RETURN TO AMERICA II
Thinking about president-elect Donald Trump, and the mystery of his rise, I pulled a copy of my first book, “America II,” from a bookshelf. The book was published more than three decades ago. It was based on months of travel around the United States. To research it, I followed Americans to where the U.S. Census said they were moving, and asked them if they had found what they were looking for.
Although the book has long been out of print, a few reviewers have rediscovered it, and what they wrote reminded me of its basic themes. This morning I flipped through it, wondering if I had overreached. My conclusion: Not on most counts, unfortunately.
The following excerpt is from the introduction of “America II," first published in 1983:
The America we know is dying, but a second America is rising from the body of the first. This second nation – America II – can best be seen in the South and West, but it exists, in varying degrees, in every state of the Union. It has a physical form: a very different kind of city; a radically changed rural and small-town life; a revolution in shelter; a new workplace. But the second America is also a state of mind: a powerful yearning for opportunity, for old values and new technologies, for refuge and escape.
This book is an exploration of what it’s like to live in America II, or on the outskirts of it. It’s about the people left behind, but mostly it’s about the people who are moving, about condo dwellers and pot farmers, corporate utopians and private police, rural entrepreneurs and urban escapees, computer programmers and unemployed wanderers. It’s about people trying to get control in an economic and social environment that seems out of control. It’s about the search for home, the creation of new nests from the sticks and mud of our fantasies of what home should be. This book is about the unintended consequences of that search.
I’ve used the phrase America II as more of an experiential than historical categorization (to be historically accurate, it might well be the third America: agricultural, industrial, postindustrial, but most people do not think in these terms in their everyday lives). What we perceive is a break in our experience, the peaking of one America around the mid-1960s, its gradual decline, and the rise of a new America that is only now beginning to be identifiable.
America I is made up of all those steel workers and middle managers so bewildered by a society that, more each day, does not seem to need them. America I is once-vibrant big cities, big labor unions, auto workers, public swimming pools, railroads, New Deal politics, and the freestanding single-family home. It’s a park in Seattle made from an old gasworks, where children now play and write their names on the steam valves and smokestacks of another age. America I is all those people left behind, outside the gates.
In contrast, America II is the rural shopping mall, condominiums and large planned communities – essentially new walled cities – private police forces and sophisticated residential security systems. America II includes ex-hippies and new “techies,” desperate for what was and for what will be, fleeing with their computers (the new symbol of personal control) to small towns in New England and the Midwest. It’s a countrified city and a citified country. America II is entrepreneurs working out of their homes and high-tech companies that have circled their corporate wagons, taking on some of the characteristics of cults. It’s a national economy changing so quickly that even those lucky enough to have the sanctified skills feel threatened, as medieval princes must have once felt within their gates. And America II is the people from Oaxaca and the Yucatan who come north having heard that a dream still exists.
We are now two cultures. Like a quarreling parent and child, the fading America and the emerging America view the world in entirely different ways; they speak different languages. America I is steeped in tradition, the past trapped in the present, explosively dangerous in its frustration and distrustful of the new high technologies; America II is almost adolescent in its headstrong exuberance. It sees the nation transforming into something new and fresh; it perceives the future as a new technological frontier to be conquered and won.
From later in the book:
One thing is clear: hundreds of thousands of the workers displaced will never return to their old jobs; their roles are done, finished. For many, the best that can be hoped for is to become what Fortune magazine terms “foot soldiers in the army of the service economy,” low-paid fast-food workers, janitors, and low-skilled clerks. A real danger, according to labor economist Harley Shaiken, is that the information age will produce a polarized work force. Shaiken is one of the first experts to explore the subject. His vision of the work force is one in which a small number of highly skilled, high-paying jobs exist alongside a much larger number of routinized, low-paying jobs. And that, says Shaiken, is a recipe for social ferment…In the early 1960s, automation was the buzzword. Somehow, most of the people have survived and, in most ways, prospered from each technological surge. But there is the feeling this time that this new revolution is different, more powerful, more difficult to grasp than any before…
At the beginning of my research and travel for this book, I was excited and impressed by what I saw: individuals seemingly grabbing control of their lives. But I gradually began to wonder about the unintended consequences – if, for instance, this search for control is constructing, in some corners of America II, the antithesis of control, a peculiarly vulnerable way of life….
Wage spreading has been turned around in the past by private and government investments in the nation’s industries, and by the efforts of labor unions. Today, however, much of the investment capital is flowing offshore: American workers find themselves helpless as they watch their plants and jobs move overseas, even as their tax dollars are poured into a huge defense umbrella designed to protect those worldwide investments.
Meanwhile, the explosive potential grows. Entrepreneurialism is the escape valve for rising pressure: locked out of traditional jobs, members of the middle class are working for themselves, often in refashioned service jobs. But even with the growth of entrepreneurialism and the recasting of low-skilled jobs, the frustration grows. Should that frustration rise too far, there will be no place to hide – no walled community or company cult or small town will protect anyone. The middle class, not the poor, could present the greatest danger in America II.
* * *
Hindsight offers an imperfect vision. Thirty years later, the outfall from the 2016 presidential election — the rise of both Trump and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — should not have been a surprise. Though I did not anticipate the movement of high tech jobs and young workers into gentrified center city neighborhoods, much of the rest of America II’s projections proved to be accurate. At the time, more than a few observers predicted the fracturing of our culture, in like ways. Too many Americans, of all races, were left behind. Today, these factions have more in common than they might suspect. Signs along the road ahead suggest a darker future. But we can still choose a different map, and take a new route toward a reformed political process. That road may yet lead to a more just, more economically and socially democratic America III.
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