The American Prospect | Op-ed: Becoming the Workers’ Party Again

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The American Prospect | Op-ed: Becoming the Workers’ Party Again

With their new and overdue embrace of industrial policy, the Democrats can now deliver to working-class voters who’ve understandably felt betrayed.
BY SHERROD BROWN

As a kid growing up in Ohio, I walked the halls of Johnny Appleseed Junior High with the daughters and sons of union workers—electricians, autoworkers, steelworkers—at companies like Westinghouse, Tappan Stove, Ohio Brass, and General Motors.

By the time I graduated from Mansfield High, those plants were shutting down. Corporate America wanted cheaper labor, wherever they could find it. First, they went to anti-union, low-wage states, often in the South. Then, when those wages weren’t low enough, they moved overseas—first to Mexico, then to China. Always in the name of “efficiency”—business-school-speak for “pay workers less.”

As they shut down production, these CEOs earned the monikers “Chainsaw Al,” “John the Cutter,” and “Larry the Knife.”

It transformed our country. A toxic combination of shareholder capitalism and pliant politicians gutted our middle class, hollowed out our towns, and dried up opportunity for people outside big coastal cities and people without college degrees or inherited wealth.

And it upended our politics.

We are supposed to be the workers’ party. Democrats must be that party again.

The geographic heart of the transformation in Americans’ voting patterns lies in places like my Ohio hometown, in the manufacturing towns of America’s industrial heartland.

The “blue wall” was crumbling. Between 2012 and 2020, Democrats lost nearly 2.6 million votes in small and midsized towns in Ohio and the Midwest. A recent report sheds light on how it happened—and what progressives can do to fix it.

I’ve spent my whole life with these voters. For those of us who come from the Midwestern progressive populist tradition, these are our friends, our neighbors, our families. My fellow Democrats need to start by understanding these voters—and the ways politicians of both parties have let them down, over and over.

These folks have been through a lot—from the 2008 financial crisis to COVID to inflation. And those blows followed decades of job losses.

A majority of voters in these communities say they or a family member suffers from a chronic health condition. A majority have had personal experiences with disabilities, job loss, mental-health issues, and addiction. Half have experienced a loss of pension or retirement savings. Their paychecks and job security have been eroding for decades.

Their hard work doesn’t pay off like it used to. And for women and people of color—who make up more of these voters than the national media narrative ever portrays—hard work has never paid off the way it should.

All these Americans are desperate for more stability and security in their lives. But they wonder if things will ever get better. They think politicians have forgotten them.

The people I grew up with knew that Republicans would sell them out to corporations—Bush negotiating NAFTA, Gingrich fighting to bring China into the WTO, Trump granting corporate tax breaks. That surprised no one.

But many Democrats’ active encouragement of the corporate outsourcing agenda came as a shocking betrayal. Those decisions stung much worse coming from the party of Roosevelt—the party that for generations these workers had trusted to be on their side.

We are supposed to be the workers’ party. Democrats must be that party again. We must sharpen the difference between us—historically, America’s party of workers—and the party of big business.

Many are waking up to this reality.

As inflation continues to batter families’ bank accounts—and the president’s poll numbers—even free-traders of yesteryear are beginning to admit the problems of a labyrinthine supply chain stretched across the globe.

And for the first time in my memory, there’s real momentum to take action to fix it. Democrats just passed the kind of industrial policy we haven’t seen in many decades, to build out domestic supply chains of key inputs like semiconductors.

It will create the kind of jobs that too many communities have lost. And it sends a clear message to these Americans that we have not forgotten them.

None of this requires compromising on our values. A commitment to populist economics and fair trade isn’t just compatible with a commitment to social justice—the two naturally go together. One need only read Martin Luther King’s dozens of speeches to unions, and ponder what he was doing when he was killed, to remember the deep connection between workers’ rights and civil rights.

A relentless focus on populist economics wins out over Republicans’ manufactured culture war.

When you’re on the edge, worried about the next layoff or health setback and struggling to make ends meet, the latest Twitter feud or cable news controversy is just background noise.

The hometowns of America’s heartland have been battered and bruised. To create a durable governing majority, we have to show these voters—through our words, through our actions, through our policies—that we hear them. We see them. We are on their side.

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