By Jennifer Rubin – The Washington Post.
President-elect Donald Trump won the hearts of Rust Belt working-class whites by giving voice to their anger and giving them a comforting but utterly false narrative to explain their plight. He blamed “globalism” or “foreigners” or China or stupid Washington insiders or bungled trade deals for the hollowing-out of the heartland and for their fall from the comfortable middle class to the bitter life of working-class hourly laborers. This was and continues to be a great disservice to Trump’s base, one promoted by supposedly “sophisticated” conservatives who have bought into the anti-trade and anti-immigration narratives.
Ironically, it used to be the Republican Party that called for personal initiative and derided blame-mongering. Now, it is practically unheard of to hear Trump Republicans ask what responsibility the angry, white working class has for its status.
Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute provides a necessary corrective. He bluntly writes: “Members of the working class are not solely the victims of economic change and inadequate public policy. They themselves bear some of the responsibility for the frustration and anger they feel. They have agency. The degree to which our public conversation after the election has implicitly denied this basic fact has been concerning.”
He suggests that the cultural norm favoring work has eroded and that public policies should encourage, if not insist upon, work for able-bodied individuals:
We should increase earnings subsidies. By subsidizing labor market earnings, policy can help a paycheck go further, and can pull people into participating in the workforce who otherwise would not in light of the wages they can command in today’s economy. Policy should help workers build skills that businesses actually demand and that the market will reward. Apprenticeships are a particularly promising option. Policy should get government out of the way by deregulating the labor market, creating more opportunity. And policies with significant unintended consequences that suppress workforce participation — like disability insurance — need to be reformed.
Let’s take that a step further. This is not merely a binary choice: Work or not work. The issue is what we expect workers displaced or never prepared for the 21st century to do in order to work.
The inspiring, recently released movie “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African American women who overcame all manner of adversity during the Jim Crow era and beyond to excel at NASA and become contributors to the American space program. It is at bottom a tale of persistence and initiative. (The book on which it is based delves into the backstory of the women, providing rich details to illustrate each heroic journey.) And there is a message here for those who feel they have gotten the short end of the stick.
One family moves to give their daughter a shot at a first-rate education. The women accept lesser-paying, non-glamorous work to get a foot in the door. (The book, but not the movie, tells us that Dorothy Vaughan accepted a job as a laundress during the summer at NASA before being hired as a mathematician.) They left the comfort of home towns to move to Langley, Va. They overcame prejudice, rotten bosses and unpleasant work conditions. Another of the women, Mary Jackson, went to court to force a segregated high school to allow her to take classes when she was confronted with an education requirement for advancement. When a mammoth IBM computer gets installed, Vaughan figures out that electronic computing is the wave of the future. The biographies say that she “became an expert FORTRAN programmer.” In fact she worked to become an expert, educating herself because she saw that the human computers (the women crunching the numbers) would not be needed one day. She was what we would now call a “lifelong learner.”
No one today expects workers to endure racism or sexism, but the tale is awe-inspiring, in part, because it’s hard to imagine many Americans today enduring all that these women did. Leave home? Take a menial job and educate yourself at night? The NASA women’s expectations for what others would do for them was nonexistent. They knew that without education, ingenuity, dedication, personal sacrifice and initiative, they would not succeed. They actually had an “excuse” — Jim Crow — but they saw it as an obstacle, not a justification for failure.
We can empathize with Rust Belt Americans displaced by automation and globalization without infantilizing them. Some are doing precisely what the NASA women did — figuring out how to navigate in a new world, educating themselves and redesigning their lives. That expectation should be the rule, not the exception.
We should provide the means for Americans to transition to the 21st century and live productive, meaningful lives. Strain’s suggested policies are on the mark. But equally important is the message that we convey to those whom Trump treats as passive, hapless victims. We cannot allow them merely to blame others or resist the tasks (including relocation, lifelong learning) needed to improve their lives. Somewhere along the road to Trump and the intellectual and moral corruption of the right (which used to herald personal responsibility) this has gotten lost.