I’ve travelled this country for many years in awe of its beauty and sheer size.
I admire its self-sufficiency, the way it picked itself up after the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the attack on 9/11.
There’s a resiliency and a willingness to roll up the sleeves at the worst of times, and an openness and generosity of spirit that emerges when things get better.
But there’s a new element swirling about in the hinterland – despair. I see it in the faces of the many opioid abusers. They were a mystery to me at first – I could tell they were junkies, but they differed from the fevered smack heads of the East Village.
Opioid users tend to be more passive, perhaps because they have much more access to their drugs of choice, many of which are prescription painkillers. Debilitating these drugs may be but they seem to be keeping a lid on the almost existential pain that you sense in so many economically depressed areas.
This despair has become more pointed over the years. I first noticed it soon after the attack on the World Trade Center. Did the sudden loss of American invincibility cause the change?
Still, New York City suffered more than anywhere else and yet I don’t sense the same debilitating angst in the five boroughs. But head 75 miles in any direction out into the country and it begins to hit you. Despite longstanding urban poverty, I suppose cities breed more opportunities.
I have little doubt but that the Great Recession of 2008 opened the floodgates of despair. People who had always treasured job security were shocked by the fragility of the American economic system. It suddenly became crystal clear just how much more their corporate superiors cared about the financial bottom line than the loyalty of employees.
But the collapse of 2008 only hastened what was already afoot. Out in the Rust and Coal Belts, 21st Century technology had for years been replacing jobs that paid $25 per hour. Meanwhile, standbys like the great service employers, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, rarely pay more than an entry level $9.
Is there any wonder there’s a curdling despair rampant across the country? And now instead of getting people to face up to the fact that we are in a time of great and inexorable economic change, we have a president who is promising a return to the good old days.
What’s staggering is that many people believe him, even as his party is busy trying to demolish the Affordable Care Act one of the few meaningful safety nets for this dispossessed generation.
Many others are convinced that the president hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of turning things around, but at least he’s “shaking things up” and “draining the swamp” – even as Goldman Sachs dominates his cabinet.
What unifies these people is that they have no faith in the Democratic Party, once the defender of the working class.
Nor do they trust the federal government to do anything for them. And yet who else is there? Surely not their erstwhile corporate masters who have little interest in anything but the bottom line.
And yet the federal government is the only entity with enough power – or interest - to form a coalition with corporations and begin to educate workers for the new economy, as has been happening in Germany for years.
This won’t solve the whole problem. But it could help current high school graduates gain work-study apprenticeships in the new 21st Century factories that are rapidly becoming the norm. Unfortunately, these modern work sites will be mostly automated and employ few - though pay will be good.
And what of the rest? Many will be forced to work in service industries, which is why it’s vital that a national minimum wage provides a livable income.
It all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but it beats the dishonest promises of bringing back jobs that have gone forever.
And what of the opioid users? Well, Obamacare, for all its defects, offered rehabilitation opportunities for those who wished to kick the habit. Trumpcare - if it ever materializes - will provide none.
And so, the president’s hollow promises will continue to echo in the shuttered factories of the hinterland as a despairing, hollow-eyed generation shuffles by.