Berlin, New Hampshire
This mill town of 10,000 people lies about ten miles from the Maine border. For more than a hundred years its sole economic engine was the paper mill that sits on the Androscoggin River; but like the other paper mill towns in the area, it’s been brought low by the sledgehammer of creative destruction. In 2006 the owners closed the mill and laid off its 250 workers, and last year they detonated three of the four smokestacks. You can watch them die on YouTube, pitching over in slow motion like trees falling under the ax.
At 2 am on the Monday before the New Hampshire primary, about two dozen John Edwards supporters stood outside a fire station in downtown Berlin awaiting the arrival of the candidate and his wife as they crisscrossed the state in a final thirty-six-hour push. Murray Rogers, president of the Steelworkers local in the area, was one of those who came out in the middle of the night to greet the Edwardses, holding a sign and flanked by two of his fellow union members. After working for thirty-six years in the Wausau paper mill, one town over in Groveton, he lost his job along with 300 others when it was closed December 31. Edwards’s people “were the first ones there,” Rogers told me as we stood outside the firehouse. “They offered to come and help us. He wrote a letter to the CEO because of the poor severance package they gave us, on our behalf. None of the others even offered to come. It’s a pretty strong message to us who cares and who doesn’t.”
The triumph of global capital and crony capitalism over the past several decades has created a country of Silicon Valleys and Berlins, SoHo lofts and storm-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward bungalows. The last time Edwards ran for President, he called this the “Two Americas” and promised to stitch them together. But from the day Edwards announced this campaign in the Lower Ninth, he has presented himself as a warrior for one of those Americas as it fights to wrest back some of the ill-gotten gains from the other one–the “moneyed interests” and “entrenched corporate power” that have a “stranglehold on our democracy.”
This populism makes the establishment media uncomfortable: consummate Beltway pundit Stuart Rothenberg recently worried in a column that the stock market would tank the day after Edwards was elected. When the Des Moines Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, it chided the 2008 populist incarnation of Edwards for his “harsh anti-corporate rhetoric.” But “harsh” pretty accurately sums up the country’s judgment of the past seven years. In New Hampshire exit polls, two-thirds of Democrats and half of Republican voters said they were “angry” with the Bush Administration. The economy was the top issue in both parties, with nine out of ten voters expressing anxiety about it. All of which should redound to Edwards’s benefit. The coalition envisioned by his campaign would stack different classes atop one another until the sum towered over a conservative minority of plutocrats. It would bring together the urban poor, the working poor in far-flung exurbs, the white working class in shuttered mill towns and the deeply anxious college-educated middle class. But it has been unable to put such a coalition together. When election day had come and gone, Edwards managed only 23 percent even on the favorable terrain of Berlin; Hillary Clinton won the town easily with 50 percent of the vote.