Redeeming Ourselves

Michael A. Cooper, Jr.

Current Issue

If there are winners and losers in 21st-century America, I come from the losing side. Hit hard by the Great Recession and by deindustrialization, my hometown of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, has suffered one of the worst declines in the country since the new millennium. 

In 2000, when I enrolled as a freshman at Wilkes Central High School, the median income in the county was $47,992 a year. In 2014, when I came home to Wilkes to practice law, the median income was $33,398. In a county with a population of 69,000, there were 4,451 fewer jobs in manufacturing, 46 fewer retail stores, and a net loss of over $60 million in payroll. The face of the losing side of globalization, Wilkes was featured during the 2016 election on PBS NewsHour, Morning Joe, and the cover of the New York Times as a home to Americans "living among the ruins of a lapsed golden age."

But behind all the statistics and concerned news reports were real people, whose savings and way of life had been wiped out. Working-class Americans have been left behind by the brain drain, the Big Sort, the Age of Acceleration, and the Metropolitan Revolution. Worse, disconnected from each other, atomized by the internet, and ignored by the political establishment, they are now dying younger from alcoholism and addiction. The system has failed them.

So white working-class Americans in the Rust Belt and rural America sought revenge against incumbent politicians, the media, government bureaucrats, dynasties, and the ascendant coalition of minorities, single women, and college-educated millennials stealing their place in society. Their economic anxiety and cultural despair caused racial resentment and the return of illiberalism, and Donald Trump was their revenge. He won the presidency by encouraging their anger and channeling their grief into tribalism, scapegoating immigrants and refugees as the cause of complex problems beyond their control: the drug epidemic, lack of mobility, and a culture in decay.

But protectionism, xenophobia, and isolationism will not save the working class from robots and smart phones and self-driving cars. Economies built on manufacturing were destined to suffer when America transitioned to the service sector and high tech, and there were always going to be growing pains. But policymakers and elected officials underestimated the costs, and so did the Americans who experienced them.

It is well past time to address this failure, and it's going to take more than electing someone who channels people's frustrations. Progress will require new thinking and an all-hands-on-deck approach. Working-class Americans need honesty and realistic, concrete plans for the future.

I have had more luck than most, and, while I love my hometown, I don't pretend to know and understand everything that motivates my neighbors. But I do know that, in Wilkes County, in the hollows of West Virginia, in the steel towns, the bonds of community came apart, and we were powerless against the forces of globalization. The time has come to reconnect those bonds, to restore economic and political power to those who feel helpless, and to find paths forward for those who deserve new victories. We can make all of America great again if we start from the bottom up.

DECLINE AND FALL

In the 1980s and '90s, when I was growing up, Wilkes County was the very image of rural America, full of family farms on rolling countryside. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, my home of North Wilkesboro began as a railroad town in the 1890s, and by mid-century was full of factories that built a thriving middle class. It was home to the nation's largest mirror factory, and the American Furniture Company employed thousands. North Wilkesboro Hardware, founded by L. S. Lowe in 1921, ultimately became a Fortune 500 company. Apart from Lowe's, the town's claim to fame is being one of the birthplaces of NASCAR.

My family lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood. My mom taught at an elementary school, and my dad worked in the corporate headquarters of Lowe's. He read The Art of the Deal, sold Amway on the side, and dreamed of being rich. My parents were a success story. The first in their families to go to college, they were descended from farmers who settled in the mountains of North Carolina two centuries earlier. They were able to use their savings to open a small used bookstore on Main Street in North Wilkesboro, where flower stores and sandwich shops lined the streets. I grew up in the store reading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and P. J. O'Rourke, and books about the Civil War, daydreaming of life outside of a town that seemed overly peaceful. I graduated high school in the spring of 2004, when the Iraq War was in its infancy. If there were signs of wage stagnation and declining mobility, we didn't notice, as we turned our attention to distant threats of terror.

The collapse happened so slowly that no one noticed the crisis coming. There were no pitchforks or riots in the night or mass meetings in the high-school gym. There were no petitions to stop American-Drew Furniture from closing or Walmart from coming in. Banks consolidated. Lowe's moved closer to Charlotte, and my father commuted until he was laid off. The speedway was sold to an outsider who moved the race to Las Vegas.

It's easy for outsiders to miss what happened, too, even in retrospect. National Review's Kevin Williamson has blamed the dysfunction in places like Wilkes on the people themselves: "If you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy...you will come to an awful realization....Nothing happened to them." According to Williamson, the collapse of the middle class was self-inflicted by Americans "in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles."

But something did happen, even if we didn't notice at first. There is a Baptist church on every street corner in my community, and the people here were as patriotic, proud, and personally responsible as any community in the nation. The men and women in small furniture and textile towns like North Wilkesboro — and nearby Lenoir, Sparta, Taylorsville, and Elkin — helped make America the envy of the world. My neighbors earned a living with their sweat (when sweat used to pay), and they trusted their leaders to keep America on the right path. They trusted the media, the insurance companies, the president, and Congress. They didn't trade derivatives, or cause the Great Recession, or make it rich watching the global economy collapse. Maybe that was their undoing: They trusted our leaders, and they believed in America, and then America failed them.

The trend now is to blame these communities for their own failures and behavior, but the forces of consumerism and instant gratification poisoning their culture did not begin in the West Virginia coal towns now being overrun by pills. Working-class Americans were gullible, not deplorable. They bought gold coins, sugary soft drinks, products from pyramid schemes, and weapons of mass destruction, and they have every right to be angry at those who took advantage of their earnestness. The Western world went from rewarding hard work to rendering blue-collar Americans useless. Isolated from the cities, disconnected thanks to their Scots-Irish independence, atomized by new technology, and suddenly unemployed and without prospects, these former factory workers were vulnerable and abandoned, and had easy access to painkillers. So the honest, hard-working men and women who could no longer afford the American Dream became addicts and drug dealers, peddling wares from their medicine cabinets.

For many, especially those in positions to influence policy and public-investment decisions, this story is sad and abstract. I interned on Capitol Hill after college and worked as a political journalist, and Washington is very far away from Wilkes County. But it's not something that only happens to other people. Before I was a lawyer, I was an addict too.

When the economy crashed in 2008 and my father lost his job, I was partying my way through Appalachian State University. Like so many college students, my friends and I experimented with drugs, including the pills that were so easily available in western North Carolina. My best friends got hooked on painkillers and ended up in rehab, and my freshman roommate became a heroin addict. But I kept my habit a secret, slipping from recreation into self-medication. Inevitably, I couldn't control the habit, and in October of 2011, I woke up in jail during my second year of law school. I quit cold turkey, and after months of withdrawal, I finished school and returned home to practice law and help my community recover, too. My law firm occupies the same storefront on Main Street that my parents rented back in the 1990s for my mother's bookshop.

The firm was once the largest in northwest North Carolina, and the founder became a millionaire representing Lowe's. But those opportunities are gone, and I spend my days defending dads behind on child support, moms losing their kids to social services, and former cheerleaders charged with possession of drugs.

TRUMP'S AMERICANS

Wilkes County has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1868 — except when it backed Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 — but Donald Trump was especially popular in these mountains. He won nearly 76% of the vote, surpassing even the 70% Mitt Romney won.

But a far greater shift took place in formerly Democratic counties in rural parts of North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. Trump received over 72% in neighboring Alleghany County, which had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, and over 60% in the nearby Appalachian counties Haywood, Madison, and Yancey, which had also supported President Clinton. Former battleground states like Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana became Trump Country, and Appalachia became a veritable graveyard for the Democratic Party.

Democrats had been making some rhetorical gestures in the direction of the working class. "If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation," said President Obama in his farewell address, "each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'" According to Obama, that means connecting "our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change." But while such passing acknowledgements were nice, people in places like Wilkes County felt, with reason, that they had been forgotten in the midst of all the progress, their communities forsaken. Not everyone learned about the opioid epidemic and working-class despair in the Atlantic.

