American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman (Random House, 432 pp., $28)
On November 8, 2016, New York Times reporter Farah Stockman walked the campus of Wellesley College in Massachusetts to collect perspectives for a story on the country’s first female president, alumna Hillary Clinton. But as the night wore on, confident expectation was mugged by political reality. When CNN announced that Donald Trump had won Ohio, Stockman recalls, a campus watch party, led by the late Madeleine Albright, started in chants of “1. 9. 6. 9. Wellesley,” as if their words were a “spell to ward off the inexplicable middle swath of the country.” At 1:10 a.m., when Michigan went for Trump, Stockman recounts how the crowd exploded in curses for Middle America.
In the ensuing months, those curses gave way to questions. Reporters from every major newspaper and television network parachuted into Middle America hoping to understand the workers and former Democrats who had voted for Trump. Former steelworkers across the Rust Belt were transformed into prophetic commoners, representatives of a “real America.” Television interviews with Trump voters sought to reproduce the democratic gravitas of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech. The theatrics were matched only by the inevitable self-flagellation of the interviewers.
Stockman resisted this wave of report-and-run coverage that swept the media following Trump’s victory. In early 2017, she flew into Indianapolis to cover the Rexnord manufacturing plant’s closure, which Trump had hoped to forestall. There, Stockman met and profiled Shannon Mulcahy, a white single mother caring for a schizophrenic son and severely disabled granddaughter, a survivor of domestic violence, and the first woman to operate the factory’s “heat treat” furnaces. Her profile became the germ of American Made: What Happens to People when Work Disappears, a book about Rexnord’s closure and the fallout for those whose flourishing was anchored in the work of perfecting the steel bearings produced there.
Stockman structures the book around three ex-employees: Shannon; Raleigh “Wally” Hall, a black man who redirected his energies from youthful stints as a drug dealer into employment on the factory floor, where he transformed his paychecks into renovated rental units and a salon operated by a romantic partner in pursuit of his dream of running a barbecue business; and John Feltner, a white union man and self-described “hillbilly” still recovering from bankruptcy after a Navistar plant closure in late 2007. A fourth character is Stockman herself: Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, Radcliffe graduate, and daughter of Ph.D.s. Indeed, Stockman’s meditation on how her socioeconomic privileges and political values differ from those of Shannon, Wally, and John becomes the central theme of American Made. The result is a genre-defining example of what might be called empathetic reporting on deindustrialization in America.
American Made’s arc will be familiar for many readers. The setting is a 410,000-square-foot factory, founded by the company Link-Belt in the boom years after World War II. Link-Belt’s bearings were regarded as the best among both buyers and workers. As the company was handed off in a chain of mergers and acquisitions, however, its unionized workers noticed a decline in both the bearings’ material quality (slowly supplanted by “China parts”) and management’s commitment to the workers’ well-being.
Link-Belt’s fate reflects the broader trend of “silent integration” between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada that preceded NAFTA’s adoption in 1991, documented in such books as Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Cost-saving measures, affecting both the manufactured products and those who produced them, coalesced into a forewarning: closure was coming. Factory workers have always known how to read the signs on the shopfloor. When one of Shannon’s furnaces “belched up a ball of fire,” it was the result not of mismanagement but of an untenable boost to production—a last bid by an allied supervisor hoping to save the plant.
Stockman therefore tells the story of Rexnord’s closing with an eye to its global significance. She sees the jobs that Shannon, Wally, and John lost as casualties piled atop the 700,000 U.S. factory jobs that had disappeared by 2010. Stockman came to find something “disturbing” in the defenses of free trade made by those whose jobs were not on the line. The working class, she “had to admit,” did not benefit nearly as much from free trade as elites like herself. And she found it impossible not to see “the world through the steelworkers’ eyes.”
NAFTA and the global reconfiguration of labor that followed from its adoption are well-trod terrain. What distinguishes American Made is Stockman’s decision to weave the experiences of John, Wally, and Shannon together with reflections on her own socioeconomic privilege. She asserts herself as protagonist: we read that she is seeing through the steelworkers’ eyes, that she adopts their “point of view.” And she makes an honest effort to reckon with internalized elite attitudes.
At its best, American Made makes a rich social tapestry out of class difference. Stockman describes Shannon as someone who overcame “more sexual abuse, domestic violence, and gender-based workplace discrimination than anybody else I personally knew.” Stockman contrasts her own views with Shannon’s disinterest in the #MeToo movement and candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Stockman follows Wally, whose run-ins with the law and repeated encounters with casual racism on the shop floor neither shook his sense of class solidarity nor pushed him to, as he puts it, “play the race card.” His work ethic and magnetic personality led a union leader to promote him to such posts as Rexnord’s chairman of business systems, where he gave voice to worker concerns. Of John, the spitfire organizer who never ceases to push union leaders to strike for wage hikes, Stockman recreates how his potent sense of class politics developed: a man who doesn’t want to “eat steak,” or kiss the boss’s ass, can hold his head high and “eat squirrel.”
