Youngstown, Economic Nationalism, and the Half-Life of Deindustrialization

AP Photo/Harvey Georges

Steelworkers, along with then-Senator John Glenn demand assistance in Washington following the closure of Youngstown Steel and Tube in 1977. 

In his 60 Minutes interview, Steve Bannon touted his form of economic nationalism and suggested that even Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Tim Ryan, both of Ohio, understood his economic vision, even if they didn’t agree with him. It was fitting that he name-checked Brown and Ryan, as both come from the northeast area of the state, where the history of deindustrialization began 40 years ago. On September 19, 1977—known locally as “Black Monday”—Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced that it was shutting down, kicking off a wave of steel mill closings that would displace more than 40,000 area workers in basic steel and steel-related industries.

In the 1970s, deindustrialization was often explained away as part of the “natural economic order.” Borrowing the term from Joseph Schumpeter, economist and business leaders saw the closings as part of an evolutionary process—sometimes called “creative destruction”—where temporary hardships would enable both capital and labor to move to more productive activities. While commentators acknowledged that the process was difficult and uncomfortable, they insisted that the ultimate outcome would be economic growth and a higher standard of living.

Eager to validate such promises, local leaders brought in an array of speakers, including several from the American Enterprise Institute. For example, Irving Kristol and Michael Novak gave public lectures at Youngstown State University, both insisting that the Mahoning Valley would prosper over time as new industries took root and workers retrained for new jobs. It was all part of what Novak called The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But as time passed, northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley continued to decline economically and to lose population. Journalists and scholars stopped asking “When will Youngstown recover?” and started trying to explain what was wrong with this community. Some blamed the region’s decline on political corruption, union contracts that gave workers too much, or the out-of-date skills of the local workforce. By the 1990s, the idealism of the creative destruction narrative had been replaced by the politics of resentment, perhaps most clearly represented by James Traficant, the first modern politician who voiced a version of economic nationalism and has sometimes been compared to Donald Trump. (The Ohio congressman was convicted of bribery among other charges and expelled from the House.)

The politics of resentment were also fueled by a parade of presidential candidates, each promising to address the problems caused by economic restructuring, and each failing to do so. The most infamous of those was Bill Clinton, whose support of NAFTA, the war on drugs, and welfare reform generate resentment from voters in this area even today. As Hillary Clinton learned last year, deindustrialized communities have long memories.

In communities like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when the region boasted high employment, in jobs that paid well, where workers were protected by strong unions, and their work provided a source of pride—not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes, and to be part of a community with others who shared that experience as well as the prosperity it generated, still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers.

They long for the sense of purpose that industrial labor brought, even as they stock shelves at Walmart, wait tables at Applebee’s, and try to persuade strangers to make donations from a cubicle at the local call center. They resent not only the instability of largely part-time jobs with uncertain schedules and below-the-poverty-line wages but also the politicians and experts who insist that they should either stop whining, go to college (which for most would involve taking on significant debt), or move away from their homes and families to someplace with more and better jobs. Even more, they resent the educated big-city elites who view them as exotic or foolish holdouts from a bygone era. That resentment emerged as support for populism in the 2016 election, and for too many it fuels racist, white supremacist, and anti-immigrant positions—a connection perhaps best represented by Bannon himself.

In our 2002 book, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we wrote that Youngstown’s story was America’s story. That seems even more true today, as Americans struggle to adapt to the growing precarity of work and to a changed political landscape. As the city marks the 40th anniversary of the closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, people here understand that deindustrialization did not end in 1977, or even in 1982, when that factory closed the last of its local mills. They know that deindustrialization has a half-life. Like toxic waste, its potency decreases slowly, and it continues to cause harm to individuals, to communities, and, as Americans increasingly recognize, to the nation as a whole.

Yet it is also worth remembering this: The first response to Black Monday in 1977 was not despair or resentment. It was activism. Busloads of local residents went to Washington to demand assistance from the government. Churches, civic groups, banks, and unions worked together to devise a plan for the community to buy and manage the mills. That part of local memory has faded, but the populism it reflected has returned.

Like the economic changes since the late 1970s, the politics of resentment will not disappear anytime soon. New technologies and artificial intelligence will likely displace even more Americans, and workers no longer buy old promises about creative destruction or the great potential of a knowledge economy. The memory of an era when working-class jobs were good jobs has not yet faded, but neither has the hope that new policies will bring back good jobs. In the half-life of deindustrialization, Bannon may be right that traditional party affiliations will give way to a political contest between right-wing and left-wing populist movements espousing economic nationalism, each promising—as so many politicians have before—to create real change for working people.

The American Prospect

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