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Trump defeated Republicans 'as much or more' than Democrats

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up his shirt, bearing the Trump slogan "Build a Wall," following a rally for Trump in Everett, Washington last August.
Ted S. Warren | AP
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up his shirt, bearing the Trump slogan "Build a Wall," following a rally for Trump in Everett, Washington last August.

From where I sit—in an education industry that is itself trying to evolve but struggling to do so—the election provides a lesson on how we all must think about preparing workers for the jobs of tomorrow.

In 1993, the European Union was established by Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, and NAFTA was signed by Bill Clinton. The European single market had been developing since the 1950s; now North America created one.

Economists tell us that open economic borders between countries make nations richer, as industries flow to the country that is best at them, creating efficiency and lowering prices. Jobs lost to a country when an industry leaves will be replaced by other, new jobs. Presumably, since each economy is now wealthier and more efficient, the new jobs will be better than the jobs that were lost.

Even in theory, though, the creation of these requisite new jobs won't be instantaneous. So the governments involved should take some of the systemic wealth that was created and apply it to educational programs to re-skill workers whose industry disappeared.

So the economists tell us.

As the joke goes, put seven economists in a room and you'll get eight different opinions. Yet the economics world was largely united on the merits of free trade. Political support in the U.S. was bipartisan as well: 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats supported NAFTA in Congress. Government would establish the necessary legal frameworks and do something or other involving jobs retraining programs, and the business community would prosper.

But as the old saying goes, "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." And this economic theory, for one, did not quite survive contact with reality.

Free trade did indeed make nations richer overall. But that new wealth was largely concentrated in the hands of those who were already wealthy: big business, the rich, the coastal elites. The very top of the U.S. economic pyramid was enriched. But the base did worse. And that base includes many more people, who didn't care that Gross Domestic Product had grown faster than it otherwise would have. They waited for the government to fix it; they struggled for years, even decades.

"Free trade made the rich richer but resulted in jobs going abroad, as everyone knew that it would. The elites would have been wise to apply a portion of that new wealth to worker education programs, but instead they tried to have their cake and eat it too."

Politicians made promises but nothing ever happened. The good jobs didn't come back. The promised retraining programs never materialized. The official unemployment rate was low, but good industrial jobs with benefits had been systematically replaced by lower wage retail and food service jobs without benefits.

Educational programs for workers who need to learn new skills do not naturally result from market forces. The need for them is created by government action, and government action is the only reliable way to ensure their availability and effectiveness. Today, they are easier to deliver and more effective than ever.

Easier to deliver because of the Internet. More effective because today's services and tech-driven economy has created many high-quality jobs that require short apprenticeships to get started in. The good jobs of old—doctors, lawyers, etc.—required seven years or more of college plus grad school. Starting software engineers can easily clear $75,000 per year, and six months of training is enough to get started.

And, at its core, this was what the election was really all about: jobs and education. Free trade made the rich richer but resulted in jobs going abroad, as everyone knew that it would. The elites would have been wise to apply a portion of that new wealth to worker education programs, but instead they tried to have their cake and eat it too.

Now the people are rising up and saying, "We'll take our local jobs back, thank you very much. And we don't care that the Fortune 500's corporate profits will go down." Whether you agree or disagree, there is a fundamental policy argument at the core of their complaint.

A lot has been said about this election. Many are surprised by Donald Trump's victory. They blame bigotry or sexism. They blame their fellow citizens. Or the FBI. They remonstrate their fellow Americans as ignorant and uneducated for having elected Trump. Ignore what the media says about this election.

They'll hype the narrative, using one cherry-picked anecdotal story after another indicating that Trump won because his supporters are racist, misogynistic, cretins. Of course some are, and they appear to have been at least momentarily emboldened by this election. But they don't appear to have voted in larger numbers; the demographics captured by Trump and Clinton were very similar to the elections of 2008 and 2012 that produced Barack Obama.

What was truly different and decisive about this election was that Democrats lost the Midwest. Not coincidentally, this is the part of the country hardest hit by free trade. Those reliably blue states chose Trump not because of all the drama surrounding his campaign, but in large part despite it. They chose Trump because they feel everything else has been tried.

The Democrats joined the Republicans in supporting free trade. They joined the Republicans in ending Glass-Steagall and making it possible for commercial and investment banks to merge, grow ever larger, and run amok.

Trump promised to reverse the job loss trends in our manufacturing heartland. And with that promise he didn't just defeat the Democrats. He defeated the Republicans—the party of big business and free trade—just as much or more. If President-elect Trump wants to keep his promise, he will pursue a policy course that blends the best of yesterday's economy with the economy of today.

He will renegotiate trade deals, create good local jobs through infrastructure spending, and fill in the remaining gaps with widespread education programs that allow displaced Americans to learn some of the lucrative new skills now in demand.

Commentary by Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, an adaptive learning company. The Harvard MBA was formerly an executive at Kaplan, a strategist for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, and most recently a partner at New Atlantic Ventures (formerly Draper Atlantic), investing in new media and SaaS companies. He has served on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Education and Skills, as well as the advisory boards for Laureate International Universities, Cambridge University Press, and the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit. Follow him on Twitter @Knewton_Jose.

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