The Politics of Dignity

A commitment to equal dignity can pull together a nation that Trump has devoted himself to dividing.

Tod​d Heisler / The New York Times / Redux

In October 2018, during the midterm elections, I paid a visit to Ohio, the midwestern swing state that had moved hardest toward Donald Trump two years earlier. My goal was to learn why Senator Sherrod Brown was running far ahead of his Republican opponent, winning back a lot of voters who had strayed from their traditional party.

The staunch pro-labor Democrat offered a compact sermon as we sat in the back seat of a Chevy Suburban riding toward his party’s state convention in Columbus.

“I think it’s all about the dignity of work,” he said. “I talk about how we value work. People who get up every day and work hard and do what we expect of them should be able to get ahead. I don’t think they hear that enough from Republicans or national Democrats.”

Brown won reelection that November—not by the huge margin he had in the polls when I visited, a margin he said at the time he didn’t believe himself, but solidly, by nearly seven points. The vote in Mahoning County, a union stronghold that includes Youngstown, offers an illustration of just what he accomplished. Barack Obama had won the county in a landslide with 63 percent in 2012. Hillary Clinton nearly lost it, winning just 50 percent. Brown won back most of the lost ground, earning 59 percent.

The broad idea of dignity and its specific connection to work has been on my mind ever since. The idea appealed to me because it rang true to the core idea of Catholic social thought—“the equal dignity of every person”—that helped shape my own politics long ago. But to see it used so explicitly in a campaign was instructive. The idea finds its power from a deep intuition that the anger in our public life, across many of our lines of division, arises from a felt denial of dignity.

Jacket cover of Code Red book.
This piece is adapted from Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country by E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Blue-collar workers of all races—very much including the white working class, which has loomed so large in political analysis since 2016—have experienced this denial of dignity. But it is also experienced by African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants across classes. In the Trump Era, these workers confront a rise in racism and nativism championed by the president himself. Women who experience sexism, and young Americans who see themselves denied opportunities their parents enjoyed, feel it, too.

In my new book, Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, I argue that dignity should be the central purpose of a new post-Reagan economics and a new post-Trump politics. Dignity binds together progressives and moderates opposed to Trump. It can also bring together constituencies who now find themselves opposed to each other. A focus on dignity may thus have immediate political power, but it also has a deep moral resonance.

Dignity is compelling because it is a value, not an ideology or a program. But neither is it an empty slogan. Dignity has strong implications for both policy and our culture. And it answers a moral yearning felt both individually and collectively. Lifting up dignity as a core national purpose is essential to renewing a society that has lost track of the powerful “We” that opens our Constitution. A commitment to equal dignity can play an important role in pulling together a nation that Trump has devoted himself to dividing.

The word dignity has two different meanings, both of them enlightening about our political moment. The first, Merriam-Webster tells us, refers to “seriousness of manner, appearance, or language,” which is precisely the opposite of the day-to-day behavior of the current occupant of the White House.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush made a pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” a standard part of his stump speech. It was his way of referencing Bill Clinton’s sex scandal without mentioning it. In 2020, that promise has more relevance than ever.

But my focus is primarily on the second meaning of dignity, “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” Americans in large numbers feel excluded from this state of grace.

This is not just about economics. Trump harps regularly on the fears of those who are conservative and religious that their core commitments are under threat from elites who disrespect them. Phrases like flyover country are inherent denials of dignity to those who live far from the coasts. Americans in small towns and rural areas (in blue states as well as red ones) sense disrespect from their more mobile and trendy urban brethren over how they live and their very attachment to the places of their birth.

But this form of distemper is hardly new to our history. The United States has experienced versions of it since the flight from farm to factory and from rural America to the cities began in the latter half of the 19th century. The Scopes trial in the 1920s subjected devout fundamentalists to ridicule from sophisticated city dwellers such as H. L. Mencken. A backlash against immigration gave rise to a new Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and led to the enactment of the highly restrictive (and fundamentally racist) Immigration Act of 1924. We are living through a similar backlash today in the wake of the large new flow of immigrants—and a change in their ethnic and racial composition—since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

All these antipathies, however, have been aggravated by something new: the collapse of the economic order that arose from the reforms of the New Deal and the economically leveling effects of the wartime economy in the early 1940s. The New Deal political order entailed many things, but one of the most important was the elevation in the status of the American worker, the power workers gained through large-scale union organization, and the relatively equitable distribution of the wealth created by a roaring economy in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Public policies, including a minimum wage that largely kept pace with inflation and the GI Bill, reinforced not only the incomes but also the social status of Americans without elite pedigrees or high-prestige employment. The worker cut a heroic figure in literature and film. Work itself was valued. It was seen as having … dignity.

