The speech Clinton must give

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, when Hillary Clinton gave her victory speech at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one line bothered me. It came after one of her best lines in the whole speech when she said of Donald Trump, "When he says, 'Let's make America great again,' that is code for, 'Let's take America backwards.'" But, the next line was this: "Back to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for some, not all, promising his supporters an economy he cannot recreate." The phrase that rankles is "an economy he cannot recreate."

To be clear, the observation is true so far as it goes, even pedestrian. Trump's promises are always vague, and he has offered precisely no specifics about how he intends to restore America's economic prospects, specifically the economy the country enjoyed in the postwar era when the middle class grew and rising incomes were not reserved for the top 1 percent. But, there is also a fatalistic tone in Clinton's verbal construction, a failure to acknowledge that the dismemberment of that postwar economy, and its widespread prosperity, did not just happen, it was not merely the consequence of forces beyond our control. It was the result of decisions, some by government, some by business leaders, some having to do with policy, some having to do with notions of what is and is not culturally acceptable.

It is vital that Clinton address this issue head on. It is wider than a discussion about trade policy or the minimum wage. It involves values as much as policy prescriptions. If there is one speech she must give, and then work the key points of it into her stump speech, it is an explanation for how and why the hopes she and many other Democrats had for the processes of globalization in the 1990s were somewhat misplaced. In the 1990s, remember, it was the "end of history" and no one questioned capitalism. The "era of big government" was over. Confidence in the market economy was strong. These attitudes were widely shared and there is no escaping the fact that she shared them.

Clinton need not apologize for failing to perceive the many ways globalization would deliver an increasingly unequal economic landscape so much as she must find a way to acknowledge what went wrong and offer ideas about how to address those problems. And, she has to demonstrate a certain amount of empathy with those for whom the "creative destruction" of capitalism was less creative than it was destructive. For her, as for everyone with whom she works each day, the results of globalization have been great. The "creative classes" have prospered. But, in many of the towns where she must win this election, the results have been dismal, and it is far from clear that Clinton and her team understand that fact. By way of example, during the debates with Sen. Bernie Sanders, both candidates spent lots of time talking about the need to make college affordable. I do not recall either candidate talking about helping those young people who will never go to college.

There is no part of the country where the changing economic dynamics have not left many people behind. In the eastern part of Connecticut where I grew up, there are a host of old mill towns that died in the latter half of the 20th century: The textile industry moved to the Carolinas in the 1950s and '60s (and later left the Carolinas for other countries), and the mill towns of Connecticut -- Taftville and Baltic, Willimantic and Danielson, Moosup and Putnam -- all became ghost towns. One of the biggest employers that remained was General Dynamics, which built submarines for the Navy. But, with the end of the Cold War, the Navy decided it did not need so many submarines in the 1990s. As well, some of the submarine work was sent to Georgia and Virginia, and General Dynamics began laying people off. These were good paying, union jobs with good benefits being lost. It was not technically globalization: The Navy did not choose to build submarines in Malaysia or Mexico. But, the dynamic in eastern Connecticut mirrored what happened throughout the industrial Midwest: Good paying union jobs were lost.

In that same decade of the '90s, the Pequot Indian tribe built Foxwoods casino, which supplanted General Dynamics as the biggest employer in the region. But the casino jobs were not union jobs, and they did not pay well and did not have good benefits. The whole economic vitality of the region was harmed.

At the same time, other socio-economic trends caused further "creative destruction." Growing up, we did most of our shopping in Willimantic, an old mill town of about 22,000 people. In addition to the supermarket, we would go to the men's clothing store, Hurley's, downtown, and the shoe store just down the street. There was a restaurant my grandmother liked called Clark's: She loved their lobster Newburg. There was a sporting goods store where all the local high school teams got their jerseys and where you knew the names of the employees. For really big shopping events, like Christmas, we would go into Hartford to go to the G. Fox Department Store downtown and to Sage Allen just down Main Street.

