Last week, a diarist sneeringly belittled Middle American conservatives for longing for the "good old days", which in his opinion, "sucked". At age 28, I missed out on what is commonly known of as the good old days, but I still found the diary to be dripping with suburban condescension towards the individuals and communities where life isn't better now than it was post-World War II and even during the 1970's.....
My perspective was reinforced this weekend as I returned to my hometown in southern Minnesota, a declining mid-sized community that a generation ago was a thriving manufacturing hub that provided middle-class incomes for its approximately 20,000 residents. The local newspaper is profiling some of the city's history given that it's the sesquicentennial, and the community's current state of malaise is painfully obvious compared to the "good old days". After one after another industry either left town or busted the unions since the early 1980's, the hospital now stands at the largest employer. Per capita income has plunged in real dollars and the meatpacking plant that served as the community's bedrock for generations burned down in 2001, paying an hourly wage less than what the previous owner was paying in 1978....not even accounting for inflation.
Surrounding this community are dozens of farm communities in similar decline. Not so long ago, these communities were able to support a modest downtown business sector with community banks, grocery stores, hardware stores, and implement dealerships. Every time I drive through one of these towns, I can count on the fact that their business community has shrunk by at least one since the last time I visited. Towns that had four or five businesses downtown only 15 years ago frequently have none left. The "convenience of one-stop shopping" in suburban sprawl zones doesn't mean much to the millions of Middle Americans who have to drive 35 miles each way to get to that "one-stop shopping".
Far from existing in a bubble, my hometown and its surrounding area is representative of a large percentage of Middle America. It's smaller cities have turned into miniature Detroits full of vacated factories that have yet to see a sufficient replacement for the blue-collar employment of the "good old days". It's rural regions are full of dying farm communities and bankrupted local commerce. Its residents are socially conservative and economically populist, and a large percentage of them would be receptive to the Democratic Party message (my hometown, which went 58% for Kerry, already is). What they will not be receptive to is elitist condescension that the "good old days", when they had good jobs and businesses in their towns, "sucked", as opposed to the wonders of American society today. If the Democratic Party wants to appeal to these Middle American voters, the worst way to do it is to tell them their anxieties abou the direction of the country is unfounded. For millions of Americans, the "good old days" really were the "good old days."