Mitchell’s Musings 5-23-16: An Op Ed That’s Not So Great

21 May 2016 11:36 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-23-16: An Op Ed That’s Not So Great


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Below is an excerpt from an op ed that appeared in the New York Times of May 16, 2016:


Make America Great Again for the People It Was Great for Already

By Bryce Covert

DONALD J. TRUMP has promised to Make America Great Again, and people have listened. He is the presumptive Republican nominee. He got there with that one consistent campaign imperative splashed across his website, on loud red baseball caps, on stickers, yard signs and other slogan-ready paraphernalia… Which America is he promising to us? If you ask his supporters, they say life has gotten worse for people like them over the last 50 years. It seems safe to assume that, in the eyes of Mr. Trump’s overwhelmingly white male fans, America was greater a half-century ago. Indeed, it was pretty great — for them. It’s not just that factory jobs were more plentiful or that women and minorities were largely kept from positions of power. Large national programs that radically changed the country kept America great specifically for white men. New Deal-era systems like Social Security and unemployment insurance; rules that demarcated minimum wages and maximum work hours and protected unionization; and the G.I. Bill at the end of World War II substantially transformed the country and created a booming middle class. But they all purposefully left out most women and minorities…[1]


Wait a minute! New Deal (1930s)? GI Bill at the end of World War II (1940s)? The number of white men who now even remember the New Deal or the GI Bill at the end of World War II is rapidly diminishing. The op ed also talks about a “half century ago” (1960s). So given the ambiguity of what time period we are supposed to be thinking about, let’s consider someone – a male given the slant of the piece - who was, say, age 20 in 1966 (a half century ago). He’s an early baby boomer, born in 1946.


At that age in 1966, particularly if he wasn’t enrolled in college, he was about to be drafted into a war that was ultimately lost. He was on the cusp of an economic era – when he got out of the military – shortly to be characterized by “stagflation.” By the time he was 30, not only was the Vietnam War lost but the Watergate scandal and the Nixon disclosures and resignation had undermined faith in government. The first signs of de-industrialization and the growth in income inequality were being felt. And the country had just started to emerge from a severe recession.


As numerous polls have indicated, the Trump strength is among voters with less than a full college education, particularly males. Among adults in the U.S., roughly a third of folks have a BA or more, so a large majority don’t. Does Ms. Covert think that for folks like those in that majority, things were “pretty great” in her time-ambiguous past? Does she think that women and minorities would be better off today without “New Deal-era systems like Social Security and unemployment insurance” or that they would have been better off back then without them? She never quite says, but then, what is the article all about?


Does Ms. Covert know that before the New Deal, blacks (the main minority group of that era) looked to the Republicans (the Party of Lincoln) as their representative and that it was those New Deal programs that turned them into reliable Democrats? Yes, that switch in party identification occurred despite the segregation-supporting Democrats of the South, despite other discriminatory programs and practices, despite the continued segregation of the military, etc. It continues today in the strong support of blacks for the Party’s “establishment” candidate in the current Democratic contest, Hillary Clinton, over outsider/independent candidate Bernie Sanders.


Perhaps Ms. Covert thinks women and minorities weren’t hurt by the loss of those “factory jobs” which she casually mentions. She might be interested in looking at the composition of the workforce in the factory jobs that remain. She might be surprised by the number of women and minorities who work in that sector and who could be working there if those jobs were “more plentiful.”[2]


I used to teach a course in labor relations and used a video made by the U.S. Department of Labor called “Waldenville.” In that video, in which a public sector negotiation is depicted, a more experienced union negotiator tells a local union official that it is important to listen to member proposals, even if they seem weird. There is a message, even if hidden, in those opinions. “Listen to what they feel” rather than what they say is how the suggestion is put.[3] The message in that context is that you get nowhere by ignoring or condemning members (who are also voters in the union situation).


In politics, you also get nowhere by condemning voters. If you don’t like a candidate, condemn that candidate, not the people who lean towards that candidate. Voters in any group are up for grabs to varying degrees – but only if you appeal to them on the basis of their underlying concerns. In this case, it’s evident that Ms. Covert doesn’t like Donald Trump. But Trump’s voters seem to be responding to two broad issues: economy/jobs and homeland security. So rather than issuing condescending op eds, which seem to blame today’s potential Trump voters for the sins of the 1930s and 1940s, why not focus on those issues?


You don’t have to win over all of any group in an election contest.[4] And you don’t have to make racist or sexist appeals.[5] Elections are won by coalitions. In some cases, even if some demographically-defined group tends to vote a particular way, you can peel off enough of that group to make a difference in the total vote. But you won’t peel off anyone by condemning them and alienating them.

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[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/16/opinion/campaign-stops/make-america-great-again-for-the-people-it-was-great-for-already.html

[2] In 2015, of the over 15 million workers in manufacturing, 29% were women, 10% were black, 7% were Asian, and 16% were Latino. The minority proportions are roughly in line with the proportion of the three groups in total employment. Women are underrepresented, but there are still over four and a half million women workers in manufacturing. Source: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. An earlier musing in this series dealt with the need to check the demographics: http://employmentpolicy.org/page-1775968/3714884#sthash.KTWWX2zL.dpbs.  

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px86OwXcVAI (Part 1: The conversation is at 5:04-6:22). For those interested in the rest of the video: Part 2 is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDFkMHuupuE; Part 3 is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm0RRrZBWd0; Part 4 is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9htze_cJHs. The video was divided into four parts because at the time YouTube had a 10-minute limit.

[4] As of March 2016, 70% of women had an unfavorable view of Trump. But 23% had a favorable view. The percentages for men were 58% and 36%. http://www.gallup.com/poll/190403/seven-women-unfavorable-opinion-trump.aspx.

[5] I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether condemning white males falls into that category.


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