Both Democrats and environmentalists seem to be searching for new sources of support, according to articles from Thomas Edsall and Leslie Kaufman. For Democrats, the problem is the state of mind of the “white working class,” while for environmentalists the problem is to convince the public that something should be done about climate change. In both cases, the dilemma is the same: the solutions offered do not solve the existing problems, and the public knows it. The working class would likely be wooed if someone proposed a government-led policy of putting millions of people to work rebuilding our infrastructure and the manufacturing base. The general public would likely back policies to prevent global warming if someone advanced a credible program of building a carbon-free economy. Both could be combined in a program that would employ tens of millions to build sustainable transportation, energy, and urban infrastructure, as I have proposed. It will take a holistic — and therefore credible — plan to convince voters.
Edsall’s article, and much of the discussion surrounding it, neglects to mention an obvious problem: working class voters are working class because most of them, throughout history, have had manufacturing jobs, and in the United States, those manufacturing jobs have been disappearing by the millions. The Democratic Party, for all of the policy proposals that address the decline of manufacturing, has never put forward a convincing plan to revive manufacturing and the millions of jobs that would go along with it. Surely if the central plank of the Democratic Party was to revive manufacturing — and if there was a credible plan to do so — then much of the white working class would come streaming back.
Part of the problem is that the Democratic Party never faced such daunting projects like rebuilding the core of the national economy. When FDR or even LBJ were president, the United States was the manufacturing colossus of the world. Their problem was to redistribute wealth, create a safety net, and increase demand for a never-ending supply of domestically manufactured goods and good, middle-class manufacturing jobs. There is no precedent in the United States for what needs to be done now — a focused industrial policy led by the government.
But the New Deal offers a political lesson on the importance of an interlinking set of policies that cut across issue areas, a lesson that can help both the Democratic Party and the environmental movement. FDR’s programs incorporated labor policies in the form of the Wagner Act, legalizing the activities of unions, which helped lead to a thriving middle class. It included conservation policies, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed millions of people who helped to rebuild forests, parks, and agricultural areas. There was the TVA, which used a holistic approach to build up the economy of an entire region based on an energy plan. It included the first plans for a national road system, which eventually resulted in the Interstate Highway System. The mortgage industry, and thus the basis for the later housing industry, was virtually created from scratch. Social Security and the first welfare programs were designed to give people a safety net. Glass-Steagall and the Pecora Commission restructured the financial system.
The parallels are clear for what is needed today. We need millions of green jobs, and tens of millions of jobs, period. We need energy plans and a rebuilding of the agricultural system, and we need an interstate transportation system, this time centered on electric rail. We need a different financial system, perhaps centered on public banks. But what we probably most need is to interconnect all of these issues and create a base for a majority coalition of the electorate, just as the public came to support FDR’s programs under the label of the New Deal.
Similarly, policies for overcoming global warming and other environmental catastrophes will need to be incorporated into a wider rubric, perhaps a “Green New Deal,” that encompasses manufacturing, jobs for the tens of millions who are unemployed or underemployed, renewable energy, transit, rebuilding infrastructure, and financial reform.
The point is not to idealize the New Deal or deify FDR. We need to learn the lessons of American history that can be useful for us today. We now face a linked set of economic crises, as did progressives in the 1930s. A program that says, “We will hire tens of millions of people” lets people know that the problem, unemployment, will be solved. A program that says, “We will build the wind farms and solar panels and transit and buildings that will make our economy carbon-free” informs people that the proposers of this kind of program know how to solve the problem. A truly believable plan has to convince people that both outcomes will be reached.
These ideas may seem politically impossible, but all great changes seem impossible before they happen. It is possible to propose policies, and the Democratic Party could propose programs that would be guaranteed to put the working class, and the rest of the employable population, to useful, well-paying work. Environmentalists could propose policies that have a reasonable chance of correcting civilization-endangering environmental problems – which would also involve putting everyone who wanted a job to work. Let’s think outside the box.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.