• U.S.

Middle Of The Road

17 minute read
Joe Klein

On a lovely Friday evening in September, in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, a group of neighbors got together to talk about their country. They were Republicans, Democrats and independents–the sort of people who keep up with the news of the day, always vote and often decide the winners of presidential elections. I asked them what was on their minds.

“Civility,” said Jane Miller, a Democrat. “We can’t seem to have a reasonable conversation about anything anymore, and it reaches right down here to our neighborhood. We’re having this really ugly fight about deer. We’re overrun with them. Some people want to kill the deer, others don’t, and then there’s a third group that wants to sterilize them. The argument has gotten really vile. People are acting crazy.”

“Sterilizing deer is crazy,” said Ed Hindert, a retired businessman. “You’ve got people out of work, the government running a deficit, and people want to spend money to sterilize … deer?”

I nudged them toward the question of national incivility. “It all started with Newt Gingrich and the way he ran the Congress in the 1990s,” said Bart Sullivan, an attorney who described himself as a moderate Democrat. “And now there’s the Tea Party. The willful ignorance is incredible. They don’t believe in global warming. They want to cut expenditures in the middle of a deep recession. How do you fight this anymore?”

I asked if there were any Tea Party supporters in the room. “I am,” said Dan Amsden, the president of a systems-control firm. “The Tea Party is all about fiscal responsibility,” he said and launched into a lecture about the vagaries of taxation, constitutionality, Nancy Pelosi, the Department of Education. It went on. Soon, Sullivan challenged him, and the two of them began wrangling back and forth, heatedly. The 20 or so people in the room watched this in silence, as if it were Hannity or Hardball.

All of which had taken 15 minutes. But Amsden had now assumed a certain dominance. He wasn’t particularly loud or angry–he was quite intelligent, in fact–but he was persistent. He had views on everything. As we moved from topic to topic, Amsden always had a theory. There were others who spoke, but much of the group, especially the other Republicans in the room, lapsed into silence. Afterward, I took an informal survey of the silent Republicans, all of them men, and found that they didn’t agree with Amsden’s views. They were more traditional conservatives. I asked one why he didn’t speak up, and he said, “I don’t like to get involved in public disputes.”

I: How to Build a Megaphone

The meeting in St. Louis–one of dozens of conversations I had during a 19-day road trip, south to north through the middle of the country–seemed a perfect metaphor for our national conversation: noisy activists, like the Tea Partyers and the anti–Wall Street protesters, were sucking the oxygen out of the room. And yet most of the meetings I attended, which were organized by TIME readers and CNN viewers, were not like that at all. They were populated by self-described traditional conservatives and moderate Democrats. Tea Partisans like Amsden were rare, although I did attend one Patriot Party meeting in Texarkana, Ark., in which Mitt Romney Republicanism was universally shunned. (Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Herman Cain were the candidates of choice.) Old-fashioned liberals were nowhere to be found; the Wall Street protest movement hadn’t yet made the radar screen, although there was more anti–Wall Street bailout and anticorporate sentiment among the Texarkana Tea Partyers than among any Democrats I spoke with. Sullivan, the moderate Democrat who challenged Amsden, was typically cautious about government spending. “A lot of the stuff [Lyndon Johnson] tried in the Great Society ran amok,” he said.

But the fascination with the Tea Party was universal; it was the dominant topic of conversation. Most people viewed the phenomenon with a mixture of horror and admiration. They opposed most Tea Party policies and were appalled by the bellicose rhetoric, but they were impressed by the fact that average Americans had built themselves a large enough megaphone to get the attention of the politicians in Washington. Unlike the Wall Street protesters, the Tea Partisans have been clear about their agenda. Their congressional caucus staged the moral equivalent of a sit-down strike for smaller government–and escaped much of the blame for the resulting gridlock, which most people I spoke with placed at the feet of President Obama and congressional leaders. “The two parties can’t come to a consensus even when the solution is obvious,” said Jim Phillips, president of the Arkansas State Dental Association, who introduced me to some of his members over dinner at a country club in Jonesboro. He was talking about the federal deficit. The obvious solution, universally supported by everyone I spoke with except the Tea Partyers, was some variation of the $3 trillion deal that the President and House Speaker John Boehner nearly reached in July, with a mix of higher taxes and spending cuts.

