It’s not surprising that a guy who grew up in Scranton would see the revival of manufacturing jobs as the key to saving democracy. But that guy is only partially right.
I’m in the 40% of Americans who approve of the job Joe Biden is doing. The most important thing about the guy is that he understands the threats to American democracy, foreign and domestic. Roughly summed up, the foreign threat is China and the domestic threat is Donald Trump.
Biden recognizes that blue collar workers are so angry and frustrated by being left behind in the global economy that they will do desperate things, like vote for Trump. To address that he’s pushing the creation of new manufacturing jobs and he’s having success. In fact, there are now more manufacturing jobs in the U.S. then there were before the economic meltdown in 2008. Credit that to Biden’s infrastructure bill, his computer chip bill and his work on clean energy manufacturing. (Note: Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has voted against all of this.)
Biden’s doing the right thing. But it’s only part of the right thing. In order to blunt the appeal of hard-right populism, he and his fellow Democrats need to take at least three more steps.
They have to recognize that “blue collar” doesn’t describe most workers. The problem that the Democrats have with workers isn’t just among those in factory jobs. It’s people with two year degrees in medical fields or accounting. It’s assistant managers at Wal-Marts. It’s auto mechanics and bakers and small business owners. I wrote about this on Labor Day: when Democrats think about the working class they still think about union members going to work in steel factories and coal mines. But that’s not what most American workers look like today.
They have to speak to workers’ values. This is another thing I harp on. Democrats get frustrated because they see themselves as championing all of these pro-worker policies only to have those workers vote for the other guys. It happens because most people are motivated more by their values than by their own economic self-interests — ironically, Donald Trump is very much an exception to that rule. And the Democratic brand is trashed. Working class folks view the party as obsessed with identity politics, eager to give away their tax dollars to people who don’t deserve it, and, most importantly, openly dismissive of anybody without a college degree. And when they express those frustrations, Democrats call them racists.
And finally, Democrats need to find some way to get credit for the good jobs they’re creating that don’t require a college degree. To be sure, Biden’s strategy is only part of what he needs to do, but it’s still important. I’m not at all confident that he and his party are getting credit for it. He’s trying, showing up at plant openings and the like, but I’m not sure it’s enough. As long as others in his party keep pushing various forms of identity politics, nothing will be able to overcome that.
Biden’s right about the threats to democracy and he’s got part of the answer. But what’s needed is a fundamental refocus in the values and emphasis of his party. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening.