by Ron Fournier
It’s almost noon, almost time for what drew Carey Youngblood and his pals to the abandoned General Motors plant. Hands tucked deep in dirty jeans pockets, the factory men stomp their feet to stay warm as the countdown begins.
(Ten … Nine …)
Youngblood, a stocky 47-year-old with 13 years at GM, eyes the plant’s soot-stained smokestack, the name Chevrolet emblazoned in vertical lettering. “My daddy and daddy’s daddy were Democrats,” Youngblood says, “but I wouldn’t claim either party right now.”
Terry Terrell nods his head. “Politicians sold us out.”
Billy Dugger ends the small talk. “I blame politics,” he says, “for what’s happening here today.”
(Seven … Six …)
Carey, Terry and Billy are the last sweaty stewards of the industrial age. For decades, men and women like them graduated from high school on Friday and reported to the plant on Monday, their bargains struck quietly with a society that rewarded manual labor with decent wages, health insurance, tuition, pensions, mortgages and – with overtime pay, thank you – a boat and cottage.
“Almost time,” Terry warns, glancing at his watch.
They’ve lived their entire lives in a town emblematic of Middle America. Muncie has been known as “Middletown” since a husband-and-wife team of sociologists moved there in the 1920s to study how the nation’s transition from a farm society to an industrial economy affected how people live, work, play, worship, raise families and view politics. Eight decades later, Muncie is again lurching from one era to the next, with its anxious people craving a new brand of politics that offer accountability, security, competence and hope – all things that seem lacking in their world.
Carey and his pals are lost in transition between a brawny past and an uncertain future, and they’re not alone.
(Three … Two …)
This year’s presidential candidates have talked a lot about change – as something to be embraced, as something to be desired. But there’s been far less talk about the kind of wrenching changes that have strained the fabric of Muncie – and America.
So let’s view U.S. politics through the prism of its fast-changing culture. Let’s visit Muncie for a fresh perspective on the tumult of the 2008 election: the clamor for post-partisan politics; the yawing gap between haves and have-nots; the growing number of independent voters; the public’s loss of faith in government and the widespread belief that the country is on the wrong track.
Politics is only part of the story, the stuff of small talk between life’s rude interludes. Still, if you want to understand how Americans are voting in 2008, come see how they live – and have lived – in Middletown.
BOOM! The explosion jolts Terry’s eyes from his watch to a spot 190 feet in the air where the “C” meets the “H” in good-ol’ Chevrolet. Billy sucks in a cold rush of air – “Whew!” – and Carey’s jaw goes slack.
With a pitiful plume of dust, the smokestack collapses upon itself so that the C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T briefly spells out H-E-R-T. Carey, Terry and Billy wince as the structure loses its struggle with gravity and tilts ponderously to the left. In the two beats it takes Billy to cry softly – “No! No!” – the smokestack crumbles into a heap of concrete and steel, joining the months-old mountains of scrap where a factory once stood. Across the street, three dozen Muncie old-timers honk their car horns in one-note salutes.
Opened in 1935 and closed in 2006, the place where 3,400 men and women once carved out their lives is no more.
“Our time is up,” Billy says.
With one foot planted firmly in the industrial age and another stepping gingerly into the 21st century, the 60,000 residents of this eastern Indiana city are no match for the forces of change – an information-based economy; technologies that make life simpler and more complicated; new ways of communicating and connecting; the rise of two-income families; and vast immigration and migration.
Change is tough. It causes people to feel anxious and afraid and out of control. Oddly, in an era of burgeoning choice – remember when we had just three TV networks and no Sam’s Clubs? – Americans sense that they’re losing power over their destinies, that their options are shrinking.
And so they are drawn to institutions and leaders offering at least the mirage of empowerment or clarity – a megachurch preacher’s book (Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life”), a corporate brand (Nike’s “Just do it!”), a political leader’s message (Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!”).
Listen to Howie Snider, a former Marine pilot and failed restaurateur with ties to the famed Middletown studies. “When I was growing up in Muncie, there was a great middle-class way of life and everything was black and white. Now, it’s become this gray blob – a very large area of gray and it confuses me,” Snider says. “I miss my blacks and whites.”
Is it any wonder that less than a quarter of Americans think their country is on the right track, one of the lowest readings ever recorded? Of swing voters – those who will determine the next president – only about 15 percent believe the next generation will be better off, and half think the next generation will be worse off. Almost two-thirds of all voters say the two major parties are failing, and 8 of 10 voters would consider supporting an independent this year.
