The American Idea Is Still Alive

Trying to stay positive in this season of rising trade tensions and plunging stock markets, I return to a Washington Post story from a few weeks ago by Jenna Johnson from Ohio, where a General Motors plant is likely to close in 2019. That’s obviously not positive news for workers, suppliers, and others affected by the plant closing. What was encouraging was the attitudes Johnson found when she interviewed people at an auto-parts store:

Eight miles northwest of the General Motors assembly plant expected to close next year, two workers and a customer at an auto-parts store pointed fingers: Americans just don’t want to drive small cars like those produced at the plant. Gas prices are low, making big vehicles even more attractive. And GM can get cheaper labor elsewhere.

But none of the three men pointed a finger at President Trump, who had promised residents here and throughout the industrial Midwest that he would stop the closure of factories. At one political rally in the area last year, he even urged residents to stay put and not sell their homes.

“It’s a company. Why should the president of the United States be allowed to tell a company what to do?” said Michael Hayda, 64, a former factory worker and a driver at the store who is registered as a Democrat and voted for Trump in 2016.

We sometimes forget that many Americans retain that old American regard for free enterprise and limited government. Others in the store had the same attitude:

His co-worker Bill McKlveen, another Democrat who voted for Trump, agreed and noted that auto-industry workers have been getting pink slips for decades, long before Trump took office.

And even a customer who would like to see Trump impeached said he doesn’t fully fault the president.

“There’s only one law we all obey, and that’s the law of supply and demand,” said Paul Niemi, 68, who fixes wood pallets for a living and was motivated by Trump to vote for the first time earlier this month, selecting a straight Democratic ticket in the midterm election.

Not everybody agreed. Factory worker Tara Gress complained, “It’s a big company. They don’t care. . . . It’s a business. We’re numbers. It doesn’t matter. All of the begs and pleads for this community, it’s not going to make a difference.” Still, those attitudes – plants are closing because of supply and demand, and it isn’t the president’s business to tell companies what to do – are part of what has given us the world’s most dynamic economy for most of the past two centuries. 

For all the talk about socialism, Americans still prefer free enterprise. It’s not good that 37 percent of Americans told Gallup they had a positive image of socialism, but 79 percent had a positive view of free enterprise and 86 percent of entrepreneurs.

In 2017 Gallup found that 67 percent of Americans believed big government was a bigger threat to the future than big business was. Only 26 percent picked big business, and 5 percent said big labor. And when it comes to presidents telling companies what to do, well, almost no one in the new Gallup poll thinks the federal government has too little power: just 8 percent, about where it’s been since 2002.

The men the Post interviewed in Warren, Ohio, display an American sense of life – an attitude of individualism, self-reliance, economic opportunity, and skepticism toward power and government. Something to appreciate in this season.