If there are winners and losers in 21st-century America, I come from the losing side. Hit hard by the Great Recession and by deindustrialization, my hometown of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, has suffered one of the worst declines in the country since the new millennium.
In 2000, when I enrolled as a freshman at Wilkes Central High School, the median income in the county was $47,992 a year. In 2014, when I came home to Wilkes to practice law, the median income was $33,398. In a county with a population of 69,000, there were 4,451 fewer jobs in manufacturing, 46 fewer retail stores, and a net loss of over $60 million in payroll. The face of the losing side of globalization, Wilkes was featured during the 2016 election on PBS NewsHour, Morning Joe, and the cover of the New York Times as a home to Americans “living among the ruins of a lapsed golden age.”
But behind all the statistics and concerned news reports were real people, whose savings and way of life had been wiped out. Working-class Americans have been left behind by the brain drain, the Big Sort, the Age of Acceleration, and the Metropolitan Revolution. Worse, disconnected from each other, atomized by the internet, and ignored by the political establishment, they are now dying younger from alcoholism and addiction. The system has failed them.
So white working-class Americans in the Rust Belt and rural America sought revenge against incumbent politicians, the media, government bureaucrats, dynasties, and the ascendant coalition of minorities, single women, and college-educated millennials stealing their place in society. Their economic anxiety and cultural despair caused racial resentment and the return of illiberalism, and Donald Trump was their revenge. He won the presidency by encouraging their anger and channeling their grief into tribalism, scapegoating immigrants and refugees as the cause of complex problems beyond their control: the drug epidemic, lack of mobility, and a culture in decay.
But protectionism, xenophobia, and isolationism will not save the working class from robots and smart phones and self-driving cars. Economies built on manufacturing were destined to suffer when America transitioned to the service sector and high tech, and there were always going to be growing pains. But policymakers and elected officials underestimated the costs, and so did the Americans who experienced them.
It is well past time to address this failure, and it’s going to take more than electing someone who channels people’s frustrations. Progress will require new thinking and an all-hands-on-deck approach. Working-class Americans need honesty and realistic, concrete plans for the future.