There’s nothing new about nostalgia in politics. American presidential candidates spent the better part of the 20th century promising to help family farmers in the face of urbanization. Now they promise to help factory workers in the face of globalization. Donald Trump has made the revival of American manufacturing a signature issue, presenting his economic plan in an August speech in Detroit, the nation’s official postindustrial wasteland. Hillary Clinton has campaigned on a broader economic agenda, but when it came time to describe those plans, she chose a factory outside Detroit as her backdrop.
Manufacturing retains its powerful hold on the American imagination for good reason. In the years after World War II, factory work created a broadly shared prosperity that helped make the American middle class. People without college degrees could buy a home, raise a family, buy a station wagon, take some nice vacations. It makes perfect sense that voters would want to return to those times.
From an economic perspective, however, there can be no revival of American manufacturing, because there has been no collapse. Because of automation, there are far fewer jobs in factories. But the value of stuff made in America reached a record high in the first quarter of 2016, even after adjusting for inflation. The present moment, in other words, is the most productive in the nation’s history.