Working Too Hard for Too Little: An Interview with Senator Sherrod Brown

Working Too Hard for Too Little: An Interview with Senator Sherrod Brown

“True populism is looking out for the little guy no matter where she works and no matter who he is; we’ve let them steal that away.”

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown speaks during a service celebrating the life of former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, December 17, 2016, in Columbus (NASA / Bill Ingalls)

Sherrod Brown is a politician ahead of his time. Decades before most progressives began campaigning hard against economic inequality, he was warning about the loss of good jobs and the decline of labor unions in his home state of Ohio and elsewhere in the country. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, Brown has distinguished himself as perhaps the most class-conscious Democrat in Washington. For years, he has worn a canary pin on his lapel to honor the workers’ rights movement that “gave us all food-safety laws, civil rights, rights for the disabled, pensions, and the minimum wage.”

In 2006, Brown won a seat in the U.S. Senate and was reelected in 2012, both times by healthy margins. However, Ohio, traditionally a swing state, swung hard to the Republicans last year, and Brown begins his 2018 campaign essentially tied in the polls.

This spring, the senator issued a lengthy document, “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America,” which lays out a set of innovative ideas about how to raise wages, make jobs more secure, and compel employers to adhere to decent standards on the job. In late April, Michael Kazin interviewed the senator in his office on Capitol Hill.

Michael Kazin: Why did Hillary Clinton do so badly in Ohio last year? Trump won by 8 percent and took eighty out of eighty-eight counties. This was a state that Obama won twice.

Sherrod Brown: I wish I fully understood it. In a couple of urban counties—Franklin [where Columbus is located] and Hamilton [whose seat is Cincinnati]—Hillary actually did better than Obama did in 2008. Franklin, with the big state university and the state government, has become a more liberal county, particularly on social issues, over the years.

Anyway, why did we lose Ohio? I just think people had seen wage stagnation, and they wanted somebody to blame. Hillary was the establishment and Trump made big promises about coal jobs and steel jobs and auto jobs. But the situation in two industrial counties—Mahoning and Trumbull—was more complicated. In my races for Senate, I won both counties by well over 60 percent. Hillary won Mahoning, but she lost Trumbull by a little more than she won Mahoning by. The voters in both places are mostly white and blue collar. A lot are union members but a lot are non-union too.

I don’t buy that a lot of Obama voters voted for Trump. I also don’t buy that a lot of union voters, more than the normal number, voted for Trump. It was the non-union workers who made the difference. And a big part of that is where they’re getting their information. We’re not talking to them loudly enough, we’re not full-throated enough in defending working-class voters. There’s a view in Ohio that people on the coasts look down on them. And this is curious because Republicans are as elitist as many people see Democrats, if not more so. And Donald Trump—I mean, my God—is he not elitist by any measurement? But he talked like he wasn’t.

Kazin: The cultural factor does seem critical. At least nationally, the image of Democrats, too often, is that it’s a party of well-off, college-educated people who live in big cities. I’m afraid Hillary played into this with her Wall Street speeches.

Brown: Yes, and on the coasts. I think that’s what we fight against. I think that narrative is deeper and broader than many people thought before the 2016 elections. I also think it’s a narrative in part created by Fox News. This sounds a bit whiny, but there is clearly a partisan media on the right. There’s Fox and there’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which hates deficits when it’s a Democratic president and says we’ll grow out of them now. They are party cheerleaders and enforcers of discipline. Talk radio too. We don’t really have any of that. Now, the New York Times editorial page is liberal, but it is not a Democratic organ.

Kazin: Why do most Democrats have a hard time countering the right-wing media?

Brown: I think we’re not full-throated enough in our defense of economic policy and demonstrating the value of work. Our paper addresses this. If white working-class people think we look down on them and we use terms like the “Rust Belt,” which demeans their work and diminishes them in some ways, that’s a problem. You counteract that, in part by empathizing, saying that we value work. That means you fight for minimum wage, you fight for the overtime rule, you fight against misclassification of jobs. And you advocate for a carrot-and-stick approach to employers: if they do the right thing for their workers, they get a lower tax rate. But if they do the wrong thing, they get a tax assessment because taxpayers are paying for their employees’ housing vouchers, Medicaid, wages through the earned income tax credit, and even food stamps, in some cases. Why are taxpayers subsidizing corporations? But we don’t want to talk that way. It’s not exactly class warfare. It is talking with passion and emphasis and emotion about their lives.

