I liked this recent Tim Duy post, the one that is everyone is talking about. Do read the whole thing, but here is the closing bit:
We don’t have answers for these communities. Rural and semi-rural economic development is hard. Those regions have received only negative shocks for decades; the positive shocks have accrued to the urban regions. Of course, Trump doesn’t have any answers either. But he at least pretends to care.
Just pretending to care is important. At a minimum, the electoral map makes it important.
These issues apply to more than rural and semi-rural areas. Trump’s message – that firms need to consider something more than bottom line – resonates in middle and upper-middle class households as well. They know that their grip on their economic life is tenuous, that they are the future “low-skilled” workers. And they know they will be thrown under the bus for the greater good just like “low-skilled” workers before them.
The dry statistics on trade aren’t working to counter Trump. They make for good policy at one level and terrible policy (and politics) at another. The aggregate gains are irrelevant to someone suffering a personal loss. Critics need to find an effective response to Trump. I don’t think we have it yet. And here is the hardest part: My sense is that Democrats will respond by offering a bigger safety net. But people don’t want a welfare check. They want a job. And this is what Trump, wrongly or rightly, offers.
In part this is a question about helping these communities but if you read the whole post it is also about checking or preventing Trump and Trumpism. My main disagreement is simply with the view that a solution is difficult. It is not, rather most people are unwilling to accept the solutions on the table. In fact I have a more or less bulletproof two-part remedy. I’ll phrase it in backward-looking terms, but it is not hard to divine the forward-looking implications, noting that in the short term we have the president-elect we have no matter what. Here goes:
1. In 2012, have five percent of Democratic voters switch their support to Mitt Romney, so that Romney is elected. You don’t have to think Romney would be a better president than Obama has been, but a Romney election almost certainly would have forestalled the rise of Trump. The worse you think Trump is, the more you should support this kind of “change we can believe in.”
If you don’t favor this retrospective change, you’re not very pragmatic (or you might really like Trump), perhaps preferring to consume your own expressive views than to improve the world. That’s a common enough preference, and maybe it is even morally OK, but let’s recognize it for what it is: a deliberate lack of interest in solving the major problem before us, instead preferring to focus on your own feelings. It’s not that different than the wealthy wishing to keep their tax cuts. And if your response is something like “But the Republicans started this whole mess, why should I reward them?”, well, that is yet another sign you are far from the pragmatic, reality-oriented perspective. At the very least, you should be regretting that you did not vote for Romney. Unless of course you did.
A complement to this strategy, looking forward, is to have the Democrats run more conservative candidates, including those with a more conservative cultural garb. They still can support a social safety net. And, my friend, if you are tempted to suggest that Hillary Clinton was such a candidate, you need to attend Ross Douthat University for remedial lessons.
Another way to put this point is that Democrats (and some others) need to become more like the more sophisticated libertarians, namely to realize you won’t win but need to settle for what you can get. At least increase your “p” that is the case, as the European left is finally starting to do. I know that comes hard, but again our country is at stake. And there is a lesson for libertarians too, more or less in the same direction, namely that potential backlash to libertarian ideas is stronger than we had thought, even for those with a fairly weak libertarian bent, and thus there is less absolute scope for their realization. Sad!
Many progressives and libertarians have one thing in common, namely assuming that human affairs can be more governed by reason than ever will be the case.
2. Support a voluntary temperance movement for zero alcohol, zero drugs. No exceptions. Make these commodities less socially available, less widely advertised, less diverse in supply, and less glamorized on television and in the movies. Take away the demand, and along the way praise Islam and Mormonism for their stances on this.
That’s so simple, isn’t it? No one argues that the Rust Belt communities and the like are unacceptably “income poor” by global standards, rather they have wrenching social problems. A temperance movement, insofar as it succeeds, would eliminate a significant share of those tragedies. It would mean less alcoholism, fewer opioid addictions, less crime and spouse beating, and so on. Consider the impact of this on America’s inner cities as well. It’s hard to estimate how many of the problem users would stop if say 70 percent of America went “cold turkey,” but surely we should give this a try. For instance, even less educated Americans smoke at much lower rates than they used to.
Do you really care about suffering Americans? The answer is staring you right in the face, but are you brave enough, altruistic enough, and contrary enough to embrace it? Again, you might like your evening glass of wine, or joint, but that is also like the wealthy seeking to keep their tax cuts. It really is the same logic, like it or not.
From another direction, here are comments from Paul Krugman. I agree with most of what he says, though I would stress the points above.