Episode Summary

All of us are much more than what we do for a living. And yet, when we lose a job or have trouble finding another one, we feel like we’re missing something important.

But work is about more than just something to do with your time or to feed your family. For many people, work is an entry point into larger society. It’s how many of us meet friends and form families. It’s also often the only way that we come into prolonged contact with people who are different from us.

After the 2016 election, a lot of Mid-Atlantic media outlets sent journalists on expeditions to Midwestern diners to see how a man who lied constantly with a record of failed businesses and broken marriages was able to become president. Some of the stories that came out of those forays were good, but a lot of them just barely scratched the surface, or actually got things wrong.

In today’s episode, we feature Farah Stockman, a New York Times editorial writer who is also the author of a new book called American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears. It’s an important look at what work means for people, and what progressives missed about free trade, manufacturing, and globalization.

The unedited video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Hey Farrah. Thanks for being here today.

FARAH STOCKMAN: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: I wanted to congratulate you on the book. It is a really good one. And I guess before we talk about some of the things that you say in it, maybe let’s discuss the format and why you decided to write it.

STOCKMAN: So I followed three people. Basically, I started reporting the book literally on election night, I was sent to Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, in Massachusetts, right near my house, actually.

I was part of this big reporting team that thought that we were gathering string to write about the historic election of the first female president. And of course you know how that went. The night turned upside down and everybody at Wellesley College was wondering, how could this have happened? How could so many millions of Americans have voted for a man who had not even served one day in government and made him president of the United States? How could that be?

I grew up in Michigan. I’m from the Rust Belt. So I started asking around why Donald Trump? And I kept hearing: ‘He’s gonna save my plant. He’s gonna save my factory. He’s going to bring the factories back.’ And that’s what made me decide to go to Indiana and follow workers at a factory that was moving to Mexico, which just a few weeks before the election, the bosses at that plant had announced that they were going to move to Monterey Mexico.

And right after the election, Trump tweeted about this plant, it’s called Rexnord. It was formerly Link-Belt and he tweeted: ‘No more. This company is viciously firing 300 workers.’ So it was really a microcosm of American politics. At that moment, all of these workers were hoping he was going to swoop in and he was feeding their dreams and a lot of the liberal friends of mine were saying things like: ‘Oh, get over it. The factories are never going to come back. How could they be so stupid to believe this guy?’ So anyway, I went to Indianapolis and followed three workers for seven months as the factory shut down. Shannon Mulcahy is a white woman, a single mother who had started off as a janitor at that plant and worked her way up to become a heat treat operator, which was one of the most dangerous and highly paid positions on the factory floor.

I also followed a Wally, a black guy who was very beloved at the plant. He was one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. He had a dream that he wanted to start a barbecue business after the factory closed. And I knew I wanted to follow him to see if he did it.

And I followed John Feltner, a white guy who was the union vice president. This was his second plant closing. And he was very angry, but also wasn’t surprised that it was closing.

And I wrote this in the New York Times in the fall of 2017 and I ended up writing a book and following them over the course of the Trump administration over four years to see where did they get jobs? What happened next? But also, how did they get their jobs in the first place? Who trained them? How did their jobs impact their sex lives? What did that job mean to them and what happened after it went away? That was the main thing I was looking at when I started to report the book.

SHEFFIELD: As I mentioned in the intro, some media outlets were criticized for just doing kind of shallow reporting of what’s going on in–


SHEFFIELD: In the Midwest. You were interested in this before that criticism came out, so I don’t think it influenced you, but on the other hand, where’s that, when did you feel like this deserved and longer form treatment than an article?

STOCKMAN: Yeah. I think a lot of us don’t understand what life is like in some of these places.

My big takeaway from the whole experience was that my economic reality, as a person who graduated from college and graduated from a prestigious college, my economic reality is so different than theirs. And I was a foreign correspondent before I started working for the New York Times. I spent a lot of time abroad and I know what it’s like to sit down and talk to people in another place and how long it takes before you can truly understand what their lives are like. Even getting a glimpse.

And it took me more than a year of hanging out with and interviewing and observing Shannon, Wally and John. It took me more than a year before I even had a clue of what their jobs meant to them, how it worked, how their personal finances worked. How did they get by, and what did it mean when the job disappeared?

I wanted to do the opposite of the usual political journalism, which is usually, a political reporter is dispatched to interview voters. You get one quote and you usually pick the quote that says what you already think. And if you’re lucky, it’s backed up by some opinion poll and boom, there’s a story. But that’s not how people’s lives, work. People’s opinions change over time. Their worldview is shaped by real lived experience.

And it doesn’t always conform to political categories. And every single one of us is a contradiction, politically. So Wally was a Democrat. He voted for Hillary Clinton, but he had a gun. Oh yeah he had a gun, and he really appreciated his right to own a gun. It was one of the things he was most thankful about because he’d served a stint in prison and a lot of people sign away their right to have a gun at that point. And he was so grateful that a lawyer had not let him do that.

So everybody had– John voted for Trump and yet when he talked, sometimes, he sounded like a Marxist. He was such a heavy duty, militant labor union guy. He believed in the union, it was the core of his identity. And when he talked about the world, it was labor and capital, labor and capital. That was the clear division. And you wouldn’t see those things if you didn’t spend enough time really not only talking to people, but interrogating their idea of the world until you felt like you understood.

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