You might recall from a few months ago my linking to this great essay about “A Message From Trump’s America” by Michael Cooper, a liberal Democrat and a lawyer in rural North Carolina. Excerpt:
My Republican friends are for Trump. My state representative is for Trump. People who haven’t voted in years are for Trump. He’ll win the primary here on March 15 and he will carry this county in the general.
His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.
When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.
Trump won’t win the presidency, of course. If he’s nominated conservatives will walk out of the Cleveland convention in July and run a third ticket candidate, and there are not enough disaffected white males in Pennsylvania or Ohio to make up for the independent women who would vote for Hillary Clinton in November. But the two parties can no longer afford to ignore Trump’s America.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from him, which I publish below, with his permission:
I was wondering your thoughts on morality and the cause of working-class decline? I was rather frustrated reading Kevin Williamson’s NRO piece blaming the dysfunction on their own lack of morals:
“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles…If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization…Nothing happened to them…The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”
Not that these things aren’t happening. But that there’s more to the story. I was the one who did that piece on “Trump’s America” you cited, and every morning I see the dysfunction first hand. Just this month I’ve represented a fifteen-year-old with sores on his face and a swastika on his wrist whose first words to me in the holding cell after a three week meth binge were, “Man I need a cold beer.” A few days later I represented an eight-year-old girl (charged for assault as a juvenile) whose life ambition is to “drop out of high school and borrow money from friends.”
These kids never had a chance. There have always been poor people. But this is something new. The meth. The drugs. The self-destruction. The dissatisfaction. The despair. It’s real, and contrary to Williamson’s beliefs, something caused it besides laziness. There’s a Baptist church on every street corner in my community and we’ve voted Republican as a county in every election since 1868. So it’s not just our own morality that’s the problem.
People got rich off our decline. They sold us the Iraq war and prescribed everyone OxyContin and then blamed us for buying it. Williamson blames only the folks applying for disability and dropping out of society but it’s time someone called out the Sacklers of the world too. Because they’re not blameless. – SO yes, I do think a lack of moral is part of our decline. But we didn’t start it. The greed, the self-interest, the instant gratification, the turn towards reality television and social media instead of community and real interaction, those have real world consequences, and the ripples didn’t start in Appalachia.
I blogged about KDW’s essay here and here. I half agreed with him. I agreed that culture and character have a great deal to do with why many people are poor, or stay poor. But I disagreed with him that they were always to blame for their own condition, and I said that those who have done well in life owe something to those who have fallen through (though I didn’t specify what, or how much; it depends; I’m talking about a disposition towards charity).
Mike and I had a further e-mail exchange. He later wrote:
My town is twenty minutes from where Andy Griffith grew up. The real life Mayberry. It’s the next county over. Last month there was a national reporter going around town doing interviews like we’re a war zone. Mayberry is ground zero of society’s fall. Who saw that coming?
Last Thursday I go into the gas station, and this young girl comes in, probably mid-20s, in a very nice dress, desperately in need of cigarettes. Obviously on meth. Otherwise she’d be very pretty.
She’s so frantic and anxious that the line lets her cut. As she walks out we all just stand there. Silent. Not even shocked. Just sad.
Humanity has always had problems. Slavery, etc… But this is something new. Man is not made to act like that.
There’s no coming back. The window of going from meth addict to Doctor/CEO is small. Everything would have to go right. It won’t.
I think the breakdown of values comes so much from the breakdown of interaction. I read this article recently and found it helpful: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html. It’s about isolation as the cause of addiction. Two rat groups are used. Both with access to drugs. One group is isolated. The other gets to interact with one another. One group tries the drugs and never goes back. The other gets hooked. You can guess which one.
I guess it makes sense. Folks in Appalachia are isolated, (and by nature of the scots-Irish heritage) independent minded. And meth/pills are tearing us apart. There must be a connection.
But how do we restore community in the iPhone age? When everyone in the room, the elevator, the car, is looking down? I don’t know.
I think people also lost power over their own lives to big institutions: They have to wait on hold to talk to their bank. Their own job is in a call center (it’s the new middle class employment here). They didn’t grow or hunt their food. They don’t know their neighbors. And that can’t be good for the soul.
I’m optimistic in the long run. But I’m not sure we’ve hit bottom.
Technology changes society too fast to debate the consequences. But the dawn of the Industrial Age brought decadence too. So eventually we’ll make this work. At least I hope.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that Mike Cooper ought to write a book about this.
The lines of his that sticks with me are:
Humanity has always had problems. Slavery, etc… But this is something new. Man is not made to act like that.
That’s true. This made me think about how when I was a kid, people had it harder, economically, than they do now. But we didn’t have this. When my folks were little, many people in our rural county were poor. But we didn’t have this. That’s why I’m skeptical when people blame only the lack of good jobs for our current situation. That’s part of it, no doubt, but not all of it. Poverty does not require moral squalor.
