Manufacturing, once nearly a third of U.S. gross domestic product, has dwindled to around 12 percent, a punch to the gut for the American working class. Indeed, the sufferings of that sector’s former workers—and of those who live in once-thriving factory towns—may be responsible for Donald Trump’s extraordinary and catastrophic victory over Hillary Clinton in November.
A billionaire fixing to wage a horrific war on the working class now that he is president—by gutting its healthcare and labor rights—Trump nonetheless seemed to be listening to these forgotten people during his campaign. He went to their towns. He spoke with compassion about opioid addiction. He promised to “Make America Great Again,” a racist slogan, to be sure, but also a seductive one, implying that under Trump, American workers would enjoy the prosperity of bygone manufacturing days. We would make things again and feel proud of ourselves.
It was all bullshit, of course. Trump’s idea of industrial policy is toexaggeratehow many jobs in Indianapolis he saved with a phone call and some tweets. Louis Uchitelle, by contrast, is serious about what the issue means for American workers. In his crisp, persuasive and deeply reported book,Making It: Why Manufacturing Still Matters, the veteran journalist argues that domestic manufacturing is crucial to the welfare of the U.S. working class and that the federal government should intervene decisively to ensure the sector’s health.
Without manufacturing, the “labor force participation rate” in the United States—people either employed or actively looking for jobs—has declined dramatically since 1998, as millions of laid-off workers have simply dropped out of the workforce. Not only those workers, but many of their children, have been unable to find good jobs. Uchitelle recalls that when he started reporting on the sector in the 1980s, line workers often told him that their children would “do better” than they had, meaning they would make more money.
“That did not happen,” Uchitelle writes, “and gradually the expression—and the expectation—have both disappeared.”
The liberal punditocracy—because of Trump’s cynical use of the manufacturing issue, as well as its own contempt for workers—has been a font of misinformation on this subject ever since the election. Syndicated columnistJill Filipovicexcoriated an old order in which “white men” without college degrees enjoyed “unearned benefits.” Writing inSlate,Jamelle Bouieclaimed that journalists and politicians pay more attention to the woes of manufacturing workers than they should. Why is that? Because, Bouie crows, those workers are “mostly white and mostly male.”Paul Krugmanpicked up this bit of insight and trumpeted it gleefully in hisNew York Timescolumn. But these demographic generalities, while crudely true, are breathtakingly beside the point. About a third of manufacturing workers are women, and African-American men are slightly overrepresented in the sector versus their share of the overall workforce. Don’t these workers also matter?
When elite pundits gas on in this manner, they ignore many of the Americans most devastated by the loss of factories: black workers in major cities and the black people who live in such cities. Uchitelle’s book convincingly argues that the federal government’s failure to stop jobs from moving, not only from Detroit to China, but from urban neighborhoods to rural areas, is a “civil rights” issue. […]