The most unorthodox step for a young American may be remaining in his or her hometown, working there and building on traditional ties.
I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s Prius as we drove around the comfortingly rustic court square of Crown Point, Indiana—his current place of residency—when he launched into a monologue over why he would like to move far away, and soon. Only a few years ago he’d bought a house in the small town made famous by John Dillinger, and more recently Johnny Depp,
…I’m not from here
But people tell me
It’s not like it used to be
They say I should have been here
Back about ten years
Before it got ruined by folks like me
– James McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here”
Life is not poetic enough to arrange it so that James McMurtry was playing on the radio, a soundtrack to my friend’s fugitive soliloquy. In his defense, he’s recently retired and hasn’t enjoyed adjusting to suburbia after a lifetime in Chicago. But as his hybrid curved around the bend, I realized that this was the same speech I’d heard from nearly every twenty-something friend of mine, too — people who, like me, earned a college degree within the last five years. Almost all of them have expressed an overwhelming desire to “leave the area.”
The federally sponsored push to move our nation further from a manufacturing and entrepreneurial base toward a service and knowledge economy has produced destructive consequences familiar to anyone concerned about the working poor, struggling families, and death on Main Street. It has also engineered a sociological shift that fosters self-minded careerism at the expense of communal survival.
The landscape, commerce, and culture of different towns have become depressingly similar, and the seductions of “success,” as popularly defined, have created a rootlessness in American small towns. Increasingly, we have become transients moving from one position to the next, leaving our hometowns with severely weakened identities, identities once derived from history and memory. The measure of ambition has become literally geographical, meaning the further someone escapes from his or her origins the better.
Rural America has suffered the harderest blow from this prevailing hotel attitude of Americans. Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas measure the pain in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, concluding that high-achieving students are encouraged to leave their rural homes for understandable reasons – primarily, economic opportunity. The people who stay, more often than not, find employment only in low-wage jobs. John Mellencamp, who still lives near his hometown in Southern Indiana, sang in 2007 about the “ghost towns along the highway,” which once thrived on farms and/or factories. He offered a bleak forecast: “I guess no one wants to live around here anymore.” That lyric is a perfect summary of Kefalas’s and Carr’s penetrating analysis.
Middle-class suburban youth are increasingly afflicted by an urbanized strain of the transient virus. Their urge to move on demonstrates the truth of Robert Putnam’s concerns about careerism and sprawl in Bowling Alone and suggest that in addition to worries over economic survival larger social forces are at work. Many Americans are simply no longer interested in making meaningful contributions to their own communities. The average American moves nearly twelve times over the course of his or her life, and one in six Americans moves each year. Many of these experienced U-Haul drivers stay within the same county, but increasingly they’re moving from a rural area to a more urban one. On the surface, this may not seem significant, but residents of metropolitan areas are less likely to attend public meetings, join community organizations, and even visit friends than are those who live in small towns and rural areas.
Citizens who are constantly on the move are also less likely to make any investments—social, political, or financial—in a single community. In addition to weakening the civic traditions and institutional strength of the neighborhood, transience also severs personal connections of empathy and bonds of sympathy. My grandfather, who lived in the same small town for his entire life, attended every softball game of a girl who lived next door, watching the games with her grandmother. The girl’s parents had died when she was a small child, and her grandmother barely left the house. He wanted the girl to see the face of a friend in the stands. That form of selfless love is rare among people who barely recognize each other in the shadows of “for sale” signs and strip malls.
Thomas Frank treated the growing conservatism of his home state with outrage in What’s The Matter With Kansas? He relied on an oversimplification, similar to “they cling to guns and religion,” to explain the state’s politics. Former Chicago Tribune columnist Richard C. Longworth examines the destructive toll globalization and deindustrialization have taken on the Midwest in Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism; despite making good public policy suggestions, Longworth contributes to the problem by encouraging all heartland readers to move to Chicago or similar urban areas across the nation. Those who maintain a connection with the small towns where they were raised are depicted as backward, incompetent, and slovenly.
Rather than mocking rural and small town inhabitants or generalizing from complex phenomena to explain voting patterns, it may be better to project my grandfather’s quiet kindness onto a political screen. Acts of friendship are unlikely to take place in moving vans, so is political organization. If progressives are leaving small towns and rural America and encouraging others to leave and never look back, while organizers largely neglect these places as burning red hellholes, the growth of right-wing movements should be boringly predictable. Such growth is better countered by political outreach connected to volunteerism and service projects than by moving to liberal safe havens to grumble about Sarah Palin in the company of likeminded sophisticates.
The value of staying put is difficult to measure, and the lifestyle of sticking around is tough to incentivize. But, it seems that the most subversive and rebellious decision in a culture that venerates the market and the restless pursuit of pleasure and profit, may be to stay home and start a political advocacy group, join a community organization, or go to a softball game.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.