Middletown was the title of two sociological studies of the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy in Muncie, Indiana, published in 1929 and 1937, so Ron Fournier trotted off to find out the current state of things in the Heartland. Fournier is a student of the Thomas Friedman cab driver school of journalism: he visited for a few days, and published the results of his fly-by in an article titled In Nothing We Trust.
Fournier is a member of the Village Media. He was with the AP for years, leaving to attend the Harvard Insititute of Politics, and writing a book, Applebee America. He became the chief of the AP Washington Bureau after considering and rejecting a role with John McCain’s presidential campaign. It’s hard to imagine a worse person to carry on the tradition of the Middletown studies, except, of course, David Brooks.
The article is the familiar story of collapse in the wake of the Great Crash. The protagonist is a decent guy named Jerry Whitmire, a construction worker. In 2000 he and his wife, a state employee, bought a $40,000 house for no money down and a mortgage payment of $620. He was current until 2010, when his wife was fired and he was laid off. He got a trial mod that lowered his payment, but the bank dumped him for no apparent reason, and they filed bankruptcy. His lawyer correctly advised them to stay in the house until the bank foreclosed, but Whitmire left the keys on the table and moved out, explaining “I don’t believe in a free lunch.” Then the city fined him $300 for weeds in the yard. It turns out the bank didn’t foreclose, so he still owns the house. Fournier tells us Whitmire is angry, betrayed and fuming.
Fournier maunders along to discuss Muncie’s miserable public schools and the new charter schools which only open two days a week and home school the rest of the time; the slow demise of main-stream Churches; and a Jerry Springer scene at the Muncie City Council. That’s enough for him to draw the conclusion that all of our institutions have failed. It’s like the blinkers came off for a few minutes, and a Villager was confronted with life as it is lived in the America they created. Everything he sees is a sign of desperation and despair. All our institutions have failed. There is no way for them to recover. Nothing is arising to take their place. He is shocked and sad.
So I have a follow-up question for Fournier: What the hell did you think would happen?
You and your journalist buddies cheered on the destruction of those institutions, telling your readers that government is the enemy. You cheered for tax cuts for everyone. You cheered on the shipment of jobs overseas, in the name of economic efficiency. You cheered on the private equity firms that gutted the machine shops and tool and die factories in the Midwest in the name of profit. You beat unions with every stick you could find. You talked up the theology of the mega-churches and called the main-line churches dinosaurs.
It turns out that tax cuts meant less money to fund high schools. Crushed unions meant bad jobs where there were jobs. Lost factories meant the death of small plants and local businesses. The screaming politics you love to cover meant that government would fail. We see what those Mega-Churches do in politics, and it isn’t pretty.
Ah, well. Fournier may feel bad today, but I suspect he is just like Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett:
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”