I am constantly amazed that some journalists, especially economic and business reporters, have a difficult time understanding industrial working-class support for Donald Trump. Failure to understand his appeal is particularly important given that Trump’s evolving trade policy, including withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and renegotiating NAFTA, may contribute to his continued support in manufacturing states.
In the 2016 election, Trump argued that past trade policy had not benefited the American people. He described appeals to free trade as a charade masking the devastating effects of deindustrialization, which drew popular support from workers in industrial states where manufacturing jobs had disappeared and local communities were devastated.
The politics of resentment ran deep in 2016. Yet the Democratic Party ignored the depth of workers’ anger and assumed that the usual promises and bromides about free trade and economic change would safely carry industrial states as they often had in the past.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) tried to warn candidates of simmering unrest over trade. It urged both parties to offer clear and effective trade policies. Following the election, AAM president Scott Paul stated the obvious: “One of the most defining themes of this election was the economic pain felt by some voters, particularly those within the working middle-class. Communities across America felt left behind as manufacturing jobs disappeared and no single election cycle can erase that.”
With the release of Trump’s Trade Agenda Report, trade is again front and center in American politics, so reporters are once again trying to understand how and why it matters. Clearly, it mattered in the 18th Congressional District race in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Connor Lamb broke with the National Democratic Party by not bashing Trump and by supporting the President’s trade policy, including the quotas on steel and aluminum imports. Lamb’s victory in this usually Republican district has made many reporters wonder if other Democrats will shun the Party’s past trade policy, at the risk losing campaign contributions from Wall Street.
Some reporters are now asking whether industrial workers will stand in solidarity with farmers in the Midwest, who are being hurt by the embargoes and tariffs on agricultural products imposed by China in response to Trump’s policies. They’ve failed to notice that farmers didn’t support workers in manufacturing areas when they were losing jobs. Nor did many legislators, who have been some of the most ardent supporters of free trade in agriculture, offer much support when trade threatened industrial jobs.
It may be that the real problem between Democrats and working people on trade policy is about what academics call “positionality”—who you are, including where you are from, shapes what you know and the policies you support. This can seem like a simple formulation, but it’s clear that how people view trade policy depends not only on geography but on what kind of work they do. Neither steelworkers nor farmers will support trade policies that will harm their economic security or disrupt their communities.
This is true for other employment threats, too. We often see the same worker resistance to environmental policies that create economic displacement as well as to technological innovations that replace people with computers or robotics. These changes may be inevitable and beneficial globally, but political leaders need to address the inequities they bring.
There’s a way that Democrats can begin to address these problems (which are existential for workers and politically existential for the Democrats, as the 2016 presidential contest made clear). If Democrats want to regain the support of workers, they need to argue more forcefully for just transitions. The term has been around for some time in discussions about promoting green industries and low-carbon economies. Just transitions involve a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' jobs and livelihoods threatened by economic dislocation and change. Just transition policies range from rebuilding and expanding the social safety net, including health care, education, retraining, to investments in infrastructure and public works projects, to the more systemic approach of a guaranteed basic income.
But the concept of just transitions has not surfaced in recent U.S. policy debates about trade reform. Rather, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer wants to make structural adjustments to the trade laws, such as rescinding corporate-controlled independent labor arbitration process. Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s A Fair Trade Agenda focuses primarily on leveling the trade playing field. No doubt many of its suggested reforms would garner some support from workers and their unions. But they would also have limited effects and would not address the social and economic costs of deindustrialization or future technological displacements.
We need to look beyond incremental strategies that could protect some jobs and focus more on equitable reform. As Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood has suggested in discussing the shift to a low carbon economy, we need transitions that create “equitable outcome[s] for all workers” and make justice a priority. Regardless of the industry or whether the cause is trade policy, environmental concerns, or innovation, displaced workers need a social safety net unlike those we have seen in past.
This kind of just transition is what Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced—a plan that would guarantee every American worker who wants one a job paying $15 an hour with health-care benefits. As The Washington Post commented, Sanders’s plan embraces “the kind of large-scale government works project that Democrats have shied away from in recent decades.” It also offers a starting point for a national discussion about how a just transitions approach can respond to dislocations involving trade, climate change, and artificial intelligence.