Nostalgia for the blue model isn’t only a phenomenon among Democrats. In the movement that elected President Donald Trump, there are thick streaks of blue, as the Wall Street Journal’s profile of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon demonstrates:
“The only net worth my father had beside his tiny little house was that AT&T stock. And nobody is held accountable?” Steve Bannon, 63, said in a recent interview. “All these firms get bailed out. There’s no equity taken from anybody. There’s no one in jail. These companies are all overleveraged, and everyone looked the other way.”
No White House official has more influence on a wider portfolio of issues than Steve Bannon, who has become a litmus test for how people view the Trump administration. For supporters, he is helping to deliver on Mr. Trump’s fiery populist promises, with their emphasis on punishing illegal immigrants and U.S. companies aiming to move jobs out of the country. The left has painted him as isolationist, sexist and anti-immigrant.
There were many factors that turned Steve Bannon into a divisive political firebrand. But his decision to embrace “economic nationalism” and vehemently oppose the forces and institutions of globalization, he says, stems from his upbringing, his relationship with his father and the meaning those AT&T shares held for the family.
“Everything since then has come from there,” he says. “All of it.”
Bannon’s father had worked for AT&T and invested much of his savings in the company. AT&T was the prototypical blue model company: A former monopoly telephone company with jobs for life, stable benefits, and consistent investor confidence on the stock market. The end of the telephone monopoly was necessary to unleash the info-chaos in which Bannon’s Breitbart has prospered, but it also meant the end of the world that shaped his father’s life.
Many people would like to return to the blue model economy, and they blame greedy Wall Street traders for taking advantage of and ruining a good thing. We won’t litigate for any side in this debate—there was clearly a lot of wrongdoing and recklessness. But the blue model system isn’t dying because of toxic Collateralized Debt Obligations and the housing bubble. It had been dying for over thirty years. Moreover, it’s dying because of globalization but also because of technology—automation means factories may come back to the United States, but they’ll require very few human workers to operate them.
Policymakers spent decades—particularly since 1991—naively arguing that neoliberal solutions would lift all boats and provide stability and safety. And some of their ideas, like the free trade system that China has taken advantage of, have exacerbated problems elites often never even acknowledged were real in the first place. But the blue model past is not recoverable. The future of work will be different, and the regulatory structure and safety net that promotes the development of good jobs will be different that what we’ve had in the past too.