Rust & Rage in the Heartland
But what I found after September 11 was different, and more complex. I kept thinking of what I had been told by John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University, at the time of the 1996 steelworkers' strike in Ohio. Russo worried about the workers' growing wrath--he was seeing it mature into xenophobia and right-wing radicalism. "It's not unlike the anger in prewar Germany and prewar Italy," Russo said. And, he added, it was akin to the United States in the Great Depression. "In the 1930s, America could have gone in either direction."
I didn't wholly buy into Russo's argument. Yes, there was anger. Ohio, in the heart of the crippled Rust Belt, had the most white nationalist groups of any state in the Midwest--seventy-three--according to the Center for New Community in Chicago. Yet the anger didn't seem to be building into a political force or real threat. As I drew deeper into my research, however, I began to see some historical parallels. In 1920s Weimar Germany, people carted bushel baskets of money to buy a loaf of bread; the mark was valued at 4 billion to one US dollar at one point. Bank accounts became worthless, and with economic deprivation came growing anger. What did the government do? Instead of raising taxes on the rich, who could pay, it lowered them. The terrible conditions were actually good for the industrialists and landlords. They wanted the mark to tumble, because they were able to erase debts by paying them off with worthless marks. For a brief time late in the decade, things improved, but after 1929, working-class anger erupted.
In America, too, there were stresses in the 1930s. Father Charles Coughlin's radio hate ministry mid-decade had 10 million listeners. In hindsight it appears there could have been no historical outcome other than the election of Franklin Roosevelt. But what if there had been no FDR? Walter Lippmann wrote that the nation would have "followed almost any leader anywhere he chose to go." A cynical leader could have exploited fear, a course taken by so many other inferior leaders in times of chaos. Three years into Roosevelt's term Sinclair Lewis published It Can't Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of the United States. The novel became a historical footnote only because Roosevelt was able to pull enough of the right margin back to the center, or, as he often said, "slightly left of center."
On the eve of a presidential election seventy-two years after Roosevelt vs. Hoover, Americans are not rioting over food, and homeless veterans are not marching on Washington. But there are different ways for anger to erupt. An undercurrent has been building for three decades. Talk-radio is but one example of how the anger has grown. In 1980 there were about seventy-five stations in the nation that were all talk. There weren't that many conservative hosts. Now there are 1,300 all-talk stations, and conservatives rule. It's no coincidence that their popularity rose concurrent with the decline of the manufacturing economy, as anger deepened in American society. These shows were not a cause but a free-market response.
How bad is it? During the 2000 election we went to Texas and Tennessee to find some of the 11.6 million impoverished children--77 percent had at least one working parent, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Because their wages were Dickensian, many had to beg for charity food. During what was alleged the most booming economy in history, America's Second Harvest (the nationwide network of food banks) gave away 1 billion pounds of food in 2000, more than double the amount in 1990. Yet it wasn't enough--many food banks ran empty. The despair we saw in the homes of working Americans that election year was equal to that we saw among the homeless in the early 1980s. In many houses I peered into refrigerators and saw them empty. Never underestimate the anger of a parent who puts her child to bed hungry.