Liberals Need to Stop Writing Off Non–College Educated Workers — Before the White Working Class Writes Off Liberals

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Obama with construction workers in New York City.Photo: Pool/2010 Getty Images

A specter haunts the left’s last bastions of white working-class support — the specter of right-wing populism. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn notes, outside of London, Labour’s working-class districts bucked their party’s leadership by voting for a Brexit campaign led by right-wing nationalists. Recent elections in Austria, Denmark, and Germany have produced a similar pattern; in all three countries, working-class areas that once voted with the Social Democrats or the center-left embraced far-right populists who promised to stem the tide of globalization. 

Donald Trump has brought his own idiosyncratic brand of reactionary populism to our shores. And it’s playing well in the Democrats’ white working-class strongholds. According to Cohn, Trump’s most reliable voters in the GOP primary were “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless remain registered as Democrats.” On Tuesday, the presumptive GOP nominee made it clear that his general-election campaign will be aimed squarely at these voters. Contradicting decades of conservative free-market doctrine, Trump debuted a seven-point plan for reviving domestic manufacturing through trade protection.

Even if this message resonates with its target audience, current polling suggests Trump will have a tough time winning in November. But if issues of globalization continue to gain political salience, it could drive a wedge between the Democratic Party’s white working-class voters — who disproportionately favor restricting immigration — and the rest of the party’s base, which has been moving steadily toward an embrace of open borders. This is no small threat to Team Blue: White voters without college degrees made up a full 34 percent of the Obama coalition in 2012.

Liberals can’t give these voters what they want (in the aggregate) on immigration. To retain the party’s current share of the demographic, Democrats will need to make their economic pitch more salient than the right-wing’s nationalist appeals. There are many ways to go about this task. But a good first step would be to stop insinuating that non–college educated workers are destined to live miserable lives because their skills are obsolete.

If that strikes you as something liberals never do, you should listen to last week’s edition of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:

I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.

[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.

The “accurate, right answer” is that your life is going to get worse because you’ve fallen beneath the threshold for wages. This is how a well-sourced reporter summarizes the consensus of the Democratic nominee’s policy team. And we wonder why so many voters disdain elite expertise.

Of course, no politician would ever phrase Davidson’s argument in such stark terms. But his basic premise — that the economic decline of America’s non–college educated workers is an inexorable fact of economics — is often implied in the rhetoric of Democratic politicians.

I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear — proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. They’re right. The rules have changed,” Barack Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union Address. “Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection […] The competition for jobs is real.”

But these “rules” did not change themselves; they were revised by policymakers. Or, as Donald Trump put it Tuesday, “This is not some natural disaster. It is politician-made disaster.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations entered trade agreements designed to put downward pressure on the wages of domestic manufacturing workers. This was a deliberate choice and not a foregone conclusion — these same governments did not subject professional workers to similar international competition. As economist Dean Baker notes, our trade deals could have established clear standards that would allow “students in Mexico, India, and China to train to U.S. levels and then practice as professionals in the United States,” thus providing enormous savings to consumers in the form of cheaper health care and legal fees. But policymakers decided that maintaining the living standards of our professional workers was more important than consumer savings. They reached the opposite conclusion about the living standards of our blue-collar labor force.

At the same time, these governments did little to compensate the “losers” of globalization; made it more difficult for workers to unionize; and further decreased their leverage over employers by cutting the social safety net. This policy framework has left non–college educated workers — a group that makes up 65 percent of our labor force — with a median wage $1.30 lower than it was in 1980.

The problem with framing this state of affairs as the inevitable result of autonomous economic forces — as opposed to acknowledging the role played by public policy — is that it radically narrows the possibilities for reform. When the “accurate answer” is that we have no demand for “low-skill” workers, politicians start positing a college degree as a prerequisite for economic security.

In a 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama declared income inequality to be “the defining issue of our time.” But his overriding prescription for addressing this issue was higher education, which he described as “the surest route to the middle class.” The plight of those who failed to take that route was framed as tragic, but unavoidable:

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable.

Millions of working families reliant on food banks is heartbreaking — but, implicitly, excusable — so long as their children have a “chance” at escaping their parents’ deprivation. The president reiterated this emphasis on education throughout his speech, arguing that today’s “innovation economy” requires America to “up our game” — an effort that “starts by making education a national mission.”

Obama struck a similar note at the opening of his 2016 State of the Union, in which he argued that the central question facing America’s economic policymakers over the coming decades would be, “How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?”

The ambition here is not to ensure that all full-time workers enjoy economic security, but merely that they have “a fair shot” of attaining it.

The idea that the answer to inequality is increasing college enrollment isn’t just a likely political loser among middle-aged, working-class, white Democrats. It’s also wrong on the merits: Of the 30 occupations that will add the most jobs to the U.S. economy in the next six years, only five require bachelor’s degrees, according to Labor Department projections. Of the top five occupations in today’s economy, only one requires a college diploma (registered nurse).

And there’s little evidence that our economy has an overwhelming demand for college-educated workers: The inflation-adjusted earnings of American college graduates — including those in the sacred STEM fields — have stagnated since the late 1990s. If the problem with our economy was a lack of college graduates — as opposed to a lack of aggregate demand and collective-bargaining power — you would expect wages to rise sharply for diploma-bearers. Instead, large swaths of the newly graduated work jobs that require no degree.

The vast majority of American workers perform “low-skill,” service labor, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Democrats need to offer a clear vision for how our economy can provide its janitors, cashiers, retail workers, home health aides, construction laborers, and customer-service representatives with a middle-class standard of living.

Despite the fatalism that clouds some Democratic policymakers’ views of working-class decline, the party is making some progress on that front. In the wake of the Fight for $15 movement, national Democrats have put renewed emphasis on making blue-collar work great again. Hillary Clinton’s inequality agenda includes commitments to fight wage theft, promote collective bargaining, and expand public-sector hiring. The Obama administration’s recent overtime expansion will improve the economic fortunes of millions of service-sector workers. And in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, President Obama indicated that he believes working-class wages can — and should — be raised through government policy:

The service sector historically has been a low-wage sector. And in order for us to make sure that we don’t see this growing divide between haves and have-nots, with a middle class that’s shrinking, we’re going to have to make sure the service sector pays better. […] So we’re going to have to make some broader decisions in terms of the social compact about how folks who are making a living in really important, necessary jobs are getting compensated.

Democrats need to detail this new social compact. And then, they need to demand it with the same urgency that Trump demands his wall. Through rhetoric and policy, liberals must affirm the value of the work that most Americans perform everyday. Blue-collar laborers — of all colors — deserve better “right” answers than the ones they’ve been given.