Last November, President Trump polled well in the once-venerated Democratic stronghold of the Mesabi Iron Range. I pin this to the issue of “jobs.” Specifically, I credit the fundamental belief baked into our culture that those who work for pay are superior to those who don’t or can’t.
People here have lost jobs, or fear they will. As I’ll explain, that’s one of the worst things that can happen to a person in our culture. Local DFLers and Republicans alike have conveniently selected mutual enemies in the form of environmentalists and metro elites. Therefore, Trump’s message of contempt for those elites and unsubstantiated promise of jobs for everyone (especially you!) found great success here.
Trump opponents cite the president’s troubling comments about women, or his discriminatory policies toward ethnic and religious minorities. They ask why his supporters accept, ignore or rationalize these things. But that sort of talk immediately reminds a Trump voter that the subject is always being changed from their economic security. Thus deep emotional trenches are dug. You know these trenches. You see them on Facebook or at your local coffee klatch.
So let’s address jobs. Perhaps we may find common proposals so that our squabbling “50/50” community can find a way forward.
After my New Year’s resolution to read more books, I checked out “Dark Age Ahead,” written by the late futurist and urban planning writer Jane Jacobs shortly before her death. “Dark Age Ahead” was so grim that, to maintain emotional strength, I had to simultaneously read Carl Hiaasen’s new South Florida crime comedy “Razor Girl” about a half-naked woman who bumps into cars to shake down the drivers. I’m not sure if this constitutes “balance,” but it put two books on my 2017 list.
Though grim, “Dark Age Ahead,” penned in 2006, proved fascinating and prescient. After all, in 2006 electing Trump president would have still been considered funny (ha-ha) as opposed to funny (that actually happened). Jacobs foresaw many of the elements that led to Trump’s election, including the populist backlash against what was once a shared sense of American progress.
I lack the space here to review them all, but Jacobs identifies five areas that mark the decline of strong cultures. One of them — the conversion of higher education from learning into credentialing — focused at least as much on jobs as it does on eduction.
Jacobs argued that higher education has become the modern version of a “coat of arms” in early renaissance England. Having a degree, like having a coat of arms, doesn’t guarantee you anything, but you can’t get into the halls of power without one. A coat of arms got you a “position.” Today, a job that sustains a middle class lifestyle is essentially the same thing. She said many advanced educational programs end up serving more as a screen — blocking out the unworthy — than a tool to provide a valuable critical thinking and practical skills to receptive students.
The reason, she said, is jobs. As a survivor of the Great Depression, Jacobs’ entire generation survived hardship that only abated with one of the world’s most destructive and deadly global conflicts.
“After the war … a consensus formed and hardened across North American,” writes Jacobs in “Dark Age Ahead.” “If it had been voiced, it would have gone something like this: ‘We can endure meaningful trials and overcome them. But never again — never, never — will we suffer the meaningless disaster of mass unemployment.”
The result, she said, was American economic policy that put the American job ahead of all else. College became part of the process of getting and protecting jobs, regardless of “work,” which is something else entirely.
Meanwhile, American trade policy vacillates between free trade and protectionism. Our government wobbles between social democracy and libertarianism. Elections produce this strange sequence of presidents: Clinton, then Bush 43, then Obama (!), then Trump (!!!).
“To American trade negotiators and lobbyists, however, there is no inconsistency in contradictory policies that, each in its own way, are calculated to promote jobs for Americans,” writes Jacobs.
Jobs will rationalize almost any policy, she adds.
“Any institution, including a government agency, that is bent upon ecological destruction … argues its case or bullies its opponents by righteously citing the jobs that supposedly will materialize or, even more effectively, the jobs that may be forfeited or jeopardized if the ugly deed is not done. To this day, no alternate disaster, including possible global warming, is deemed as dire a threat as job loss.”
On the Iron Range, this phenomenon is so common as to feel worn. How many projects have been trumpeted as major job projects — 100, 500 or 2,000 jobs! — only to wash out as expensive or far-fetched failures? Civic-minded, frugal skeptics to these projects are nonetheless tarred as “big-city liberals,” “Enviros” or some other pejorative.
So how do we get away from the shell game of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and move toward the more valuable, beneficial policy of creating and sustaining *work.* In other words, how do we produce an economy in which the labor and its fruits rest in front of us, instead of housed in some distant hall of power? Jacobs has some ideas, and so do I.
Over the next couple weeks I’ll be exploring ideas that address our need for the cultural value and economic benefits of work, while adapting to the great economic changes that so many find threatening. I’ll leave you today with a final thought from early in Jacobs’ book about cultural decline:
“A fortress or fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world,” she wrote.
Here on the Iron Range, we possess the opportunity to not only save ourselves, but to become a proving ground for new ideas. Jacobs wasn’t so sure America could pull it off. But I think we can, if we want to. Starting right here.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Jan. 29, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.