the legislature was out of session, he spent time at union halls and watched the people whom his future, as a Democrat in Ohio, would depend on. “I learned what they read, I learned about their pride in their work, I learned about how they could send their kids to O.S.U.-Mansfield,” Brown told me. “That people who were struggling to be middle-class and, if one thing went wrong in their life, particularly if they didn’t have a union, everything could be upside down.” Maybe because he was not working-class himself, Brown’s class politics have an idealistic gloss. On his lapel he wears a canary pin, a symbol of the days when all that mine workers had to alert them to dangerous conditions in the shafts was a bird.

Brown’s experience of politics has been as a manager of loss, first economic and then partisan. During the Tea Party era, Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan pioneered the scorched-earth partisanship that eventually came to the dominate the Party, and then Trump turned the regional sensation of loss into a national story of an abandonment of the heartland, by liberals and élites, which deepened the cultural divide. Brown and Democrats of his generation had helped to write the most potent story about the region, in which it was a victim of globalization and greed, but the villains of that story were not only Republicans. A Democrat in this circumstance had two obvious options: to follow the old voters to cultural conservatism, as Senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, have done; or to ally more closely with the rising liberal base—people of color, young people, the highly educated—hunkering down in cities, rich suburbs, and college towns, and betting on demographic change to come. Brown has made a third, less obvious choice, which is to insist that the same old ideas could still reach voters who had turned to the Republicans and Trump—that to have spent an adult life watching the experience of the deindustrializing Midwest gave you a window into the future, not the past. On the bleak Election Night in 2016, watching the returns at home with a few family members, aides, and friends, Brown declared that negotiating with Trump on trade was possible. “My happy warrior,” Connie Schultz said, recalling the evening, with some irony.

As Sherrod Brown becomes a national figure, his trudging approach to politics is evolving into a brand, much as Bernie Sanders’s did, a few years ago. He flies so often between Cleveland and Washington that he noticed when the tip jar in the United Club lounge was moved behind the bar, inquired about it, discovered that a rule had been changed, and began badgering the United C.E.O. about it. Prospective candidates for President often publish books as they prepare to run. Brown is at work on one, but it is about the desk he was assigned when he became a senator (“Desk 88”), which had belonged to a remarkably long lineage of progressive champions. Just after Thanksgiving, while riding the stationary bike in his basement, Brown read a David Brooks column in the Times, which argued that a “crisis of connection” now defined the nation. “Economic anxiety is now downstream from and merged with sociological, psychological and spiritual decay,” Brooks wrote. “It’s not jobs, jobs, jobs anymore. It’s relationships, relationships, relationships.” From his bike, Brown let out a groan audible from upstairs. Brown has about the opposite intellectual approach from Brooks, whose columns can move rapidly from a mundane policy question to the question of the relationship between man and God. A few days later, the Times published a letter to the editor from the Ohio senator, with a Cleveland dateline. “Actually it’s wages, wages, wages,” Brown wrote. “And respecting the dignity of work.” It wasn’t so easy to say whether this was Presidential positioning or an expression of stress. Possibly, it was both.

The field of potential Democratic candidates is thick with current and former senators, so, should he run, Brown might soon find himself being attacked by his colleagues and friends. One vulnerability stands out. In his past campaigns, Republicans have often focussed on affidavits filed during his divorce from his first wife, Larke Recchie, in the nineteen-eighties. On several occasions, Recchie swore in an affidavit, Brown had “intimidated, pushed, shoved and bullied” her. Recchie now supports Brown, and she and her husband have hosted fund-raisers for him and appeared in ads supporting him. This story has come up in each of Brown’s subsequent campaigns. Perhaps you could see its influence in Brown’s decision to call, with the majority of Democratic senators, for his friend Al Franken to resign from the Senate last year, after Franken was accused of serial sexual harassment.

For now, those matters are notional. The more pressing question is whether his ideas will strike as deep a chord in the country as they have in Ohio. Lately Brown has been arguing that his issues, long coded as white and universal, have a more universal appeal. “Whatever workers have suffered in this country is worse for the black community: their pay is lower, they have less opportunity, “ he told me. “You’ll almost never hear me talk about race when I talk about workers—unless you ask the question that way, then you’ll always hear me talk about it.” He was warming to his theme. “We are very careful not to let people characterize this as, ‘Brown’s talking to white workers.’ You will never hear me say the words ‘Rust Belt,’ because that diminishes our work and demeans who we are.” Brown quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., on street sweepers: “He said, if you are called to be a street sweeper, you should sweep streets the way Michelangelo painted and Beethoven wrote music and Shakespeare wrote poems. And, he said, if you do, the hosts will open up in the heavens and say, ‘There goes a good street sweeper.’ And really respecting the work, whatever it is, and not judging one job’s worth more than another job. That will helps us move towards a decent wage for everybody, and that’s the whole point of this.” Brown went on, ”I’ve heard a lot of employers say they can’t get workers, and they blame drugs, there are a lot of legitimate reasons, but part of it is you’re only offering nine dollars an hour.”

When I spoke with Schultz this week, I asked her whether she thought her husband had a second idea to offer voters, beyond wages and the dignity of work. She said, “One of the things we have talked about is, Is it so bad right now that it is going to take a really long time to right this ship? Or is it only so bad that if you bring a sense of respect for the American people, respect for the job, can a lot of this be repaired more quickly?” It lacked the concision of the “dignity of work,” but I could see why she mentioned the idea: it got at Brown’s core, an optimism deep enough that he could imagine in Trump a partner in defense of the working class, and could imagine our present cultural chasm as narrow enough that it could be bridged with a handshake and good intentions.

The vulnerable, furious progressive mood of the past two years will soon come into contact with the creaky machinery of a Presidential campaign whose long prelude hinges on genuflections to the small-town decency of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. The notion that Brown might be the Democratic nominee depends, at an emotional level, on the likelihood that the present rage of the Party’s primary voters might ebb into pragmatism and hope—that his Midwestern optimism will not scan as naïveté.

An hour later, Brown would be in a conference room in the Russell Senate Office Building, pressing Barra about the size of the electric cars her company was planning to build in the United States, whether any might fit in the paint shop in Lordstown. I asked him whether there was anything about a Presidential campaign that he would look forward to. “Going back to Pope Francis, he admonishes parish priests early in his papacy to go out and smell like the flock,” Brown said. The idea, he explained, was that “you are a better priest if you are out among and you see how people live. You are a better politician. You are a better candidate.” He became a little self-conscious—he is a Lutheran, after all—and checked with an aide to make sure he’d quoted the Holy Father correctly. He had. “Go out and smell like the flock,” Brown said, with more certainty this time.