Appalachia was covered in homemade wooden Trump signs. Giant "Make America Great Again" banners flew from the backs of pick-up trucks, many of them driven by young adults who finally felt a connection to someone running for office. Trump's victory was not a surprise here. People who hadn't been on vacation in years no longer cared about liberal democracy or America's standing in the world; they wanted to win again, they wanted a raise, and they wanted someone who would listen. From the 1960s through the Obama presidency, these Americans lost power in their own communities, and they lost their ability to fight back. So they turned against government (and the party of affirmative government) to try to win back some respect.

If you're wondering why good, decent, patriotic Americans would turn to a candidate who represents such a radical break from the norm, you must imagine what it's like to live in a community where a generation is vanishing, and not just from overdosing. Last March, I was appointed to represent an eight-year-old girl who had been charged with assaulting her sister. When I asked the girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered without hesitation, "I'm going to drop out of school and borrow money from friends."

The girl was being raised by her aunt in a single-wide trailer down a long dirt road 20 minutes from town. On the wall were paintings of Jesus and photos of the girl's parents who were in and out of prison. The girl slept on a cot in a room with no electricity, and her aunt slept curled up on a small couch. The aunt had been laid off from a factory job several years ago, and she survived on disability, taking care of three kids who weren't hers.

"Canvas a Trump event and you'll meet people who have seen these changes up close," wrote Jamelle Bouie that month at Slate. "They are teachers, police officers, small-business owners, and city employees who hold the closest thing to middle-class jobs in rural towns and older suburbs where Trump draws his most ardent support."

"These somewhat better-off Americans have seen their friends and family fall into dependency, whether to drugs or alcohol or welfare. They are both sympathetic to this plight," Bouie wrote, "but also frustrated and angry. The country, and its leaders, made a promise: If you worked hard, you would get ahead. But that didn't happen. Instead, for millions of Americans, it was the reverse: They worked hard and fell behind." White working-class Americans in Appalachia, the rural South, and declining parts of the Rust Belt felt abandoned by conventional politics and powerless in a rapidly changing world.

Donald Trump offered easy solutions to complex problems and victories to people who wanted to win again. He blamed China, Mexico, and Muslims, and offered forgotten people meaning in tribalism, white-identity politics, authoritarianism, and America First. And it's no wonder they went for it, especially since the other candidate on the ballot found these Americans deplorable, irredeemable, and unworthy of her time.

The election of Donald Trump should be seen as a wake-up call, a moment when millions of Americans realized they deserved better than decline. And that's a good thing. Trump's election was about restoring control in a globalized world. The desire to devolve power is the right instinct, but there are right and wrong ways to empower forgotten men and women.

Devolving power is not about dissolving the world order. Abandoning NATO and institutions that have kept the peace for half a century is not the way to give citizens control over their destiny, and withdrawing from the world will only make Americans less safe and less prosperous. Protectionism will not save them from automation; nativism will not restore prosperity; and a wall along the southern border will not stop the drugs or the dependency.

To his credit, President Trump is drawing attention to the opioid crisis that plagues communities like Wilkes. But there is a great deal more going on. These Americans were broken by progress, and they needed to grieve after losing their jobs, or their savings, or their communities. But the time has come to reach out to these forgotten Americans, to forgive their mistakes, to re-engage them in society, and to give them a role to play in their own recovery.

Americans must exercise their own authority and responsibility from the bottom up after decades of sitting on the sidelines and celebrating the victories of past generations. And after the plant closings, the downsizings, the layoffs, and the foreclosures, they are ready to organize, mobilize, and rebuild their communities from scratch. Here on the streets of southern Appalachia, where national reporters find only anxiety, I'm finding heroes and resilience.

