Cleveland Plain Dealer: Why Sen. Sherrod Brown’s ‘dignity of work’ message resonates with voters

Originally Published: Cleveland Plain Dealer (January 9, 2019)

NEW YORK — As an unabashed progressive recently re-elected in an increasingly red state, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown thinks he may have a message to heal our urban-rural divide.

“I won my election because I talk about the dignity of work,” he told NBC-TV’s Chuck Todd shortly after Election Day, elaborating: “Whether you swipe a badge or punch a clock, whether you work for tips, or whether you’re working a salary, whether you’re taking care of parents and aging parents or raising children, we don’t pay enough attention to the dignity of work.”

Judging by Brown’s electoral performance, he may just be onto something. Not only did he do well in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, he also outperformed Hillary Clinton by 11 points in counties Donald Trump won in 2016, based on an analysis of data from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. Moreover, he achieved this while being one of the most reliably progressive members of the Senate. That hat trick has catapulted Brown from little-known senator to serious contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020, and Brown says he’s actively considering a race.

But while some may see Brown’s accomplishment as proof that progressive economic ideas can find broad support if properly packaged, it would be a mistake to think that Brown won because of an economic message alone. “Dignity of work” resonates because it reminds us that we’re not just economically driven agents in a free market. We’re also humans enmeshed in webs of relationships – relationships that carry with them responsibilities, duties, and opportunities to contribute. Work carries dignity because it gives us a way to contribute to community life.

This is a very different philosophical frame for government than that offered by either major party over the last 40 years. Starting with Ronald Reagan and continuing through Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the major debates in national politics have largely been about the appropriate role for government in the economy. While Republicans pushed for a more laissez-faire approach and Democrats for more technocratic policies, both were essentially in agreement that the purpose of government was to enable people to improve their economic well-being – and then get out of the way. Everything else necessary for the good life, it was assumed, would follow from letting people pursue their economic self-interest.

The difficulty with this thinking, however, was that it took for granted the community connections necessary for individuals’ economic success at the same time those connections were starting to fray. As globalization, automation and monopolization gained strength, middle-class wages stagnated while scores of once-reliable middle-class jobs disappeared. At the same time, health care, education and housing costs continued to rise, forcing many to work longer hours and commute longer distances. This left less time for individuals to spend with neighbors, to attend town meetings or church, and to join the Rotary or PTA. And this mattered, because the connections forged through such activities are what have historically helped people advance economically, weather hard times, and find meaning, purpose and dignity.

As community life has been supplanted by “the market,” what we’ve been left with is a society that all-too-often reduces workers to commodities and relationships to transactions. This helps explain the spiritual crisis we’re presently facing: higher rates of depression and suicide; opioid addiction; declining trust in institutions and each other; and a shared sense that the country is on the “wrong track.” Donald Trump cynically exploited this in 2016 with his politics of grievance. Other Republicans’ and Democrats’ economic-based appeals lacked the same emotional punch.

“Dignity of work,” by comparison, offers a positive, emotive reminder that we’re all in this together – that we’re more than just commodities in a market. We’re humans enmeshed in communities, who find dignity through the contributions we make to one another. While whether Brown can carry this message all the way to the White House remains to be seen, Democrats and Republicans alike should take notice. “Dignity of work” might just be the unifying message we need.

Bernie Zipprich is a business consultant and writer living in New York City.

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