“The Tea Party changed everything,” said Billy Tarpley, who works for the dental association. “They said all the things people wanted to hear in last year’s elections. A lot of it was coffee-shop talk”–the crazy, ill-informed stuff people growl about at the local caf. As a result, he added, “Nothing’s getting done. I want to say to the Tea Party folks, You are now them!” There was a general sense that Tea Party mania was simmering down. “I used to think I was a libertarian,” said Drew Ramey, who also works for the dentists. “I wanted government to get off our backs. But I guess I’m getting a little older. I like my roads now. I like my public services.”

II: Sanity in the Heartland

Ramey’s ability to stand back, look at himself and laugh was refreshingly common among the people I interviewed. On last year’s road trip, the fear and anguish, the sense of American collapse was still raw. But last year I traveled through the Rust Belt and talked to people whose home values had tanked, whose neighbors had lost their jobs. This year I met more of the small-business people mythologized by the Republican Party, and I traveled through a more conservative part of the country. The people I encountered were a diverse group–I met with Latino activists in Laredo, on the Mexican border, and with a black women’s book club in Texas–but there was a common, contemplative thread, as if Americans had been coming to terms with the scope of the economic disaster and trying to figure out what sort of expectations were reasonable for themselves, their children and the country. It seemed a quiet revival of the Great Silent Majority, grappling with drastic new circumstances. Their commentary was far more reasoned and thoughtful than the breathless tide of sensationalism and vitriol that passes for discourse on talk radio and the cable news networks.

Indeed, a new TIME poll reflects the fierce sense of civility and moderation, and deep concern about the country’s future, that I found all along the way. There is an overwhelming sense–81% of those surveyed–that America is on the wrong track, 71% believe the country is in decline, 60% believe the media and politicians don’t reflect their view of what’s really important, and a staggeringly wonderful 89% believe that politicians should compromise on major issues like the deficit rather than take a hard line. Nearly three-quarters think there should be higher taxes for millionaires. Only 11% identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party; 25% say they’re angry, but 70% describe themselves merely as upset or concerned about the country.

The Americans I spoke with were not rutted in ideology; they were open to new ideas. The black women in Austin had been watching the Republican presidential debates, and one of them, a lawyer, said she was interested in former Senator Rick Santorum’s notion of eliminating corporate income taxes on manufacturers. “That might get things moving again,” she said, and none of the other women disputed her. The Arkansas dentists thought George W. Bush should have imposed a tax to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was tolerance for the President–outside of Planet Tea Party, where the most disgraceful and, dare I say, un-American insinuations still fester. Obama is assumed to be intelligent and honest. He is assumed to be trying hard to find compromises between the parties on most issues, and he is also assumed to be in over his head, a good man who has proved to be a disappointing leader. “He was always going to have some trouble down here in the South,” said Mike Coats, a restaurateur in Conway, Ark., “because of existing prejudices.”

“He might have had a shot if he hadn’t come out so extreme,” said Tab Townsell, the mayor of Conway. “If he didn’t start out with health care and cap and trade, if he had stayed focused on the economy.”

Townsell and Coats were part of a group of local business leaders assembled by a TIME reader named John Sanson, a young African-American Hewlett-Packard employee. We were having lunch at Coats’ restaurant in downtown Conway, and it was striking, almost like time travel: these were mostly the sort of Main Street Republicans who had dominated that party in the B.T. era (before Tea). They had a story to tell about the revival of their city, largely accomplished with government subsidies. “We love earmarks,” said Jamie Gates, a clever fellow who manages the local Chamber of Commerce and described himself as a Third Way supporter. Federal earmarks helped with the renovation of downtown, a pleasant tree-lined and flower-basketed area. Federal and state subsidies helped expand the local airport to accommodate corporate jets, while local funds built the infrastructure in an industrial park. The group even lobbied the Arkansas alcohol-control board to enable Coats to sell liquor by the drink in his restaurant. “We needed restaurants that could offer people a bottle of wine with their pasta,” Gates said, “if we were going to lure new businesses to town.”

