This Chart May Stun You (Or Not)

The statistics covering American manufacturing are complex. American manufacturing is by many metrics doing great. It's American manufacturing jobs which have declined steeply. That's a result of international competition but even more automation. Most of us know this broad story. What most don't know is how recent the drop is.

Earlier today TPM Reader JL flagged this chart. Today explain the numbers, the measure is jobs measured by thousands of persons. So in 1980, the number starts at just under 20 million manufacturing jobs. What you see is that that number declines somewhat but remains relatively stable from until about 2000. It falls sharply during the first Bush administration (the era of the dot com bubble burst). Then it stabilizes and drops precipitously during the 2008 economic crisis.

There's a modest recovery since then during the Obama years. But the decline over the first decade of the 21st century is stark. Of course, the US population has grown dramatically over the last 37 years. So the drop is even greater in percentage terms. But in terms of job loss as it affects individuals and communities, these absolute numbers are probably a better measure.

Here's TPM Reader JL ...

Josh -

I saw some version of the chart below a few months ago and it stunned me. I thought that the decline in manufacturing employment had been relatively steady since the 1970s. As the chart shows, however, that is not the case at all. In fact, manufacturing employment was relatively flat all the way through the 1990s. Starting around 2000 manufacturing jobs fell off a cliff. The sharp decline eased slightly for a few years, then accelerated in the Great Recession, with a very, very modest recovery over the last five years. So, that revelation has been bouncing around in my brain for a few months now.

What hit me just this afternoon was that the timing of this coincides with the even more stunning charts on mortality among US whites in their 40s and 50s—the data you have discussed at length and repeatedly.

Recognizing that all of this—the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and the ensuing despair--is a relatively recent phenomenon—1.5 decades, not four decades—helps answer the “why now” question regarding the revolt of working-class whites. The recent election was only the fourth since all of this began. The first, in 2004, was a national security election, coming just three years after 9/11. The next election was 2008 and Obama was successful in connecting to working-class whites. The fact that he ran against Hillary may have been helpful, assuming, as I’m inclined to do, that a lot of the folks who would become Trump voters, had concluded that Bill Clinton, by being a free trader, had screwed them. So Obama, running on hope and change, got more than his fair share of the white working class. Then comes 2012. Future Trump voters may have been disillusioned with Obama to a large degree but (a) they still had the sense that he was on their side, and (b) the GOP nominated someone who Axelrod et al successfully portrayed as the ultimate job killer.

Finally, finally, in 2016 these folks had the opportunity to vent their rage in the ballot box. And they did.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of