A young man I know, an electrician in training, was telling me the other day about building computer server racks at his company’s fabrication facility. I grew enthusiastic as I realized he was describing a little piece of a major trend in the construction industry: Components of building projects are manufactured far from the site, in high-tech factories, with great precision, to be shipped and installed. Quality, efficiency, productivity all jump — at least in theory.
In other words, these humble racks weren’t just racks. They were part of the grand discussion underway inside think tanks and consultancies and academic conferences on the Future of Work. They could be fodder for a TED Talk, complete with obligatory nods to robotics, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing — the trinity of 21st-century building and manufacturing.
But as I launched down that route, this young man cut me off. The racks, he informed me, were stupid and doomed. Whoever designed them had not accounted for the need to bolt them into place, which would require each rack to be taken apart once they reached their destination, then reassembled. Instead of saving effort, work would have to be done twice.
There’s an important dichotomy, with great political implications, somewhere in that story. I was swept up by the theory, while the young man was rooted in the practicalities. I jumped ahead to a generalized vision of how things might go in tomorrow’s world. He trained a sharp eye on how this particular thing would not go as planned.
It’s no coincidence that he’s of the tribe that wears Carhartt clothing or dons Dickies for work. Perhaps you are, too. Or maybe you pass the Carhartt-clad multiple times each day without really noticing them. They are the workers behind the fences at construction sites, the people in neon reflective vests, the ones neck-deep in a trench to repair a water main or two stories up in a bucket to repair an electrical grid. They own hard hats and protective glasses and the right tool for every job.
And they used to be the backbone of the Democratic Party, which defined itself as the voice of the working class against the country-club Republicans.
No longer. Today, I Googled the phrase “wearing Lululemon to work,” and the algorithm fed me a campaign ad for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. The alienation of working stiffs from the Democrats elected President Donald Trump in 2016 and threatens to do the same next year. That name-calling, Tweet-storming enemy of elites tipped the balance in the industrial Midwest and in states where people get dirty digging, drilling or tilling for a living.
Leading Democratic theorists tend to explain their loss of the working class in terms of race, gender, patriarchy and disruption — favorite frames of reference that are necessary to understand our politics but far from sufficient. What these frames fail to capture is the practicality of working people and their hard-earned allergy to egghead notions that cannot be made to work efficiently in the field. They’ve seen just enough college grads who design server racks that can’t be bolted into place to become skeptical of self-declared “smart” people in general. And they won’t be won over by politicians with grand, impractical plans.
When they read, for example, the Green New Deal from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, which promises to retrofit most homes and businesses in the United States while electrifying the nation’s entire transportation fleet, they bring a baseline understanding of just how much work goes into retrofitting a single building or installing a single electric-vehicle charging station. They have a pretty good idea how many people in their city or town are trained to do either of those jobs, much less are willing to do them on a blazing day in August or a freezing day in February.
The same goes for when they read that Warren is going to fix the medical-delivery system by eliminating all private insurance — their union plans included. How’s that going to be bolted into place? Or when they read various plans to subsidize college debt. Won’t that just fuel tuition inflation?
Saying that such proposals are visionary or aspirational doesn’t cut any ice with this voting bloc, because those folks spend their days on the receiving end of other people’s visions, doing the hard work of turning blueprints into actual pipes, roads, buildings and wires. Asking how these plans are any different from a giant wall paid for by Mexico misses a crucial distinction. Trump never implies that the skepticism of working men and women somehow makes them bad human beings.
Democrats can regain ground with the working class by stressing results over visions and by offering solutions that work instead of pie in the sky. If they try, they’ll find an audience of Americans eager to tackle shared problems. It’s what they do all day: building, repairing, raising things up.