I learned about politics as the son of a family physician in Mansfield, Ohio, who never made a ton of money because he made house calls that he didn’t charge for. I had the privileges of a white person in a small town with a successful father in terms of income and decency.

After I went to the state legislature, I used to spend maybe a Friday or two a month at the steelworkers’ hall. We’d be out of session on Friday and I’d go there and hang out for three or four hours and just talk to workers. Before they went on their shifts, a lot of them stopped at the hall. They would come to see their labor committee men or their shop steward or whatever. I heard them talk about their hopes and dreams and what the union movement meant. Abe Lincoln used to talk about his “public-opinion baths”—going out and hearing things you might not have heard otherwise. And Pope Francis admonished parish priests in his first months in the papacy. He said, “Be shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” with all the Biblical connotations of that. So I don’t think we do enough of that, and I probably don’t either. We’ve got to be more full throated in our defense of these issues and our defense of people who are getting screwed by the system; they think they are and they are.

Kazin: Your plan sounds great, but what’s the strategy to get it implemented? As you know, private-sector unions aren’t getting any stronger, and now with a conservative majority of the Supreme Court again, who knows what’s going to happen with public-sector unions? So if we become, in effect, a “right-to-work” country how do you push forward?

Brown: Well, you’re a historian, and you know that rarely does a good idea take shape in two or even five years. I mean, look at how long it took for things to happen in 1934, ’35, and ’36 with labor law reform and Social Security. Look how long it took to pass Medicare; FDR wanted to do it but it didn’t happen for two decades after he died.

Kazin: And Harry Truman wanted single-payer.

Brown: Yes, he wanted single-payer as part of the Social Security Act, which is pretty interesting. Finally Medicare happened with Lyndon Johnson, and then broader healthcare didn’t happen until Obama. The ideas in my plan have been around and they’re going to be around. I just want to raise their visibility and enhance the public discussion about them. That’s what this paper is; it’s not a blueprint. No one called me the next day and said, “Sign me on, man. To the barricades!”

But I’m optimistic. Ideologically, people don’t like “big government,” but practically, it’s a much more progressive country. They may not like big government, but they like Medicare. They may not like government regulation, but they like the protection of safe drinking water.

That’s another thing we Democrats don’t do. We don’t talk about the positive role of government in people’s lives. One of Trump’s worst appointments—there’s eight of them tied for that title—but one that I think was particularly troubling was Tom Price as head of Health and Human Services. In the past, Price called for raising the Medicare eligibility age to sixty-seven. Tell me that any of the people in Trumbull County and Mahoning County voted for Trump because they want him to raise the Medicare age or want him to abandon the cleanup of Lake Erie, as Trump’s proposed budget would do.

Kazin: Republicans are pushing pretty much the same agenda conservatives have since they opposed the New Deal. It hasn’t changed much.

Brown: Yes, and we don’t want to point that out. We don’t want to talk about how most Republicans oppose Medicare. We don’t do the contrast well: “We’re here and they’re here, that’s why we’re on your side.” Maybe it’s partly because some Democrats shy away from populism because Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump and Steve Bannon get called “populists.” But populism is not about pushing people away. It’s embracing and inclusive.

For example, my argument about trade was quite different in the 1990s from that of Pat Buchanan, who got called a “populist.” He was where we were on NAFTA but for entirely different reasons. You never heard David Bonior [former Democratic representative from Michigan] pit American workers against Mexican workers as Buchanan did then and Trump does now. You never heard us talking negatively about foreigners or immigrants. So partly the media and partly other Democrats let Buchanan get away with using the term “populism” to describe himself.

But true populism is looking out for the little guy no matter where she works and no matter who he is; we’ve let them steal that away. We went through a period where we let the right steal the flag and steal religion, at least Christianity. And we’re going to allow them to steal the term “populism”? I mean, right-wing “populism” is racism and misogyny.

Kazin: That brings up the question of immigration. Your long policy paper doesn’t mention immigration; it talks about jobs. Do you think immigration should be included there? I know you signed on to comprehensive immigration reform. But part of Trump’s popularity was due to people’s discomfort, whether for economic reasons or cultural reasons, with a lot of immigrants in the country. People cheered when he said, “Build the wall,” even if it’s no solution to anything.

Brown: Surprising, yes, that it was that vociferous.

Kazin: So how do Democrats and progressives generally talk about working people as a whole and not divide them by immigrant versus non-immigrant?

