[the difference between we like to hear, and what we need to hear]
In the most recent Presidential debate, viewers across the nation listened to insults and divisive rhetoric disguised as policy, not on the whole, but for the most part. What struck me as particularly interesting and I believe points to the phenomenon of this election cycle was a back and forth exchange between the candidates near the end of the debate. The question came from newly-minted internet sensation Ken Bone about energy policy and more specifically, how an energy policy in line with agreements such as the Paris Agreement won’t inadvertently leave behind employees in the fossil fuel industry.
This question gets at the heart, at least it seems, of what much of the historically conservative demographic is addressing in this election and that is that they feel as though they are being left behind. Globalization, the booming tech industry, and a seemingly more-liberal nation is not only a threat to jobs and religion but a threat to a way of life.
In March at a Town Hall in Columbus, Ohio, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said that, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Though she went on to say that the work needs to be done to help blue-collar workers adjust to the shift in the economy and that we must not leave these people behind, an age of soundbites and media sensationalism alters population perception of this quote. This choice of words was not only less than ideal, but it becomes way in which a portion of our population is ostracized and labeled outdated. These words, they remove people, people revered 50 years ago for their work as the backbone of America, from the future of this country. This is to say that when a man like Donald Trump comes along and promises them that not only will he return jobs but promise to re-create an America that they once knew it makes sense why one might support him.
All this to say, we need to be clear about a few things. First, that America that Trump harks back to is an America that existed to serve a certain person and to seek to return to that is to run the risk of higher degrees of misogyny, racism, and law and order, all of which will create a country that serves a certain kind of person. Secondly, we must say out of love that the jobs in coal industries and in textile factories are not only not coming back but they are not the future. This is different from saying that ‘coal workers’ are not the future and drastically different from saying that a certain way of life is not the future, though this latter tidbit is more complicated for obvious reasons. Renewable energy that is in line with Obama’s energy policies and the Paris Agreement is ultimately the future of our energy industry. Young people in countries across the globe appear to be saying with a near unanimous voice that seeking to undo past wrongs and moving forward to limit environmental destruction is of critical importance – to invest heavily in non-renewable is not a step moving into the 21st century.
This brings us back to the workers in both coal and textile factories whom we associate with an America we’d rather forget and move forward via a clean break. Our future is their future and vice versa. What this means practically, I am unsure. I do know that it may in fact help us to begin to listen to each other and hear our neighbor’s burden. The truth is that many of our blue-collar workers have absolutely been left behind in an economy that has closed up shop and shifted jobs overseas. That is real, let us not downplay that reality. At the same time, we do not move forward by seeking a time warp to take us back to 1955. Those days are done. I have few solidified answers, but what I do know is that both our economy and country are changing and that a concrete plan for our workers in the Rust Belt and Appalachia to gain access to the renewable energy industry through education and job training is necessary. And perhaps even more necessary, they must know that they are not being left behind. They need to know that they have worth and that the labor of their hands makes them vital to future of our nation.