Middle America Explained

In December 2001, Daniel Brooks headed to Franklin County, Pennslyvania, a short distance outside Montgomery County Maryland (just outside of DC), to see what life was like in a Red area, shortly after the election. What he found is what those of us who have lived in both areas already know, that there isn’t a class divide between these areas. These are not the areas of the poor and downtrodden, these are the areas of the content. These people think they have it pretty good, and largely they’re right. They’re hurting, they’re losing their good-paying middle class jobs offshores and have been for years and now the jobs they’re sending their kids to school for are being outsourced as well, but overall they’re a very happy and genial people. These are the people I was raised around, and overall they’re just a much happier people. It’s not that they’re friendlier, they’re just happier. Life isn’t about getting ahead, it’s about providing something a little better for your children. They’re much more concerned with what people in the neighboring county or the neighboring block have than the rich opulance of the cities within driving distance of their hometown. We have not so much a class divide in this country as a cultural one, and until the left can come to understand these people as people who already feel they’re rich, no matter what disaster the Republican Party finds themselves in, they will continue to lose election after election. Reaching these people is about telling them not how politicans are going to improve their lives and help them better themselves, it’s about telling them how those politicians agree with their way of life and their choices. As someone who’s lived in Red America and someone who is seriously considering if not already decided to move back there, I know that’s what I want to hear. A choice quote from the article:

The kinds of distinctions we make in Blue America are different. In my world the easiest way to categorize people is by headroom needs. People who went to business school or law school like a lot of headroom. They buy humongous sport-utility vehicles that practically have cathedral ceilings over the front seats. They live in homes the size of country clubs, with soaring entry atriums so high that they could practically fly a kite when they come through the front door. These big-headroom people tend to be predators: their jobs have them negotiating and competing all day. They spend small fortunes on dry cleaning. They grow animated when talking about how much they love their blackberries. They fill their enormous wall space with huge professional family portraits—Mom and Dad with their perfect kids (dressed in light-blue oxford shirts) laughing happily in an orchard somewhere.

Small-headroom people tend to have been liberal-arts majors, and they have liberal-arts jobs. They get passive-aggressive pleasure from demonstrating how modest and environmentally sensitive their living containers are. They hate people with SUVs, and feel virtuous driving around in their low-ceilinged little Hondas, which often display a RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS bumper sticker or one bearing an image of a fish with legs, along with the word “Darwin,” just to show how intellectually superior to fundamentalist Christians they are.

You have to read this article. It’s a detailed account of the differences in our society that everyone should read. Yes, you did read right, I am currently seriously considering moving back to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re missing until it’s gone. More postings on this subject later. Other words of wisdom for the day, “The love you take is equal to the love you make,” John Lennon (I’m assuming, could be McCartney).

5 Comments on “Middle America Explained”

  1. adam says:

    I read that the other day. I can’t remember where I got there from. We must be reading some of the same blogs.

    I disagree that they are that much happier though. I too have lived in both regions. Born, raised, and educated in Indiana, I saw some of what you are talking about: people largely happy with their place in life. But that was mostly because they had enough money to make that possible. I think it most definitely IS a class issue in most cases. As you said, these are the areas of the content. But around the corner or (literally, in Evansville Indiana) across the tracks from these areas are the areas of the malcontents. Those that have been failed by education, health care, and capitalism in general.

    I don’t have answers, but I can see the problems. And I see some of the same problems faced in the ghettos of the Bronx as I do on the southeast side of Evansville, IN.

  2. prospero says:

    I, too, have lived in both places. I grew up in Eastern Washington, which is about as Red as it gets.
    Brooks is guilty of the same over-generalizations that Red Staters complain are applied to them by Blue Staters. I know lots of people in liberal places like Seattle and Portland and elsewhere who don’t obsess about their jobs or feel smug about how environmentally correct they are or live in large houses. They value their families, are religious and feel pretty darned happy about their choices, too. They’re just as tired of being told that their “liberal” ways are ruining the country as conservatives are at being told they are insensitive Bible thumpers.
    That’s great that you want to move back to Fort Smith. But don’t go feeling that the folks in Fort Smith are somehow morally superior to people in Seattle or other Blue states (gad, I am so tired of the Red/Blue nonsense).
    I agree with Adam: There are many people in the Red areas (a great many) who aren’t happy. They don’t have the money to be content and their situation under the Bush Administration is only getting worse (poverty is up during the Bush years).
    I think you’re wrong: We DO have a class divide in this country. The hurricane damage to New Orleans shows how dramatic it is. We need to stop fighting over silly cultural issues and focus on the deep economic divisions in this country that are driving the less fortunate deeper and deeper into poverty.
    I’d recommend “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” by Thomas Frank as a start on this issue.
    That said, best wishes in your move. I hear Fort Smith is nice.

  3. Gregory says:

    Well, an ex-Fort Smith blogger. I go to college now, so some would call me a Fayetteville blogger. But you never know with these things….

  4. Tom says:

    I may be a bit obtuse, but it seems to me that the vast majority of so-called “red” states, counties, whatever are simply more inclined to think that they are responsible for themeselves and do not want government intrusion into their life, whereas the “blue”s solution for everything is more government nannyism – because the government can take care of you better than you can. Marx explains it more clearer, but the left would never claim that is what they are doing.

    A few years ago, I attended Toastmaster meetings, and one of the members was a member of the John Birch Society, which campaigns against Communism. I thought, “didn’t we already win this war?”. What I discovered is that it is merely recast as leftist that are hell-bent on redistributing wealth.

    I’m not sure if it is class or culture, but if more people of all sides would study the constitution, economics, and critical thinking, many issues that are “blue” or “red” would be quickly solved. Free enterprise works, and that is a fact. Free enterprise helps people escape from poverty. Make this one change in your daily habit: whenever you hear (or you say) “the government needs to spend money on…”, replace it with “I need to spend my money on…”. The point is, it is not governement money, it is OUR money. I strongly encourage everyone to read The FairTax Book – it puts many things in perspective.

    And, while I am venting, New Orleans was let down by politicians (mostly THEIR OWN politicians) for DECADES. Besides failing to build sufficient levees to protect the city from something as immediately imminent as a Cat 4 hurricane, the Big Easy has been awash in corruption for decades, and THAT is the real problem. New Orleans has more oil, better harbors and more access to the country than Houston, but Houston became a much larger and better city than New Orleans because the oil companies did not want to deal with all the kickbacks and other schemes that businesses are forced to deal with daily in the Big Easy. Run business out, and soon it is up to the government to “take care” of the poor, which means a redistribution of wealth from taxes.

    It seems to me our biggest problem with poverty, class, and race divide is simply because many politicians get re-elected and pundits get money by exploiting specific classes and races.

  5. prospero says:

    There’s enough blame on New Orleans to go around. One thing to note: Repairing and building levees in New Orleans or anywhere in the country is a job that is delegated to the federal Army Corps of Engineers. And the plain fact is that the federal government has underfunded that work, particularly during the current Bush administration.

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