Around 1980, when I graduated high school, a mall had opened on the outskirts of Willimantic, filled not with local stores but with chains. Within a few years, the downtown stores all closed, and then the nice chain stores in the mall gave way to cheap ones. Now, the mall feels grimy and like it is on its last legs. Downtown Hartford went through a similar transition. The malls were built out of town, along the major highways, and the downtown stores closed. Main Street lost its pedestrian traffic. Fast food joints and payday lending stores replaced G. Fox and the other nice stores.

All this was driven by an understanding of ourselves as consumers first -- and citizens and workers within a community second, by the decision to stop shopping at Hurley's and G. Fox, even though we knew the clerks by name, because the prices were lower at the new stores, by the ease of parking at a mall compared to downtown. All this took years to change. All this will not be undone in a day or a single election. But, we must begin.

Donald Trump's pitch to make America great again is directed precisely at the people who live in these old towns, at those who once had good paying jobs making submarines and now have low paying jobs working at the casino. The old mill towns are not great anymore, Trump is right about that, and you can find hundreds of similar town in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, to name only four states likely to be battlegrounds this November. The people in these towns are called "non-college white" by the pollsters. (Growing up, we called them our neighbors.) Trump's promise to make these towns great again is an empty promise, but at least he is paying attention to them, albeit in the ugliest of ways, placing the blame for their depressed condition on immigrants and politicians and not on the captains of industry like himself whose pursuit of a bigger bottom line led them to think nothing of destroying whole communities when they closed factories.

Hillary Clinton can name towns in Arkansas where she lived and in Illinois where she grew up that have undergone similar transitions. She can offer a narrative akin to what I have just outlined in the paragraphs above. She is smart enough to devise plans to help people who work with their hands and not at desks. I am sure she has read Bob Putnam's latest book Our Kids and its discussion of the need for "on-ramps" by which those left behind can reintegrate into society. She is empathetic enough (I hope!) to realize how someone who once made $30 an hour on a manufacturing job and now makes $8 an hour in the service industry, gets really upset when she learns that Clinton made a quarter of a million on a speech. Trump has tapped that anger and directed it in ugly ways. Clinton has not tapped it at all. Trump speaks not only to the lower angels of our nature, he speaks to these people's experience, and Clinton has not done that. She needs to, and she needs to do so fast, if she is not only going to win the election, but also win it with the kinds of coattails that win back the Senate and put the House in play. A contest fought on cultural issues may get her to 270 electoral votes, but only one fought and won on economic issues will win back seats like the one once held by Bart Stupak or John Boccieri or Kathy Dahlkemper.

There is a spectacularly ugly verbal construction that has emerged on the left, the claim to be "on the right side of history." Apart from the Stalinist origins of the phrase, it assumes that history has only two sides. The results of globalization, the breakdown in the postwar economic landscape of vibrant communities and strong unions and business leaders who cared about stakeholders and not only stockholders, those results are uneven for many, disastrous for many, and singularly great for a very few. Part of the explanation for the misplaced hopes for globalization in the 1990s (and there are those who still cling to those hopes today) comes from a cast of mind more susceptible to ideology than to history. Ideology is clear, and in the realm of economic thinking, that clarity is understood to be self-confirming. History is murky and porous, populated by real people who do not fit neatly into policy prescriptions or demographic marketing pitches. The speech Clinton needs to give must not show that she is on the right side of history. It needs to show that she knows enough history to realize the future of the Democratic Party demands that we stand on the right side of the working class.

A final thought. Clinton need not promise the world. The American people, however, are desperately seeking action on their behalf. They are tired of being told that the effects of globalization will eventually get 'round to them. They are tired of the monthly challenge to pay all the bills. The tone Clinton needs to capture, not only in the one speech I suggest but in her entire campaign, was best captured by Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. Everyone remembers the famous line "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." It was a great line. But it was that speech's ending that best captures the spirit appropriate to leadership of the Democratic Party at this moment as in his:

We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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