Blame politicians for the malaise, but don’t stop there. The roots run deeper. Ask a lifelong Republican like Snider why he may vote independent in November, or not at all, and he’ll reply with a list of “significant developments in U.S. society”: McDonald’s (introduced an on-demand, hurry-up lifestyle); the Internet (brought the world to our living rooms); Wal-Mart (hastened the global economy); working mothers (restructured the family).
Only as an afterthought, he adds: “lousy, crooked politics.”
It is the bitterness of the times, not just the cynicism of the politicians, that is souring people on politics.
“If you want to grow and flourish in a flat world, you better learn to change and align yourself with it.”
Those words glow from a projection screen on the second floor of the Ball State University library, where Tatiana Kolovou is clapping her hands far too joyfully for an 8:30 a.m. seminar on culture shock in the workplace. The quote is from Thomas Friedman’s seminal book on globalization in the 21st century, “The World Is Flat,” and Kolovou’s audience is entranced.
She is a Greek immigrant and newly minted U.S. citizen who consults with businesses about how to prepare employees for a “flat” world, where once-dominant America is competing against rising nations on an increasingly level playing field.
“You must know how to interact with other people around the world and other places because we’re no longer isolated in our little personal cocoons – our families, our towns, our counties, our country,” Kolovou tells two dozen Ball State staff. “We are a small part of a global community, like it or not.”
In other words, the world is getting smaller … so get over it. Hers is not a lesson about how to outpace the Chinese and other global competitors, but rather how to work with them: Don’t be loud, don’t be rude, and don’t crowd them.
Don’t fight it, people. Be a good global citizen – or else.
It’s a message that brings a hint of melancholy to the voice of Marchal Armstead, a human resources expert at Ball State who says she hates to see the good factory jobs leave Muncie. “But facts is facts,” she says with a shrug. “We need to play the cards we’ve been dealt.”
What made Kolovou’s seminar remarkable, other than its blunt acceptance of an uncomfortable reality, is that it took place just a few blocks from the abandoned General Motors plant, across the meandering White River that roughly divides the city in half – north from industrial south, one era from another.
To the north is Ball State and Ball Memorial Hospital, each employing almost as many people who worked at the shuttered GM plant at its peak. The university is home to 20,000 students, most of whom will bolt Muncie for opportunities elsewhere. The median household income in the Ball State ZIP code is about $45,000, twice the figure in neighborhoods south of the river.
Is it any wonder that globalization and economic inequality are political issues this year?
And money is only half the story.
The students and residents on the north side of town are plugged in to the Internet. The $21 million David Letterman Communication and Media Building houses the cutting-edge Center for Media Design, a development and research facility that explores “how digital technology will touch the way we live, learn, work and play.”
Wireless modems are fixtures at high-priced coffee shops. Students make and nurture friendships through Facebook and other social networking sites. An “over 30” singles club meets in a suburban bar, organized via Meetup.com.
Union Chapel Ministries, a megachurch located near the Muncie Mall, offers a coffee bar, a bookstore, a counseling center and scores of social clubs (from “midlife singles” to the “cooking interest group”) for 2,000 worshipers on a $2.75 million budget.
“These are anxious times, and in anxious times people look for a sense of community and a sense of purpose,” says executive pastor Dave Neckers. “When the world seems to be going topsy-turvy, a place like this helps bring a bit of order to life.”
James Connolly, director for Middletown Studies at Ball State, says the new economy poses a threat to everybody, but people like him gravitate toward networks of professionals who can help each other find jobs and otherwise cope.
“We’ve got shock absorbers against the wild ride,” he says. “But if you’re a guy laid off from a car factory, you’ve got few ties to the wider world to help cushion the blow and that’s unsettling. So you’re looking for a leaders with direct, concrete answers. No spin. A bit of authenticity.”
Listen to the GM men listing the names of friends who’ve left for new factory towns:
“Well, there’s the Garrett boys,” Terry says. “They’re in Bowling Green.”
“Ron Boatman. Good man.”
“Gary Barker. Tennessee.”
“Gene Snelling. What was his wife’s name? Made a good loaf of bread.”
