Education Funding Opinion

Education and Job Training Policy: The Key to the Future of American Politics?

By Marc Tucker — December 01, 2016 5 min read
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Ah, you say. Tucker must be out of his mind. How could education and training policy hold the key to American politics after an election in which education and training policy was barely mentioned?

My analysis starts with the situation in which the Republican Party now finds itself. The people who have been running the party for years have thought of themselves as the party of free trade, support for exports, the natural home of big business leaders, lower taxes (especially for the “wealth creators”) and fiscal responsibility (meaning, in practice, reining in the welfare state).

But the President-elect instead ran as the champion of the people who have been most hurt by all of those policies. Many of them were Southern Democrats, until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They were offered a home in the Republican Party first by Barry Goldwater and then again by Ronald Reagan and they took it. And then, after the global economy shifted gears, in this election, many blue-collar Democrats, mainly from the Rust Belt, joined them, to the astonishment of pollsters everywhere.

As the campaign was winding down, Hillary Clinton thought she had it won because the Blue Wall of states that the Democrats secured in the last six presidential elections appeared to be holding. But, in the end, the Wall crumbled, mainly in the blue-collar strongholds of the formerly Democratic Rustbelt states. Donald Trump won the election with a combination of the old G.O.P. voters, the former Southern Democrats and Rust Belt Democrats in what has been described as a hostile takeover of the G.O.P.

So the post-election Republican Party is a fusion of the people who have most ardently backed global trade liberalization and reduced federal spending on social programs and the people who have been most hurt by those policies. We will see whether the former Southern and Rust Belt Democrats can live under the same tent with the old G.O.P.

That fact creates an interesting arithmetic. As I see it, Donald Trump’s core constituency, the combination of the former Southern Democrats and the now former Rust Belt Democrats can, for the purposes of this analysis, be considered one party. The old G.O.P., itself a fusion of small business Republicans, corporate Republicans and evangelicals, is another. If you think about it this way, the most important question in American politics is which of the old parties ends up gaining the support of the new one.

Here’s why I put it this way. It is obvious on the face of it that the old-line G.O.P. does not by itself come anywhere close to having enough members to win national elections anymore. Without the former Southern Democrats and the former Rust Belt Democrats, it will be very hard for them to win national elections in the future. As many people have pointed out, the demographics are more favorable in the long run to the Democrats, but, as the wag would have it, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

So where does that leave us? What it does is make the former Southern Democrats and the former Rust Belt Democrats the giant swing vote in American politics. To me, it makes us a bit like a parliamentary democracy, in which no party gets to run the government without allying itself with another smaller party.

So let us play politician. Donald Trump got this new third party to ally itself with the Republicans by persuading them that he and he alone among all the candidates understood them, sympathized with them and had a plan for restoring their jobs and their place in American society.

If Mr. Trump pulls that off—if he succeeds in bringing their jobs back and enabling them to take their former place at the American table—he will have their devoted allegiance for many years to come.

But, at the moment, I am not sure how he will do that. The low-skill jobs that have been lost are not coming back. Even in the countries these jobs went to, the workers who replaced the Americans who used to do these jobs are themselves being replaced by robots and other intelligent machines. That fact will not be altered by reworking trade treaties. The reality is that the United States is still a world powerhouse of manufacturing, even though there are many fewer manufacturing jobs than there used to be. Machines have replaced them.

Low-skill workers doing routine work are now a commodity on the global labor market. People offering jobs in either manufacturing or an increasingly wide range of services can now buy that commodity anywhere in the world. On the services side, the workers who offer these services need not move at all. The product of their work can be shipped by the Internet for nothing in nanoseconds to any employer anywhere.

When this whole process began, there were enormous differences in wages between American workers’ wages and the wages of workers all over the world willing to do the same work for less. But, over the last forty or so years, as American workers’ wages have held steady or declined, the wages of hundreds of millions of workers elsewhere have increased greatly, so the difference in wages has closed a lot. In fact, they have closed so much and so much more of the product or service is produced by machines that differences in the cost of labor matter much less to global employers than they used to. For all these reason, tinkering with trade treaties is not going to bring jobs back to the United States or to the former Democrats who voted for Donald Trump.

The thing that has made these workers so vulnerable is their lack of education and training. The only thing that can now save them is education and training. My proposition is simple: The party that gets their votes, particularly the votes of the people I have styled Rust Belt Democrats, is the party that has a chance to build a decisive majority in American national politics. This will be the party that lifts these workers out of incipient poverty and into the new middle class by giving them and their children the kind of education and training they now need to be successful in the new economy. That economy will have very little room for people who leave high school with only a 7th-or 8th-grade-level of literacy. And guess what? More than half our high school students now leave high school with only a 7th-or 8th-grade-level of literacy. More than half of our workforce has no more than an 8th-or 9th-grade-level of literacy.

Getting the American workforce to the point at which it can confidently compete with the intelligent machines now entering the workplace will take an enormous effort. It will require the transformation of American education, job training and adult and continuing education. We know from the work that other countries have done that it is possible to do this. We know it can be done.

The party that figures out how to do it and makes the necessary commitment will win national elections for a long time to come.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.