AN AMERICAN RECOVERY

On the morning of October 12th, weeks before the election, I turned on the television to see MSNBC's Jacob Soboroff standing a couple of blocks away. He was live on Morning Joe reporting on an economy "really struggling," with my firm and mom's store (now located a few doors down) in the background on Main Street. He cut to interviews with students at the community college who couldn't wait to leave town, and a middle-aged man in a Dale Earnhardt hat sadly gazing at the speedway. "I doubt it will ever be what it once was," he said of North Wilkesboro. "Not in my lifetime."

But I don't agree. The decline of North Wilkesboro and the collapse of Middle America were caused by a transition from one economy to the next and the resulting inequalities. But we know what to do next because a painful transformation on this scale happened a century ago during the transition from agriculture to manufacturing.

The people of North Wilkesboro are digging in and investing in their community. Now, 200 feet from the original Lowe's Home Improvement store, a start-up called Anchor Coffee is roasting beans and building community from the basement of an empty store. Anchor is restoring a sense of place and fellowship among millennials by hosting art shows and book signings, and offering a place for them to play ping-pong during their lunch breaks from the Lowe's call center — the last remaining office of the company in Wilkesboro.

With luck and investment and citizens who opt to buy locally, Anchor Coffee will be the next Lowe's. Small towns didn't stop producing talent in their education systems; they just started losing their smartest kids to other places. "It creates big beautiful cities, but people my age need to make a greater effort to help the place they're from," says Nick Cirillo, a 19-year-old who dropped out of college to take advantage of the recovering real-estate market in Wilkes. "I thought Trump was the lesser of two evils in the election, but we can't wait on a strongman to rebuild. It's going to come down to people taking initiative locally." Cirillo also recently founded a nonprofit to mentor disadvantaged youth.

But Nick Cirillos are few and far between, and there is simply not enough leadership in the mountains of North Carolina, in coal country, the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, and the small towns of the rural South. There's a void of leadership on town councils, county commissions, planning boards, local economic-development corporations, and the boards of nonprofits. The best and brightest millennials went off to college and never came back, and now their hometowns are struggling because there isn't enough energy to rebuild.

When no leadership is exercised on the ground, voters wait on national solutions, and when those solutions never come, they turn to demagogues. And it's going to happen again and again, no matter what happens with the Trump presidency, if we don't rebuild the broken parts of our nation. Trump is the symbol of a dysfunctional political system, and the only way to restore that system is to restore trust in public service by making politics work at the local level — by participating in grassroots democracy and attending community meetings.

We need to ask talented young people to take responsibility for the places they grew up. We should start building lasting connections by engaging kids who are still at home, giving students public responsibilities while they're still in high school. We should provide incentives for college graduates to come home to teach school or start a business. In Wilkes County, less than 13% of adults over the age of 25 have a four-year college degree, and we need college-educated millennials to come home to contribute to the economy with the power of their ideas.

But the economy also has to work for those who don't have a college degree, so we must prioritize the working class in policies and decision-making. What working-class Americans need are not tariffs; they need jobs that pay a middle-class wage. The easiest way to create those jobs is by creating apprenticeships that lead to those jobs — offering training not in a classroom accessible only through unaffordable tuition, but on the job. We should be training the next generation of electricians, pipefitters, pharmacy techs, welders, and brick masons that way, with wages tied to proficiency and a greater likelihood of full-time employment. State and local governments should invest in such apprenticeship programs to give the kids who don't go to college the chance to climb into the middle class.

This is the kind of wise public spending that empowers citizens instead of pushing them further into apathy. The U.S. spends just $500 million annually on Trade Adjustment Assistance (there is no federal automation assistance) but $143 billion on benefits for disability. Because the disability check is often the only support available when unemployment benefits run out, we're paying Americans to drop out of the workforce. Every week I meet clients who embellish injuries to apply for disability. When they're turned down, they apply again. And you can't blame them when the only other option is minimum wage behind the counter of the Dollar General with no prospect for advancement.

Policymakers should reopen the doors to the middle class by providing wage offsets for workers displaced by automation and trade, by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and by bolstering the safety net in ways that encourage work without punishing mistakes.

