“Prosperity hasn’t always come easily,” Barack Obama told the people of Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2008. At that point a candidate in the Democratic primaries, and with the recession still months away, Obama had come to promise the city’s beleaguered General Motors workers that their plant would survive threatened cuts. Through “great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America—that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible.”
This scene appears early in Amy Goldstein’s new book Janesville, and it precedes the chain of horrors that came in the wake of the financial crisis. The GM plant closed. Suicides in the county doubled. Children became homeless. The 2008 financial crisis is frequently reduced to a matter of statistics and graphs, which makes Goldstein’s extensive reporting so valuable and, at times, moving. Her work, stretching from 2008 to 2016, tells Janesville’s story through the struggles of the local families. By emphasizing the effects of economic collapse on family life, Goldstein’s narrative doubles as a sort of generational saga: It humanizes the worst economic crisis of contemporary times by chronicling the enormous pressures it placed on several generations of Janesville residents.
Along with Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Janesville also helps answer a question that has been plaguing political commentators since last November: Why did Donald Trump win in Wisconsin? Everyone has a theory—-Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategies, Trump’s appeal to protectionism, GOP voter suppression—-and most of them have some truth. But one must also understand Wisconsin, a so-called purple state with a stark urban/rural divide, if one is to understand the national rage that swept Trump into the White House.
The two authors take different approaches. Goldstein is a journalist for The Washington Post, and Janesville is essentially a work of reportage, drawn from interviews and research conducted in the city at the center of the book. Cramer is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her book is a study of public opinion; she gleans her findings from observations of small group discussions in rural communities across the state. But these two different accounts of Wisconsin complement, rather than contradict, each other. Read together, they also illuminate the state’s Republican shift and chart a way forward for reversing it.
Goldstein begins her narrative in the winter of 2008, two days before Christmas. Janesville’s GM plant—the one that Obama had promised would stay open—has been shut down, producing the last Chevy Tahoe its workers would ever build. But the citizens of Janesville still think this is only temporary: The recession has just dawned, and like most people across the country, they believe a recovery is imminent. The city’s assembly line had survived past fluctuations in the auto industry, and Goldstein reports that this nurtured a stubborn optimism among Janesville’s residents. One of the people she followed was an auto worker named Jerad Whiteaker: “As a GM’er,” she writes, “unemployment benefits and union layoff pay will nearly equal his wages. They will carry his family through, he expects, until he finds work that he enjoys more.”