The new economic consensus of the Reagan era, which sought to overthrow that post–World War II settlement, is typically associated with tax cuts and deregulation, but it had a moral and cultural side as well: the elevation of the entrepreneur—the “job creator”—as the true hero of the American story. One of the most important books of the Reagan Revolution, George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, announced this new orthodoxy. Gilder endowed the capitalist with “a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind.” In the new disposition, the wealthy didn’t just have a lot of money; they were practically saints.

And as the capitalist rose in public esteem, the worker fell by the wayside. So did his and her power—the “her” here being more than just a requisite nod to gender equality. Women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s not only because of the feminist revolution but also because many families could no longer get by on the stagnating wages of male breadwinners. The average hourly pay of American workers today remains below 1973 levels, and the power of organized workers has ebbed. In the 1950s, more than a third of American workers belonged to unions. Now, just over a tenth do.

Again, not all of the distemper in our politics can be explained by the combined effects of the disempowerment of working Americans, challenges to their standard of living, and a decline in respect for the contributions they make through their labor. The deterioration of civil society that includes, but goes beyond, the decline of unions is also part of the story. So is the loss of social capital among those in economically ailing places that the conservative writer Tim Carney has described as the “unattached, disconnected, and dispossessed.”

But even here, economics matter. Early on in his campaign, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke of “a kind of disorientation and the loss of community and identity.” A friend of religion, Buttigieg certainly saw religious congregations as part of the solution. But his innovative point was how shifts in the economy aggravated the problem. The “very basic human desire for belonging,” Buttigieg said, had, historically, “often been supplied by the workplace … based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer.” The decline of secure and durable employment leads to broken bonds and the sense of dispossession Carney describes.

No one pretends that the economy can go back to the employment patterns of the 1950s or 1960s—and even then, although many workers found stability, others did not. But simply allowing the social unraveling to continue will only aggravate our stresses and deepen the alienation experienced by so many Americans. This is why we need both a politics and an economics of dignity.

Listen carefully, and you will hear the word dignity invoked regularly by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren; moderates like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Buttigieg; and labor liberals like Brown. How can it be advanced through public policy?

Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has gone further than anyone else in the policy world to describe what it would mean to make dignity “the singular end goal for economic policy.”

In an important article in Democracy that will be expanded into a book this spring, Sperling argued that economic dignity rests on three pillars: “the capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys”; the “pursuit of potential and purpose”; and “economic participation without domination and humiliation.”

The first pillar helps explain why family-friendly policies surrounding work are so important, but it also illuminates the frustrations of many lower-income Americans, including those who have been displaced from good jobs. The inability to provide for one’s family is a source of anger, despondency, and often shame. In many communities, men who were once accustomed to decent incomes found their old provider roles undercut—not by demands for gender equity but because their incomes collapsed. Most families now have a powerful interest in fair and equal pay because they are so dependent on at least two incomes. But in many low- and middle-income households, the lost earning power of men has not been offset by increased earning power of women.

A politics of dignity would turn talk of “family values” away from denying rights to LGBTQ people and toward strengthening the ability of Americans across every divide to find satisfaction and fulfillment in their parental responsibilities.

Similarly, Sperling argued that for millions of Americans, “the American promise of limitless potential and second chances feels distant.” These losses—including the “deaths of despair” from suicide and addiction that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have described with rigor and eloquence—are often discussed as if they involved “two completely different segments of America,” Sperling wrote. But “what sadly links the laid-off white Rust Belt worker in his 50s to the low-income minority youth from a dysfunctional school and economically disadvantaged community is the dignity hit of feeling denied a real chance to pursue his or her full potential and purpose.” Finally, Sperling noted the costs of the decline of the trade-union movement and the drift away from the New Deal traditions of lifting up workers. The result is a rise in “humiliation, dominance, harassment, and discrimination” in the workplace.

A politics of dignity also means fighting against a leadership that has built its power by dividing Americans from each other. And it means fighting the denial of dignity whenever some groups of Americans are encouraged to look down on others—whether the native-born against immigrants, whites against blacks, or elites with college or post-grad degrees against their fellow citizens with less  formal education. We need to edit Trump’s signature slogan. We need to make America empathetic again. And we need economic policies with empathy at their heart.

A few years ago, in our book One Nation After Trump, my colleagues Norm Ornstein, Thomas Mann, and I laid out a series of policies that we organized around the themes of a New Economy, a New Patriotism, a New Civil Society, and a New Democracy. Three themes from that account are relevant here.

First, a more democratic political structure—meaning one in which the power of money and the influence of the connected are reduced and voting rights are guaranteed—is essential to moving the country toward fairer economic policies that embody the quest for dignity.

Second, our nation needs to worry not only about the material costs of economic turmoil but also about the fraying of community and family bonds. Rebuilding community, strengthening the institutions of civil society, and shoring up families should be a priority. And in a post-Trump world, we might begin to chip away at political polarization by seeking concord across the left and the right about the urgency of this task. Progressives and conservatives share an interest in stronger communities and families, even if their concerns may have different philosophical roots. Third, our nation needs to experiment with more ambitious regional and place-based policies. A vibrant nation that is both socially and geographically mobile will always experience unequal development; many places have undergone declines and revivals. But the extreme regional (and, within cities, neighborhood) inequalities we are experiencing are dangerous to our social and political health. We need to address them more forcefully.

