Thursday, December 04, 2003

Journey Through Wal-Mart Country

Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerrilla (always a must read) found this article by Rick Perlstein in the Village Voice. Pearlstein took a trip through conservative small town Illinois to talk with people about Bush. These are people, as Pearstein says, don't critically read several newspapers a day."

He found, as expected, some bad news, but also some good.

On one hand, in a bar he found John and Scott, who are inalterably convinced that 9/11 and everthing following were the fault of Bill Clinton.
John and Scott are dead wrong, of course: Clinton knew there was danger to Americans from a terrorist group called Al Qaeda and did do something about it, if perhaps not all the right things, whatever those might have been; Bush knew of the danger before the World Trade Center attacks and probably did less. Playing catch-up, he used the war on terror as pretext for an invasion of Iraq, and well-informed Democrats knew exactly what was going on: that unilateralism and lack of planning for a post-war settlement would lead us into disaster. But there's not much you can do about macho fantasies like Scott and John's; you can't force voters to critically read several newspapers a day. This is, simply, the reality that those who would wish to see George Bush defeated have to work with.
On the other hand, there was this
"I'm very conservative," Eric Anderberg of Dial Machine says, in the boardroom of the machine-parts factory his family built in 1966. "Always voted Republican. But I'm extremely concerned with what I hear from this current administration." Eric is 32, fiercely political, and articulate. He's called over two of his older industrial-park neighbors, Don Metz of Metz Tool and Judy Pike of Acme Grinding. Family manufacturers like these were the foundation of the modern conservative movement, reacting against the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower in the '50s. Now they are a wedge in the Republican coalition. I ask if they could imagine supporting, for president, a Democrat. Don Metz, who in his golf shirt looks like he just came back from a midday round, doesn't hesitate: "No problem. Somebody steps forward and says we're going to make manufacturing a priority in this country." They would even donate the legal maximum of $2,000.

The reason is economic near-devastation. Unemployment around here has increased by half in the last three years. In Rockford, it approaches 12 percent. Factories are closing as production is shipped off overseas. (The mantra of "high tech" is unlikely to impress Rockford; one of the most wrenching recent production shutdowns was at the plant that produced a motor for the Segway scooter.) "Service jobs" have replaced some of the work. But where they materialize, with rotten hours, pay, and benefits, they end up destroying families instead of saving them. And it makes these people livid, because it all seems so stupid and unavoidable.
And Wal-Mart isn't pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.
Don notes that an employee at his plant, non-union, starts at $16 an hour and makes as much as $100,000 a year: "sends his kids to private school, he drives a nice car—does that sound like a Democrat to you? . . . Our people, in the past, didn't want government interfering with their life. . . . What happens to these people is that they find out they can't become a Wal-Mart associate . . . at $7.50 an hour without completely undermining their lives."

Here's a riddle: What do shuttered factories manufacture? Democrats. Or at least they might, if the national Democratic Party had the balls to do what needs to be done.

Don again: "If Eric and his family decided to shut this place down, he's not going to end up on a food line. Neither am I." It makes them mad all the same. Mad enough to do something about it. Downsized factory workers and their well-off former bosses: What a wonderful coalition it would be.

Meanwhile, the rock-headed jingoes at the motorcycle track can afford to focus their fears on weapons of mass destruction because they don't have to worry about job destruction. They're truck drivers. They're the ones shipping product to the Wal-Marts.

It all comes together, as a Marxist might say, at the point of production. The last stop of my visit is the shop floor, where a young man Eric's age tells me about the place where he used to work, and his father before him, and his grandfather before him: a paper plant that shut down a few years back. But he's no protectionist either: "I have no problem with a company that uses overseas goods—if they're going to return some of that investment to the American worker, which can in turn spend that here."

He has a particular company in mind. The one that may end up, if Dial Machine has to close, as the next stop down the line.

"I won't go to Wal-Mart. My problem is that the company made $7 billion in profits. And yet they pay their workers substandard wages." Health co-payments are so expensive, he notes, that less than half sign up for the "benefit." This worker fears Wal-Mart more than he fears weapons of mass destruction. Because he knows which one is more likely to end up in his future. Americans who fear Wal-Mart more than apparitional WMDs (and apparitional dreadlocked drug dealers) are proliferating every day—and must be made to proliferate more, for the sake of our nation. This is the Democratic Party's hope: convincing Red America they can provide an economy that's safe for the whole family.