And they succeeded: Hewlett-Packard agreed to set up a regional sales-and-service facility in town, with at least 1,000 new jobs. “There’s been some pushback from the Tea Party folks about the price tag,” said Townsell, “but most people in town support what we’ve done.” The mayor added that he was worried that if the Tea Party tide in Washington continued to rise, cities like Conway wouldn’t be able to grow and lure new businesses. “I’ve never voted for a Democrat for President in my life, but I might have to this time if it looks like the Republicans are going to control both the House and the Senate.”

III: What’s Wrong with America

A year ago, in the upper Midwest, talk of American decline was everywhere. There was a fair amount of anger directed at the Wall Street financial speculators who destroyed the housing market and at the Chinese for absconding with American manufacturing jobs. This year, in the lower Midwest, there was still plenty of talk about American decline–but it was surprisingly introspective. “The Chinese are screwed in the long term,” said Jamie Gates, the Chamber of Commerce senior vice president in Conway. “Their economy is artificially hyperproductive right now, but you can’t fight Mother Nature.” China’s population is aging more rapidly than ours. “So there’s an opening for us, if we put the pedal to the metal.”

Most people were looking at the present, not the distant future, and they were far more pessimistic. “If I’m going to be really honest,” said the Arkansas dentists’ Jim Phillips, “in my gut, I think we’ve peaked.” And who was to blame for American decline? There were two prevailing theories. The government was to blame, said the Tea Partisans and more traditional conservatives. There was a steady patter of protest against the growth of federal disability payments distributed by the Social Security Administration, which have taken the place of welfare for those without the physical or intellectual wherewithal to work–$48 billion a year going to nearly 8 million recipients, including more than 200,000 children suffering from attention-deficit disorder. “It’s all about Big Pharma and their lobbying machine,” said Sandra Powell, at the Patriot Party meeting in Texarkana. “They lobby to make ADD a disability so they can get a new generation of children strung out on Ritalin.” (According to the TIME poll, 60% agreed with the Tea Party position on excessive dependency.)

There were similar feelings about government regulations, like the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act, which had made it more difficult for banks to give loans and small-business people to get them. “Most of our banks are solid,” said Mike Beebe, the governor of Arkansas and a wildly popular Democratic politician, with an 82% approval rate. “But the feds did what they always do. They shotgunned that bill through, one size fits all. They should have concentrated on fixing the problems where they occurred instead of punishing people down here who were doing the right thing.”

But there was a different, deeper conversation going on among those who didn’t blame the government for all our ills–that is, among the vast majority of people I spoke with. There was a sense that the unprecedented affluence of the past 60 years had caused a certain lassitude, that we weren’t working as hard as we used to. “Our parents had to deal with the ups and downs of life,” said Renita Bankhead, a member of the Austin book club. “We’ve had so many ups that we never really learned how to deal with the downs.”

One afternoon in St. Louis, I had coffee with five young men who were students at Washington University. Most of them came from privileged backgrounds, and they talked about how some of their classmates were shocked that there wouldn’t be fabulous jobs awaiting them upon graduation. “I went to a private school in North Carolina,” said Viraj Doshi, “and most of my classmates were lazy. They came from wealthy families, and they always assumed they’d have money and great jobs. All you had to do was go to college. Now they’re lost.” I asked whether that was true of women, who are graduating at a higher rate than men these days. The responses were rapid-fire: Oh, no, women work harder. There’s a culture of slacking among the guys. Guys play video games more than women do. They watch sports on TV. “You go to the library,” said Steve White, the TIME reader who had assembled the group, “and 75% of the people there are women.”

