The “Made in America” ​​label and the motivations behind it are not so simple

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In a recent speech at the Volvo Group operations site in Hagerstown, Maryland, President Biden invoked the phrase “Made in America.” He positioned American manufacturing as the foundation of the American middle class. According to the logic of the expression, to sustain the nation, one must buy goods “made in America” by American workers.

The sentence reminded the public that this label, which helps American consumers recognize when they buy a product made in the United States, is at the heart of Biden’s economic policy. Leaders have historically invoked “Made in America” as the defining motto and aspiration of American economic life, while introducing protectionist measures, in times of economic crisis or other profound change. This commitment was reiterated by politicians in the partisan aisle. Buy American was seen as an imperative to preserve American jobs, strengthen the economy, and even protect national security.

While it’s tempting to view the phrase as a call for patriotism and a celebration of America’s working class, xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervor have been central themes in its affirmation and in efforts to label the products. made in the USA, for well over a year. century.

For example, in 1870s California, as Chinese immigration increased, labor unions feared competition from “mass-produced” versions of their products by cheap Chinese labor. Racist fears of demographic change, merged with economic anxiety about changing manufacturing practices, have led to initiatives to physically mark the origin of products. In 1874, cigar makers and cobblers in San Francisco introduced “white work” labelsencouraging consumers to buy products made by white, often unionized workers, rather than those made by non-unionized Chinese workers.

The goal of “creating demand for white men’s cigars” – much like “Made in USA” labels today – relied on social sentiment to influence buying habits. These labels were an expression of an exclusionary view of identity and a precursor to racist restrictions on immigration. Whiteness was central to how the United States imagined itself, as evidenced by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an openly racist law that banned emigration from China on the pretext of eliminating labor competition. Also, a thriving economy was seen as crucial for restoring a strong nation after the Civil War and for paying off the public debt accumulated by the war.

At the national level, the United States therefore maintained relatively high import tariffs, a double measure intended for raise incomes and protect the recovering economy from foreign competition in the manufacturing sector. In the 1880s, tariffs generated a huge surplus and American manufacturing boomed due to its country of origin. advantage.

In 1890, Republican Senator William McKinley signed into law a tariff bill that not only imposed massive import duties on foreign goods, but also introduced the requirement that foreign goods be clearly marked with their country of origin. While domestic products did not need a label, over the following decades it became increasingly common to use “Made in USA” labels as a persuasive selling point. With the boom in manufacturing and little concern over protectionism, such labeling has become a marketing tool.

During the Great Depression, with unemployment near 25% and America’s manufacturing sector in tatters – manufacturing contracted more than 30 percent from 1929 to 1933 — protectionism again becomes paramount.

The entire 1932 election was defined by the “America First” issue, as magazine editor William Randolph Hearst printed on the letterheads of his newspapers. For Hearst, “America First” meant a nationalistic and introverted commitment to the nation.

Even though Hearst’s favorite candidate lost, the protectionist pledge he endorsed was not out of place. On his last day in office in 1933, Republican President Herbert Hoover signed the “Buy American Act (BAA)”, into law in response to the crisis in the manufacturing industry. It echoed similar efforts by rival overseas competitors like the UK, which had launched a ‘Buy British’ campaign and ‘Made in England’ products to weather the global economic storm.

The BAA was a comprehensive piece of legislation and still serves as a model for protectionist legislation today. It required all public projects to use US-based resources and goods, themselves made from “essentially” US materials, whenever possible. The construction of the Hoover Dam between 1931 and 1936 became one of the first major infrastructure projects built under these new rules.

But as the century progressed, integrated production processes meant that components were increasingly produced in various countries, even if the final product was assembled in the United States. As business historian Geoffrey Jones Remarks, labels such as “Made in America” ​​”became meaningless”. In a booming economy with many jobs in the decades following World War II, the urgency to control the origin of products seemed less pronounced.

The slogan returned again in the 1980s, at a time when American manufacturing was in decline as capital fled in search of less organized and cheaper labour. Multinational companies and outsourcing have made production processes increasingly independent of the nation. “Made in America” ​​emerged once again. Business leaders have used the label to boost sales, boost profits and quell social unrest at home. But a label alone hasn’t stopped factories from moving overseas. Economic nationalist policy therefore intermarried with – and to some extent served to obfuscate – policies that helped to erode the working class.

With manufacturing jobs dwindling, it was attractive to blame foreign workers to deflect blame. For example, casino owner Donald Trump took out an entire page advertisement in a newspaper in 1987 to argue for tariffs and condemn countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia as “ripping us off”. Even unions have readily used “Buy American” strategies, blaming Japan – especially its auto industry – for the erosion of the working class.

The phrase has reappeared since the Great Recession. In January 2011, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote to the Smithsonian to condemn the sale of Chinese-made presidential busts in the National Museum of American History’s gift shop. Sanders called it “amazing” and “pathetic” that a museum celebrating U.S. history would sell products made in China and Nicaragua, noting the irony that the museum is unable to “find companies in this country employing American workers who can make statues of our founding fathers or our current president. For Sanders, like so many others, reviving the middle class began with manufacturing, with products labeled “Made in America” ​​at the heart of that mission.

President Donald Trump also touted economic nationalism when he invoked the phrase. In 2017, Trump proclaimed the first week “Made in America”, designed to “end the theft of American prosperity” and “crack down on foreign countries that cheat” through full approval of American manufacturing and tariffs on foreign products. His mockery of international competitors started a trade war with China, but his endorsement of American-made products seemed to affirm that he was a genuine champion of the white working class.

During his tenure, Trump signed many laws and signed into law no less than 10 Executive Orders to save his campaign promise for “buy American and hire American”. Once again, however, this invocation of economic nationalism depended on vilifying non-white labor, in part to deflect attention from inequality at home.

The “Made in America” label and its meanings remain ambiguous. The Federal Trade Commission Standard for “Made in the USA” specifies that “all or substantially all” of a product must be made in the United States to qualify. This leaves room for manufacturers to incorporate foreign elements or technologies. Nevertheless, the label wields a powerful influence. To research shows that consumers, especially those who identify as Republicans, are willing to pay more for products bearing the label to “support American businesses and workers.”

“Made in America” has become a cultural touchstone of US global dominance. More than a reality, it has become a powerful political idea and a shorthand ready to show the power and economic prowess of the United States. Biden’s adoption of the slogan is just the next chapter in a long history of mediating American power through his possessions.

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