News & Politics

Attention, Wal-Mart Voters


Rock River Valley, Illinois—Piety is easy to find on the highways of Red America. Stop at a cemetery and you may find that the marker towering over all the rest reads, “In Memory of the Unborn Children.” Down at the lower frequencies, the ones occupied in more urbane locales by the edgy college stations and NPR affiliates, your radio lectures at you: The music you’ll hear during your visit is safe for the whole family. . . . Family friendly 91.5, WCIC, celebrating 20 years of music and ministry. Neighborliness is unavoidable, a saving grace: Pull into a motel and the lady asks for your cell phone number because there was a rash of folks forgetting their cameras this summer and she wants to be able to call you if you leave something behind yourself.

But just like in a novel by Sinclair Lewis, if piety is easy to find, then so is hypocrisy. Enter the sultry stink of a dingy roadhouse not far from where Abraham Lincoln once debated Stephen Douglas, and a terse young man winding himself up with coffee for a hard-partying Saturday night volunteers his version of the scene: a couple of towns down, the best gentleman’s club; the next town over (you won’t see a sign), a gambling den. A couple of hours later, when you tell the woman behind the counter at the convenience store where you’ve been, you elicit a grimace: “Oh, did you see two girls getting it on?” (They do so nightly, apparently, around 11 o’clock, on the pool table, for tips.)

Though even in this, Oglesby, Illinois’s local den of iniquity, Republicans aren’t hard to find, either. “I thought Bush would be a good man for the job at the time, and thought he’d be a good president,” says the terse young man, whose nickname is Stony. “So I voted for him.”

Stony is the kind of guy liberals love to worry about, the kind they fret they can’t win over by next year’s election. He works the midnight shift as a “picker” at a nearby grocery warehouse—the very job Tom Wolfe depicts as the soul of thankless blue-collar humiliation in his latest novel. Stony talks proudly about his union and, quietly, mentions his fears that his workplace “could have a shutdown any day. You never know.”

Liberals: Worry less. Stony no longer supports George Bush: “Because of the war. Too many people dyin’.” Neither does his drunken friend, who pipes up: “I hate him. Because there are kids getting killed every single day.”

Worry less. But worry still. In the middle of November, I spent five days in four Illinois counties where Bush was successful in 2000 to see whether support for him was peeling off in areas especially hard hit by the jobless recovery. The answer offers some surprising political lessons.

A few moments’ Web research is all it takes to learn that the next town I visit, Byron, “the gateway to the Rock River Valley,” supports 13 churches for a population of 2,284 and is named for the Romantic poet; that George Bush beat Al Gore in this county by 23 points; and that its two “major industries” are Quality Metal and Bergstrom truck heaters. It takes considerably longer to learn that this is all a convenient fiction: Byron’s actual major industry is a $3.7 billion nuclear plant that once earned the distinction of becoming the first in history to have its application for an operating license flatly rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

No such reticence in the shadow of the cooling towers, where Byron Motosports Park, a 1.3-mile dirt track, proudly advertises an annual “Nuclear Mountain Bike Meltdown” on its website. The track is where you’ll find, on a typical Sunday—race day—two semi drivers from Rockford named John and Scott. John is the talkative one. Scott is the one with the heavy goatee. Ask them about George Bush, and this is what you hear.

“Best president we ever had. Because he’s the only one, one of the few, who’s got the balls to do what needs to be done. . . . I’m so glad Gore didn’t get elected, ’cause he’s another Clinton. And Clinton should have done it when he was in office.”

They blame 9-11 and the unending wars that have followed on the previous White House occupants.

John: “All this shit is Clinton’s fault. . . . This’ll probably be the first year ever that I vote a straight Republican ticket. ‘Cause all them Democrats, bad-mouthin’ Bush, sayin’ he didn’t have it planned out right, all that crap—they didn’t even have a clue what was going on!”

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.