Let’s pause to consider what this means. Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” says economics are not the only thing that divides 21st century winners and losers. “There is a growing community gap, too,” he says. “People of less means are more skeptical of institutions, more pessimistic about their future and less connected to others. The very type of people who need a safety net that a social network provides are the most likely among us to see that network frayed.”
Not that long ago, the men working in Muncie’s factories knew the man who signed their checks; he was the founder or a member of the founding family. But at some point in the 1970s or ’80s, the company went national and the shots were called from Detroit. After a time, a multinational corporation took over, and job cuts came from Europe.
“So these folks have lost control of where they live and who they work for,” Connolly sums up. “It’s that loss of control that informs their world view and their politics.”
Back at the GM plant, Carey and his pals are playing a sad new name game: They’re counting companies that abandoned Muncie and whose factories still stand – south of the river – like skeletons in a dinosaur museum.
BorgWarner. Ball Corp. Indiana Bridge. Broderick Co. Delco. Indiana Steel and Wire. Westinghouse.
“Those places are being replaced by small factories and service jobs that pay $8 an hour,” says Jerry Barrett, who works at the BorgWarner transfer case plant scheduled to be shuttered soon. “How the hell am I supposed to live on $8 an hour?”
Not well. Many laid-off workers draw nearly full pay thanks to GM’s contract with the United Auto workers, a relic of the era’s heyday. What happens when the benefits expire?
“They want $30-an-hour factory job, $15-an-hour benefits packages. No continuing education. They want it just like their grandparents had it, just like some of their parents had it.”
That’s Muncie Mayor Shirley McShurley’s blunt assessment of her south-side constituents. During the fall campaign, she says, “I really wanted to say, ‘Are you watching the news?’ ”
McShurley is not callous, just pragmatic. She has lived both sides of the Muncie divide, a single-mother-turned-politician who ousted a south-side Democratic incumbent to take office Jan. 1.
McShurley acknowledges that she was less than honest during the campaign: She promised Muncie new jobs, but didn’t say what kind – and only now is she telling voters that the $30-an-hour factory life is gone forever. In its place: a high-tech workplace that comes with no guarantees and requires training.
Her job is to provide those opportunities. Her challenge to constituents: Stop living in the past.
“I think deep down inside, people know that,” the mayor says. “But … people want to take the easier route, and it’s easy to take your benefits and hope that they last for quite a while.”
McShurley, who minored in sociology at Ball State, notes that people struggled a century ago when they had to abandon farms, move to cities and work in factories.
This is what sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd saw in 1924 when they moved to Muncie to study an era of change. Their 1929 book, “Middletown,” found that Muncie residents – and by implication, most Americans – were living in two different centuries, struggling to adjust to rapid industrialization while fiercely clinging to the quaint values of 19th century America.
“A citizen has one foot on the relatively solid ground of established institutional habits, and another foot fast to an escalator erratically moving in several directions at a bewildering variety of speeds,” the Lynds wrote.
New technologies created a paradox: The automobile, for example, gave people mobility, but it also increased teenage promiscuity in the 1920s because youngsters roamed free of adult supervision.
People sought new ways to connect: When barn raisings and knitting circles grew obsolete, friendships between neighbors declined until fraternal organizations such as the Rotary Club filled the void.
Economic expansion left many behind: The division between working and business-class people “constitutes the outstanding cleavage in Middletown” and America, the Lynds wrote.
And what of politics?
As the industrial age took hold, the Lynds found that Muncie voters were increasingly cynical toward government, with politicians considered no better than crooks. Voting turnout dropped by nearly half in 1924, despite the recent passage of woman’s suffrage.
Americans in general had lost faith in almost every institution – government, business, churches and charities. They gravitated toward politicians who stood for things lacking in themselves or society: Teddy Roosevelt’s authenticity, bully spirit and defiance of partisan paradigms; William Howard Taft’s ruthlessly efficient war on trusts; and Woodrow Wilson’s steady hand during World War I.
Leadership that offers honesty and inspiration, that shields us from foreign threats, that fixes problems and evens the economic playing field. Is that not what we crave today?
The dust has settled. Carey, Bill, Terry and the boys stare into the suddenly empty, steel-blue sky and their trembling voices become one.
“A way of life – and in five seconds it’s gone.”
“We’re the past.”
“It’s not just us, people. It’s everybody in this godforsaken country.”
And, finally, Terry:
“An end of an era.”
Actually, it’s not. If only it were that simple.