Some people blame the decline of religiosity for our situation. That’s part of it too, I think, but not the whole thing. In Latin America, Pentecostals and Evangelicals are doing so well evangelizing the Catholics in part because for whatever reason or reasons, indolent, womanizing, drunkard, nominally Catholic men are finding in that robust form of Protestantism the wherewithal to change and take responsibility for their lives. So that is evidence that religion itself doesn’t make a difference, but the form and substance of the religion does.
But African-Americans are much more religious, and religiously engaged, than the average American, yet the black church hasn’t made much of a difference in the out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community — and that’s a powerful predictor of poverty. Unlike black Christians, white working-class Americans are falling away from the church:
The decline in church attendance among the non-college-educated matches a decline in stable work opportunities and in marriage among the working class, [sociologist W. Bradford] Wilcox said. All three factors interact with one another: Churchgoers are more likely to get married in the first place. Less stable employment might mean you don’t make the leap into marriage, and the unmarried are less likely to attend church. Lack of a steady job might also cause people to shy away from a church community, Wilcox said.
“This instability they’re feeling in the work force spills over into their family lives and into their ability to plug into religious communities,” he said.
Whether the retreat from religion is a good or bad thing depends on your opinion about religion, Wilcox said. He’s concerned, however.
“Religious institutions have often been sources of support and solidarity for working-class Americans,” he said. “I think it does spell yet more trouble for this portion of the population.”
If the Christianity preached is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then it’s not hard to see why working-class people feel alienated for spiritualized pep talks for the middle class.
Still, the decline of a more morally demanding form of Christianity can only explain part of it.
I think Mike Cooper is onto something, talking about isolation and social atomization as being at the root of this. Three years ago, I blogged here about the loss of a sense of the common good in contemporary life. Excerpt:
[Timothy] Noah faults modern conservatives for undermining the sense of the commons by viewing everything through the lens of the market. Of course he has a point. Much less remarked on, however, is how modern liberals have done the same thing, by undermining a common moral sense — this, by placing a high priority on individualism and liberty in personal behavior. It becomes harder and harder to appeal to common standards of behavior, much less to enforce them, because they do not exist as they once did.
We learn to tolerate or to ignore behavior that used to be frowned on and stigmatized because we don’t want to pass judgment. I’m thinking at the moment about how discourteously many people behave in public, as if they owe no respect to others around them. As if they were free to do exactly as they pleased. As if self-assertion and display were their right. I’m speaking very generally, but if there are no common standards — and those common standards will vary from culture to culture — it becomes difficult to maintain common spaces. If the common good is only thought of as the sum total of all the individual goods, the commons becomes a problematic concept.
In the early 1990s, it was thought that “public/private” places like Universal’s CityWalk would be the coming thing. Remember that? It was a facsimile of a three-block urban commercial landscape — sidewalks, street cafes, etc. — that was supposed to be an idealized version of the city. It was clean, safe, and … well, it was weird. It was like an outdoor mall. The idea was that it looked and felt like an actual city street, but because it was on private property, it was much easier to police by keeping the antisocial element out. One can see the attraction, in principle, of such a place, however ersatz the execution, but there’s no denying that a place like CityWalk is a defeat for the commons. If we are thought so incapable of governing ourselves that the only safe and desirable places to gather together are spaces under private ownership, then we have lost something precious.
Anyway, it’s interesting to think about how contemporary individualism, in both its left-wing and right-wing expressions, has worked to liberate the individual at the expense of the commons. It’s in our American cultural DNA. I think we’re all complicit in this; I know I am. It’s easy for us to look at people who don’t share our convictions or tastes and think that they should give up this or that individualist practice for the sake of the common good, but it’s hard to look at ourselves and decide what we should be willing to sacrifice for the same goal.
I’m a strong proponent of the liberty to homeschool, as you know, but there can be no doubt that choosing to opt out of the schools to which most in one’s community attend weakens the sense of the commons. But I think the good obtained by homeschooling is worth it, and I’m willing to fight for the liberty to homeschool. You have your own sacred individualist cows, for which you can surely make good arguments. I keep going back to Alan Ehrenhalt’s great book The Lost City, in which he calls out all of us on this point. Ehrenhalt says most people want the close-knit feeling of community and common purpose we used to have in this country 60 or more years ago, but very few of us are willing to accept the strong limits on personal behavior and consumer choice that are inseparable from the strong sense of the commons we shared. If everybody is prepared to be part of the commons, but only on their own terms, then it’s hard to say we have a real sense of the commons. We like to think of ourselves as citizens, but really, aren’t most of us really just consumers?
The cost of liberty is solidarity, it seems. Very few of us are not implicated in this. But the dynamic seems impossible to stop. One of the core reasons for my Benedict Option project is to build some kind of resistance to these destructive, atomizing forces. I doubt they can be turned back, but if we can figure out how to ride the crest of this tsunami, we might make it to solid grown when the wave expires.