At every turn, Shannon, Wally, and John seem to contradict liberal shibboleths (and Stockman’s own views) on race, gender, the economy, and more. And Rexnord’s employees live “far more integrated lives” than most of the lawyers, bankers, and journalists she knew on the East Coast. When Stockman returned to Boston and described her project to friends, they wondered aloud: Why bother listening to “those Trump-supporting racists?” The tension between elite attitudes in Boston and working-class realities in Indianapolis prompts Stockman into insightful attempts at reconciling her own experiences with those of her subjects.
But empathy is a tricky thing. Ironically, the imaginative act of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” can upend empathy’s potential. How would I act? What would I say? These questions can obscure the original object of our empathy, easily slipping from a radical state of reflection on one’s relationship to others into self-centeredness.
As American Made proceeds, Stockman’s periodic appropriations of her subjects’ experiences grows more awkward, especially as she reminds readers about her status as an economic and cultural elite. When Shannon’s Uncle Gary, for example, complains that the Mexican workers moving into his Indianapolis suburb were not learning English, Stockman writes that “I didn’t have the heart to tell Uncle Gary that my daughter was on the waiting list of an expensive Spanish immersion daycare center.” Moments like this exaggerate the distance between author and subject and weaken Stockman’s narrative strategy. The text can begin to feel excessive, even performative. Consider the following full-page paragraph documenting what Shannon, Wally, and John had in common with one another, and what Stockman didn’t:
They were grandparents in their forties. (I gave birth to my daughter at forty-two.) They smoked or chewed some form of tobacco. (No one in my social circle did.) John and Wally were both proud gun owners, like the men in Shannon’s life. (I didn’t know a single person in Cambridge who owned a gun that shot anything but glue.) They lived within miles of Indianapolis, the city where they were born, and saw their siblings, their adult children, and their parents regularly. (I lived far from where I grew up and saw my parents and my sister only a few times a year.) If their car or kitchen sink broke down, they tried to fix it themselves, using tips gleaned from YouTube. (I once hired an electrician to fix a broken light, only to be told that it just needed a new bulb.) Wally and John drove American trucks: Fords and Chevys. (In my life, I’ve owned a Honda, a Hyundai, and a Volkswagen.) They all had friends or family members who served in the military. (No one I spoke to on a daily basis had ever put on the uniform.) Perhaps most crucial of all was that although they’d all taken community college classes after high school—John had an associate’s degree—none had graduated from a four-year college. (Nearly everyone in my immediate circle of family and friends had not only a bachelor’s degree but a master’s degree, PhD, JD, or MD.)
Here, Stockman’s insistence on difference reinforces the exaggerated formulations of talking heads such as Mike Huckabee, whose 2015 book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, divided the U.S. into “Bubbaville,” where real Americans allegedly live, and “Bubbleville,” where elites like Stockman reside. While Stockman’s honest self-appraisal is admirable, it spirals away from the real purpose of empathy—to bridge difference—and too often reinforces it.
In tracing the story of Rexnord’s decline, Stockman does not offer policy solutions that would benefit ex-employees like Shannon, Wally, and John. Instead, she attempts to capture the persistence of workers and the peril that follows factory closures. Still, her conclusion—apparently written in late 2020—suggests more commonality and overlap in views that might serve as a basis for resolving ongoing debates about deindustrialization. She describes how John, who voted for Trump, reacted to the president’s false claims of election fraud. “Don’t sit and cry and carry on,” he said. “Shut up. It’s over.” She charts Shannon’s slow realization that the Covid-19 pandemic was not a hoax. And she reflects on George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which sparked the most widespread urban rioting in the U.S. since the 1960s.
As these turbulent currents converged in America in 2020, Stockman again meditates on difference. She acknowledges the different effects that the pandemic had on her, a self-described member of the “knowledge economy,” wherein “electronic intimacy” with colleagues manifested in Zoom house tours, versus its impact on factory workers, whose working lives largely evaporated with plant closures. Here, Stockman suggests a relationship between the mandated unemployment of government shutdowns and the mayhem that followed Floyd’s killing. She asks: “If losing a job makes an individual depressed, restless, and anxious, what happens when an entire society becomes unemployed?” Her question is made more pointed by automation and debates about policy proposals like universal basic income.
She hints at an answer when she wonders “what would have happened if instead of paying people to stay idle, we had paid them to work together for the common good.” In a word, work matters. It shapes our lives and gives them meaning. Its nature may change, but work remains a central component of human life. While empathy is vital, reinvesting work with dignity and grace will ultimately require more than seeing through workers’ eyes.
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