The mood on Main St. as midterm elections loom
Eagle, Colorado, a town struggling to surmount recession, offers a window into why America seems so sullen heading into what could be a hinge moment in politics.
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As November approaches, incumbents of all stripes – but particularly Democrats – look to be in danger. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found support for sitting congressional members at an all-time low – 31 percent. And the anger is not just reserved for Washington. Most anyone in office is seen as part of the problem, whatever that problem is – losing a job for some, losing a home for others – and new faces, well, they have the benefit of being new. The mood is national, but you can feel it in high relief in Eagle, where even the county sheriff finds himself the target of multiple challengers.Skip to next paragraph
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How did we get here? And, more important, where are we going?
As director of Patchwork Nation, a journalism project funded by the Knight Foundation, I have been dropping into different cities and towns across the country to probe the current state of the American experience. My colleague, Professor James Gimpel of the University of Maryland, and I have identified 12 types of places across the US that represent distinct voter communities. They include "Military Bastions" and "Monied 'Burbs," "Service Worker Centers" and "Emptying Nests," "Immigration Nation" and "Minority Central."
In the 2-1/2 years I've been visiting Eagle, one of Patchwork Nation's "Boom Towns," the story has gone from being one of a land-grabbing gold rush to one of many people just trying to hang on. And that transformation, while magnified here in a state with a long history of boom-bust cycles, mirrors what we have found in much of the nation at large. It's a common theme in the national conversation and one that Mr. Gimpel and I examine at length in "Our Patchwork Nation," a book from Gotham Press being released this October.
The simple truth is, despite any thoughts you might have about American "exceptionalism" or the nation's resilience, many reasons exist for the uncertainty in Eagle and nationally. The American psyche seems to have undergone a make-over in the last few years. People sense something fundamental has changed, and while it may be too early to define the precise nature of it, we can explore what underlies the new ennui and what it means for a nation struggling to regain a sense of itself.
Jimmy Carter redux?
It's easy to talk to people about the national mood in 2010 and hear eerie echoes of 30 years ago. In 1979, inflation was eating into people's pocketbooks and fuel prices were skyrocketing. In response, President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves in July to address what he called a national "crisis of confidence." Though he never used the word, the address became known as the "malaise" speech.
"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy," Mr. Carter said, adding: "It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."
Critics panned the speech for being pessimistic, even defeatist. But talking to people in Eagle and other Patchwork Nation communities today, you hear a lot of the same doubt.
In the brilliant midday sunlight, Kurt Harvey is sitting in the cab of a mobile crane, slowly moving a basket full of painters suspended some 50 feet off the ground. Mr. Harvey has the look of a powerfully built construction worker, but he is the owner of HI Cranes. He has been in the business for 14 years and now finds himself back where he started – wondering about the future of his once-thriving company.