Americans aren't perfect, especially those trying to rebuild their lives, and it's time to forgive those who fell from grace by ending the war on drugs, shifting addicts from the criminal-justice system into recovery, and expanding opportunities to expunge the records of non-violent criminals. Across the country, working-class Americans of every race and culture are caught in a cycle of addiction and jail that costs taxpayers more than it would to rehabilitate them and teach them how to become productive members of society. And that has to change.

But we must also be honest with ourselves about why it is so hard to find a job in the service economy that pays a living wage. Often the reason why small businesses struggle is not taxes or regulations, but that they can't compete against the corporate monopolies that have taken over the economy. My mother's bookstore has stood on Main Street for over 30 years, and it's going to close sooner rather than later because she can't compete with Amazon. This system won't work for the next generation, who will not get a chance to start their own businesses.

Reviving antitrust law is the most overlooked tool for helping Trump's Americans. And there is an emerging coalition across the left and right that sees economic consolidation as the greatest threat to freedom and democracy in modern America. But the prospects for meaningful action toward breaking up the banks and Facebook and Comcast during the Trump administration are bleak. So the restoration of economic vitality in small-town America must start in those towns themselves, through innovation and entrepreneurship and embracing what is unique about each individual community.

Counties and municipalities must become experimental governments willing to adopt the policies of New Urbanism that have made American cities so attractive recently. Instead of providing tax incentives to lure corporate chains, they should invest in green space and walkable streets, high-speed broadband, and community land trusts to convert blighted property into retail space and affordable housing.

North Wilkesboro lost Lowe's and NASCAR because decisions were made to benefit shareholders and CEOs and not the workers who lived in the community. So now North Wilkesboro is making its own decisions. The citizens are rebuilding the town's economy by turning an old mill into condos, and Key City Furniture into an antique store and a distillery selling legal moonshine. And more jobs are going to come back.

But the lesson of North Wilkesboro is to make the economy sustainable from one generation to the next and to give citizens greater economic responsibility. In small-town America, we need a culture of workplace democracy where the average employee has a say in his wages and benefits through a work council or worker-cooperative business model. Americans who want to regain control won't get it by abandoning trade deals but by making the service economy pay the wages workers deserve.

Americans want respect. They want their dignity back. They want opportunity and the chance to pursue happiness. And there is no better way to make the country great again than by reconnecting the incomes of Americans to the amount of work they're willing to put in; it will change their lives forever and stop millions of Americans from giving up.

REDEEMING OURSELVES

For years there was no outlet for the frustrations and grievances of forgotten Americans, no town-hall meetings or neighborhood petitions or community organizing, and the pent-up feelings of anger eventually led to the election of Donald Trump — because, like them, he sounded angry.

Trump was about revenge. He was a middle finger to the elites, the establishment, elected officials, and everyone else who took them for granted or left them behind. But revenge is not recovery. It's not a set of policies that will make life better.

There is no shortage of plans for rebuilding the middle class, ranging from infrastructure spending to a universal basic income to reforming the tax code and America's education system. But in order for those solutions to work, they must pass Congress, and to pass Congress they must overcome years of gridlock and partisanship resulting from a growing rural-urban divide, in addition to the divides based on culture, race, and education. 

Americans will not trust their leaders in Washington to compromise wisely or to tackle big challenges until they start to believe again in politics as a way to solve problems. The political system has to work on the ground before Americans will trust it to work on Capitol Hill.

And that's why the real rebuilding will not begin in Washington but at the local level, by restoring the bonds of community and the middle layers of society through subsidiarity and a recommitment to PTA meetings, church fellowship, and civic participation.

Millions of Americans deserve a second chance. This nation was founded by those who wished to start over, and we love a comeback story. But communities like mine must learn to win again the right way. Revenge is not the solution. The solution is redemption. And redemption starts at home.

Michael A. Cooper, Jr., is a journalist and an attorney at the McElwee Firm in his hometown of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He was a 2015 New Leaders Council Fellow in North Carolina. 


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