I’ve been reading a lot of polls lately. Presidential polls suggest that President Trump is historically unpopular; that doesn’t surprise me. They also suggest that his base still loves him. And I genuinely don’t get it.
I’m circling around an answer in my mind, and yet it’s one I’m uncomfortable with. I’m a liberal Democrat, but I live in possibly the most conservative state in the country, and I get along just fine with my neighbors. I don’t want to give a typical, Democratic-talking-point hyperpartisan answer. But, what the heck, let me toss this on the porch and see if the cat laps it up.
Democrats are good at policy, but pretty bad at winning elections. Republicans are good at winning elections, but lousy at policy. Democrats want to govern, and are generally pretty good about it. Republicans awful at governing. But they are great at messaging. Because Republicans are much less reluctant to lie.
I don’t mean to imply that all Democrats are uniformly pillars of integrity and rectitude, and Republicans are all lying hounds. Of course, both parties spin. Both parties shade the truth. Both parties’ politicians market pretty sketchy ideas aggressively, emphasizing the positive, downplaying negatives. That’s just politics.
But I do say that Republicans are more likely to say untrue things to win elections.
Let’s look at both parties’ ideas about the economy. Republicans had a lot of success in the last election by talking about the loss of jobs in mining and in manufacturing. “I’m going to bring those jobs back,” promised candidate Trump. Small towns across America are losing their job bases. The one factory that kept the town going shut down, and folks lost everything. Republicans are going to fix all that.
What was the Democratic response? As far as I can tell, it was this: “we have a program for that.” Job retraining programs, with targeted welfare to tide people over. That’s a lousy message for proud Americans, folks who want to stand on their own two feet, folks who aren’t looking for a handout.
But it’s honest. Those factory jobs are, for the most part, not coming back. Corporations have moved them overseas, because big corporations survive by staying profitable. Sure, politicians could enact some protectionist legislation, but that’s bad economics, bad foreign policy, and likely to, at best, delay the inevitable by a few years. Sadly, a good way to become unpopular is to be upfront with people.
Donald Trump won by telling people what they want to hear. But he’s not bringing those jobs back. And the best thing we could say to people who worked at those shuttered factories is the truth. “Sorry, but that job is gone. Figure out something else to do. Here’s some help while you retool.”
Mining is another example of the same dynamic. Trump promises to be the ‘coal President.’ The coal industry will revive, and all those Kentucky/West Virginia/Pennsylvania/Wyoming coal mines will reopen, and, like their fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers before them, men of courage and character will venture back down the mine shafts and wring a tough life out of hardscrabble circumstances. And what could prevent it? Pointy-headed environmentalists. So cut environmental regulations, and we’ll dig ourselves out of poverty and energy dependence.
Every single part of that previous paragraph is wrong. Mining is not a noble profession. It’s not ignoble, but it’s crippling work, with a short life span, an good chance of dying from black lung disease; with horrible working conditions. Meanwhile, the most vibrant sector of the American economy is in alternative energy. That’s where the jobs are, that’s where the future will be found.
There’s a tremendous mythology surrounding coal mining, I know. That mythology is part of what Trump plugged into. But it’s nonsense. Coal is increasing economically unviable. Not to mention how much burning fossil fuels hurts our planet and increases climate change.
And the biggest job losses in our economy, as it happens, are in retail. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had a recent column (which I don’t seem to be able to link to, sorry), in which he pointed out how many jobs have been lost in malls and big box department stores. Walmart survives, but Sears is in big trouble, as is Target, Shopko, K-Mart and other retailers. And when one of those stores closes, the job losses are massive, and as devastating to those workers and their families as the loss of a GE plant, or local mine would be. Why is this happening? Because it’s easier and more convenient to shop on the internet. Is that likely to change? No, I don’t think it is.
So why is less attention paid when a small-town mall closes than when a factory closes. Could it possibly be because retail jobs are often held by women, and factory jobs, by white men?
And what can be done about those job losses. Very little. Change is hard, economic dislocations are always damaging, short-term. But we can tell people the truth about economics. And, as Krugman says:
While we can’t stop job losses from happening, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.
Above all, we can tell the truth to the American people. There are things government can do and things government can’t do. Bringing back factory jobs happens to be something government is kind of bad at. But helping people with their community college tuition? That’s easier.
Also, tax cuts for rich people won’t help at all. That money’s never going to trickle down. But that’s a topic for another day.