Alongside the judgment that Bush is responsible for bringing home Americans in body bags persists the judgment that America’s current foreign policy situation, all of it, just sort of happened to Bush, and that it’s a damned fortunate thing this Iraq mess happened under his watch instead of under some hapless Democrat’s. It is a testament to the Republicans’ mastery at keeping people scared of all that is not Republican, then taking credit, as Republicans, for making them feel “secure.” And it is a dynamic more evident the more Republican the milieu.

Drive 30 miles down the Rock River from Byron and you come to a very Republican place. Dixon advertises itself as the hometown of Ronald Reagan, another convenient fiction: Reagan didn’t have a proper hometown because his father was a peripatetic drunk. But Reagan nostalgia is one of Dixon’s major industries.

In Dixon, where two civil servants who admit not liking Bush beg for anonymity, you get an indelible lesson in the Republican politics of fear. Tasha Goral and Dion Day, 22 and 29, share a child (Raven Rose) and a home (candles, flowing scarves, no telephone, Coltrane on the stereo), and they are not married; all this in a town where the piety, in public at least, is especially fragrant. Tasha should know. Her father was the town bookie. He never got busted, though. “Hell, the cops all bet with him!” Dion laughs. “He paid everybody. Republicans, Democrats.”

Recently, a black friend of theirs, much more of a genuine hometown boy than Reagan ever was, graduated from Northwestern and came back to Dixon because that was where his heart was, where he wanted to make his contribution. He got a job at the local medium-security prison (one of the biggest industries in Ronald Reagan’s hometown), kept his dreadlocks, drove a Cadillac. So two weeks ago, out of nowhere, he was pulled over by a convoy of law enforcement vehicles and spirited at gunpoint to his house, where 15 DEA agents, four IRS agents, two county sheriffs, and two state police officers searched his every belonging. “And you know what they found?” says Dion. “Nothing. Not a damned thing. They had a warrant. He doesn’t know why anything happened. But he’s supposedly some big drug kingpin.” Now he’s thinking about moving away, Dion says. He trails off. “It just makes us scared to be us. . . . ”

Worry less. Intriguing cracks are opening in the Republican firmament. Take the factory owners I meet in the Rock River Valley’s population center, the city of Rockford, who are ready to burn George Bush in effigy.

“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.

It would sound like socialism if it weren’t coming out of the mouths of Republicans. “The generation of people that are running corporations today,” Eric explains, “all they give a damn about is what happens in the next 90 days to their stock price and when that window is going to be when they’re going to jump out and pull that parachute—who cares what happens five years from now?” He’s not talking about protectionism. He’s talking about creating an economy that can survive the next generation. “Running a company based on shareholder wealth is a collapsible scheme! It’s a short-term scheme! It’s not a sustainable scheme.”

Don offers an example: “What happened to the tax rebates? Everyone went to Wal-Mart and got a DVD that was made in China, which created no jobs. Thus: a jobless recovery.”

He has mentioned a bogeyman. And now the conversation turns headlong.

Eric: “Wal-Mart and the rest, they love the way the trade situation is right now. They’re forcing their suppliers to basically shut down and move overseas to produce.”

Judy—whose company will probably have to shut down next year—moves the critique to the terrain of family values: “The moms that used to have a factory job with me and who go home at the end of eight hours and 10 hours and take care of their children and have decent day care, now they’re working two jobs at Wal-Mart with no health benefits.”

Eric takes this all home to politics: “At some point the Republican Party has to realize that, yeah, they need the money today to get elected”—the big, multinational, corporate money—”but it’s not the General Electrics or all these large corporations that are putting them in office. It’s the people who work for these corporations.”

Perhaps one of the reasons these successful people are entertaining the thought of supporting Democrats is that they feel like they’re abandoning a sinking ship—a party that stakes its future on unsustainability, on the “efficiency” of shutting down every factory in sight because it makes for a better-looking quarterly balance sheet.

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.

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