Brown: Use the same language as we use on everything. It’s inclusive, it doesn’t exclude people, it doesn’t push people down so you can be higher. I think immigration is no different.

I watch Fox about an hour a week. It’s so interesting how they present things. When we were on the bus campaigning for Hillary last fall, I said to Bill [Clinton], “Do you think Hillary has a chance in Arkansas?” and he said, “No.” He said, “I couldn’t win Arkansas.” I said, “Why’s that?” And he said, “Everywhere you go in Arkansas, whether you get your tire changed or go to the barbershop or go to a diner, Fox is on.” It’s just on everywhere and it’s really creative, the narrative. It seems like almost every time I watch [Fox], there’s a story of a heinous crime committed by an “illegal” immigrant. I don’t think they make it up, but you can find anything in a country of 320 million. There are all kinds of people doing all kinds of awful things—they just pick this one out. It does reinforce the message that immigrants are the ones hurting people and not people that look like “us.”

Kazin: If you go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, “law and order” was a very successful slogan for Richard Nixon.

Brown: Trump during the election used the term “law and order” a few times. There were clearly more than a few allusions to Nixon.

Kazin: You say in your big policy paper that we need to change the way we think about the economy. So how do we do that, especially when the people who run most big corporations are quite happy with the way Republicans and even many Democrats think about the economy?

Brown: It will be a long-term education process, and we’re up against fake media, against Fox, and against talk radio, which makes it so hard. There absolutely are more of us that see the economy this way. But we have to reach them and get them to vote.

I’ve always believed the field is fertile for a progressive message. It’s fertile even in western Ohio, maybe the most conservative part of my state. There are sometimes environmental issues; many rural people fear that environmental laws cost jobs, or they are going to keep us from doing what we’re doing on our farms. But you can answer all those complaints. Part of it is, again, the language: use “environmental protection” instead of “environmental regulation.” Think how different that sounds to an undecided voter.

These are 20 percent or less of voters who are less engaged and maybe less knowledgeable. They don’t think of themselves as ideologically in the middle. They think of themselves as independent. The other 80 or 85 percent pay enough attention that they know who they’re going to vote for in most elections a year ahead of time.

Kazin: One of the things that’s happened since Trump was inaugurated is what people call “the resistance.” What do you think about the outside pressure on you and other Democrats to be absolutely firm against pretty much everything Trump wants to do? What do you think the relationship is between those who are pushing from the outside and what Democrat politicians like you are doing?

Brown: Progress always comes from people pushing through from the outside. I mean look at the great gains of the 1930s and the 1960s—whether it was pushing from the outside on labor law reform or on unemployment or workers’ comp or the minimum wage for economic security, or for civil rights and healthcare in the ’60s. I very much welcome that kind of pressure now.

But I’ve said publically that I would work with Trump on trade. I’ve made approaches to his people regularly on infrastructure spending. I get no pushback from progressives on that.

The only criticism I got was when I was part of a demonstration at the Columbus airport on the second week of Trump’s term to protest his travel ban. Somebody yelled out to me, “You sold us out on Ben Carson,” and they were clapping and people cheered for my wife [newspaper columnist Connie Schultz] because everyone loves my wife. I did end up being one of six Democrats to vote for Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a nutshell, the reason is that I live in a neighborhood in Cleveland that had the most foreclosures of any zip code in America in 2007; I know the desolation in that part of the city. The great majority of homes in Cleveland were built before I was born in 1952. I asked the Cleveland Department of Public Health: “What percentage of those homes that are old in Cleveland have toxic levels of lead?” They said, “99.” They all do. So that’s what kids who grow up in low-income areas are facing. So I said to Carson privately and then in the committee, “Are you going to help me on lead?” Because he doesn’t understand housing, but he does understand lead because he’s a brain surgeon. I have no idea if he’ll follow through. But that’s how I answered the woman at the airport, and she was OK with that.

I don’t worry about my support among progressives. They’re saying, “Oppose Trump on everything.” because they see what he’s doing on the environment, they see what he’s doing on war, they see what he’s doing on immigration especially, they see what he’s doing on healthcare and how he’s putting Wall Street executives in his cabinet. They don’t think, “OK, maybe on trade or maybe infrastructure, we can do some things.”

But I’ve got to look, progressive or not, at what’s best for Ohio.

Sherrod Brown is the senior United States Senator from Ohio, in office since January 3, 2007. Brown is a member of the Democratic Party.

Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.

Transcription by Danyoung Kim.

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