Rust & Rage in the Heartland | The Nation


Rust & Rage in the Heartland

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Many of the angry people I interviewed after 9/11, those who tune in faithfully to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, know their highly paid jobs are forever gone or threatened. Their mood, I imagine, is like those on the right during the 1930s who felt the economy would never again be fixed; Limbaugh, O'Reilly and others are their Father Coughlins.

This article is adapted from Dale Maharidge's new book, Homeland, with photographs by Michael Williamson.

About the Author

Dale Maharidge
Dale Maharidge, who teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and Michael Williamson, a photographer at...

And it's not just those on the bottom. A software engineer in Portland, Oregon, told me recently that some of his colleagues have turned hard right, are fearful for their jobs and are angry.

There are tens of millions of American workers living in a virtual depression, in a virtual Weimar. Their anger is real, as is their fear. Ignoring it is dangerous. The right has been addressing it in the form of appearing decisive with "preventive war," or by cranking up the xenophobia. When many of them go into the voting booth they will punch the card or pull the lever for a candidate who appears strong.

But of course not all the support for Bush comes from this camp. It doesn't have to be a majority of voters for this rage to have an impact. Given the closeness of the 2000 election and the continued volatility of a split body politic, tipping the scale just 1-2 percent will turn things. It's all about margins. The hard-right third of the electorate will likely never change. They were there in 1932, and they are with us today. All that needs to happen for the nation to re-elect George Bush, or another right-wing President in the future, is for a fraction of voters to buy into leaders who exploit the anger and fear. There are plenty of malevolent voices to fill the space unclaimed by a unifying, constructive voice.

If there isn't another terror attack, and the economy freezes in its current state of malaise for millions of Americans, we will likely muddle through without the anger taking a heavy toll. Like Sinclair Lewis's book, fears of America heading toward the end stage of a Weimaresque journey will be relegated to the dustbin. If there is another terror attack, however, or any of myriad things happen that turn the economy deeply down, who knows?

The solution lies in doing something both parties have ignored in their free-trade euphoria: helping working-class Americans with jobs and healthcare. That will not erase the fear of another terror attack, but it will dissipate some of the anger resulting from economic hardship. It would tip the margin back to a saner political course.

The soul of America will be decided by a fraction of the middle, where a lot of the anger resides. And that will require leadership.

If John Kerry wins, the right margin will rage against him, as it did against Clinton before him, and against FDR in the 1930s. The anger found in America is not going to dissipate. It must be dealt with. And that will take leadership. Is John Kerry the leader? He'd better find his inner FDR--fast. If he does not, that leader needs to rapidly emerge.

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