Dignity as a core concept organizes policies that might otherwise seem a randomly assembled liberal wish list. For example, policies on family leave and child care are about restoring a sense of control and agency for parents. Our current marketplace depends on the work of both parents (or the sole parent in a single-parent family) but offers no compensation for the time market labor takes away from the tasks of keeping a family whole. Restoring family life, a goal regularly touted by conservatives, requires, as progressives insist, adjusting the rules of an economy that no longer operates on the 1950s model. It also means rejecting, once and for all, the use of “family values” as a slogan weaponized to undermine the rights of LGBTQ Americans. In fact, the rapidly growing consensus in support for LGBTQ rights opens the way for a conversation about family life that is free of bigotry. We might then be able to draw on the insights of both sides in this long-running debate: that thriving families matter to the well-being of children and to social justice, but also that a radically unequal economy puts stresses on families that they often cannot bear.

While the gig economy provides useful flexibility in certain respects, it also undercuts the dignity of workers by robbing them of any predictability in their hours, not to mention decent and regular compensation. Elizabeth Warren’s bill of rights for workers in the gig economy is thus not an effort to stop economic change in its tracks but instead an attempt to apportion power in the new economy more fairly between capital and labor. Similarly, a push to allow unions and other forms of worker representation to flourish is a direct response to Sperling’s call for “economic participation without domination or humiliation.” Dignity must include exercising power at work, and over the work people do.

Regional inequality is an abstract phrase that distances us from actual suffering. The ultimate point of regionally based economic policies—aimed at renewing shared growth in both old industrial towns and inner cities—is to restore the dignity that is nurtured in thriving communities. Decent employment itself matters; so does the support a degree of prosperity affords local institutions that build social capital. And it is hard to sustain a sense of dignity in deteriorating communities where those left behind watch as their cities, towns, or urban neighborhoods are abandoned by their young people, who must leave to search for opportunity.

And—it should go without saying—jobs that offer only low wages and few or no benefits are the ultimate form of disrespect. To bring us back to Sherrod Brown: Either we believe in the dignity of work, or we don’t.

The focus on dignity underscores a larger point: that progressives and moderates, required to work together because of the emergency the Trump presidency represents, have more in common at this moment than they often want to acknowledge.

They may have disagreements over single-payer health care, free college, and whether or how to tax wealth. But they agree, against an increasingly radicalized conservativism, that government has a major role to play in writing new rules for a radically transformed economy and for pushing against economic inequality.

Another way to put this is that the left, the center-left, and the center all agree on the need to undo and replace the Reagan economic consensus. This includes not only its policies but also its moral emphasis on the heroism of the entrepreneur over and against the day-to-day dignity of those who work for others. The surest sign that the Reagan consensus is collapsing is the fact that some leading conservatives—notably including Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley—have joined the progressive assault on it, by, for example, questioning the primacy of shareholder value as the measure of corporate success. Even Trump has distanced himself from the old conservative economic dogmas—although more in campaigning than in governing.

Our country needs to pull itself back from the social gulfs that Trump has deepened for his own political purposes, and none more so than our divides around race. This will require a politics that stresses confronting problems shared by African Americans, Latinos, and whites alike. The costs of deindustrialization to African Americans in the inner city that William Julius Wilson described in his 1996 classic When Work Disappears have spread to predominantly white factory towns across the Midwest, and in parts of the Northeast and the South as well. The evaporation of so many well-paying blue-collar jobs is part of a crisis of dignity across racial lines.

Two moments from our not-so-distant past might remind us that we should not see building multiracial alliances for justice as beyond our reach, even in the era of Trump.

The United Auto Workers union was a major force behind the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. defined his dream: Its full name was the  March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Top billing went to jobs because the ability to enjoy liberty and equality depends on having the economic wherewithal to exercise our rights.

The architects of our greatest advances toward racial equality never forgot that social justice and economic justice are intertwined. We shouldn’t either. An overtly racist president should remind us of the urgency of the quest for a beloved community and a defense of our common—and equal—citizenship.

We should also not forget the too-brief moment in 1968 before he was gunned down in Los Angeles when Robert F. Kennedy built an alliance of African Americans and working-class whites rooted in what the political writer Joel Dodge has called “the promise of meaningful dignity for all Americans.”

Kennedy was both forward looking and old-fashioned in his vision. “We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” he said. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and, most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”

His gendered language is jarring now—although it is also a reminder of what many of the older men who have rallied to Trump in our time feel they have lost. But his promise can be recast for both women and men who “work every day,” in Jesse Jackson’s memorable refrain from decades ago. “I helped build this country” is the confident sound of both civic and economic dignity. We must hear it anew.