There seemed a general agreement, across all the groups I met with, that Americans had gotten soft and lost their competitive edge. And there were very few remedies on offer. But Richard Meyer, a thoughtful orthodontist from Little Rock, Ark., raised one possibility over dinner with his fellow dentists: “Do we really need all this stuff we’ve accumulated? I can be a happy camper in a house half the size of the one I’ve got. I don’t have to drive here in a BMW. Maybe we don’t need to concentrate on consumer goods to be happy.”

I remembered this great lyric by Bruce Springsteen, “We’d better start savin’ up for the things that money can’t buy.” The song stuck in my brain and reverberated when I got to Joplin, Mo., a few days later and spent a weekend there amid the devastation.

IV: What’s Right with America

“This is what a normal tornado looks like,” said Mitch Randles, fire chief of Joplin. We were driving along the path of the tornado that destroyed a broad swath of the city on May 22. We were in a fairly affluent neighborhood on the southwest side of town. A few houses were destroyed, a few roofs torn off, trees downed. “It was like a Category 2 out here, which is what you normally get–some damage, some injuries, maybe a death.” We drove east. In the next neighborhood, more affluent, there was a similar amount of damage even though the houses were brick and stronger; the storm was building strength, Category 3. We curled down a hill to a pond where one of the bodies had been found; a young man who had just graduated from high school had been thrown about a mile. And then up another hill and at the top …

Category 5. It looked like Hiroshima. The devastation was almost a mile wide and 6 miles long. A few stray buildings still standing. A few homes being rebuilt. It was just shocking. Bodies had been strewn everywhere, 162 of them; 4,000 homes were destroyed. Mark Rohr, the city manager, a big, quiet man with a severe flattop haircut, still teared up when he talked about what he saw that night. “We all have something in common now,” he said. “We survived. And something has happened here. I call it the miracle of the human spirit.”

Joplin, prestorm, was just another small city–a market and distribution center, a land of strip malls and chain stores: the Great American Anywhere. But it was different now. Jay St. Clair, one of 14 ministers at the College Heights Christian Church, talked about the ghostly, godly silence after the storm. Months later, the silence was still there in the tornado area; the only sound was the wind whipping through the stripped, bludgeoned and decapitated trees. The only possible reaction to the silence was awe, and the awe had informed a new sense of purpose.

Joplin’s disaster was more cataclysmic for its residents than the 2008 financial collapse and deep recession that stunned the nation, but Joplin’s reaction held some lessons for the rest of us. The federal government could help. There was gratitude that what could amount to $450 million in federal funds was on its way. But the crucial variable was not federal. A critical mass of Joplin’s populace had been forced to become citizens again. They were activists now, intent on helping those who had suffered in the storm, and passionate about the shape and success of the city’s recovery. They had taken charge of their future; they had regained the sense of community that so many other Americans had lost in the affluent wash of decades of good fortune.

That Sunday, the College Heights Church, and some of the others in town and even some congregations from other states, held their eighth annual Great Day of Service. Thousands of people divided into work crews. The day before, thousands of young people had participated in a Cannabis Revival festival–America can be a brilliantly weird place at times–that had raised money for disaster-relief projects; the pot smokers and Evangelicals had found common cause in rebuilding their community.

I found a church group from West Virginia cleaning up a modest, middle-class neighborhood adjacent to the path of the tornado. They went door to door, asking residents if they needed any help, if they wanted their lawns mowed or raked. Pretty soon, the street was humming with electric mowers and trimmers, with rakes and brooms. I put away my notebook and picked up a broom. I worked with a big fellow named Todd. He told me about the various service projects he and his church had joined. There was always a feeling of accomplishment, he said. And he was right: the street looked a lot better after we had bagged the dirt and branches and refuse. I was going to ask Todd what he felt about the state of the country, but that suddenly seemed … irrelevant. We were at work, on a beautiful Sunday morning, and it felt good. Todd was inspired by the Lord; I was inspired by Springsteen. We were both saving up for the things that money can’t buy.

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