Some 10 days ago, two promising, charismatic young leaders went to ritually commune with the blue-collar masses. Emmanuel Macron, whom France will probably elect president on May 7, went to a Whirlpool plant in Amiens, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped in at a Ford factory near Detroit.
Macron’s visit will be remembered chiefly because his right-wing rival, Marine Le Pen, got there first and upstaged him, casting him as an elitist out of touch with the common worker. Zuckerberg’s visit, while a lot less dramatic, may be remembered because it was part of a 30-state tour that looks suspiciously like the start of a possible campaign for the US presidency.
What made the two visits similar was their incongruity. Each involved a man who claims to speak for the future paying homage at a temple of the past—the factory. Macron was evidently trying to look alert to voters’ worries about globalization, since Whirlpool plans to move its plant to Poland. Zuckerberg seemed to be trying to look sensitive to fears of automation (though his admiring comment about how assembly-line workers performed the same set of tasks “every 52 seconds…650 times a day” also read like a veiled warning: What could be a more perfect job for a robot?)
In reality, globalization and—to a larger extent—automation have already claimed many manufacturing jobs in the West and will doubtless claim more. If factories can be brought back from Asia and eastern Europe, they will be staffed by machines. And yet even Mark Zuckerberg feels he must begin his tour by making obeisance to the factory-worker gods. That suggests that no politician (or would-be politician) is yet willing to confront voters with the impending reality, nor prepared to make the hard political decisions it will inevitably entail.
This post originally appeared in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief.