In an essay first published in Chronicles in 2006 and collected in the Chronicles Press volume Life, Literature, and Lincoln, the late Tom Landess relates a story about Arizona Sen. John McCain. While stumping in South Carolina for the Republican presidential nomination, the Mad Bomber encountered a textile-mill worker who was not a fan of Senator McCain’s support for free trade. The millworker had made a good living in textiles, and he had hoped his children would as well, but just as Bruce Springsteen sang two decades earlier about the textile mills of New Jersey, down in South Carolina “the foreman says those jobs are going, boys / and they ain’t coming back.”
It didn’t have to be that way, and the millworker knew it. So, for that matter, did John McCain, but having done his damnedest to change the economic landscape not just of South Carolina but of the United States as a whole, he wasn’t about to back down. “Sir,” he said to the millworker,
I did not know that your ambitions were for your children to work in a textile mill, to be honest with you. I would rather have them work in a high-tech industry. I would rather have them work in the computer industry. I would rather give them the kind of education and training that’s necessary in order for them to really [sic] have prosperous and full lives.
I thought of this anecdote when Wayne Allensworth sent me a link to a piece by National Review “roving editor” Kevin D. Williamson. Entitled “If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go,” and subtitled “A prescription for impoverished communities,” the article reminded me why I quit reading National Review over a quarter of a century ago.
Williamson’s piece was, in other words, nothing new, and if it strikes me now as more horrific than similar articles NR had published in the mid–1980’s, it is only because it hardly seems possible that the editors and writers of National Review could have matured so little in the intervening years.
A few short selections from the first three paragraphs of Kevin Williamson’s article will set the stage:
The town where my parents grew up and where my grandparents lived no longer exists. Phillips, Texas, is a ghost town. Before that it was a company town, a more or less wholly owned subsidiary of the Phillips Petroleum Company. . . .
Phillips, Inc., in the end decided it had no need for Phillips, Texas, and the town was scrubbed right off the map. The local homeowners owned their houses but not the land they sat on, which belonged to the company. . . . Many of the residents of Phillips were uneager to be evicted from their homes, and they sued the company with the help of the famously theatrical Texas trial lawyer Racehorse Haynes, who informed the good people of Phillips: “They might whup us fair and square, but they better bring lunch.” Lunch was served, and Phillips is just gone.
It was the right thing to do. Some towns are better off dead.
It turns my stomach even now to read those words. Phillips, Texas, was a town of about 2,000 souls—the same as my hometown of Spring Lake, Michigan—and Kevin Williamson is a few years younger than I am. But one of the reasons I quit subscribing to National Review while Mr. Williamson was still in high school and turned, in June 1989, to Chronicles instead is because I saw what deindustrialization had done to the small communities of my native Midwest starting in the early 1970’s, and I realized even then that the mainstream conservative movement and the Republican Party had neither the will nor the desire to stop it. When it suits their purposes, the media and politicians of both parties focus on the closing of factories and the loss of jobs, but that is never the end of the destruction; it is only the beginning. When the presidential candidates move on to the next state and the TV cameras follow them, the men and women who have lived in the same town, and perhaps even the same house, for decades and generations are left alone to make the painful decision to uproot their families, to leave behind loved ones and friends and the places that have formed the fabric of their lives and memories in order to do what’s necessary to provide for their children.
To reduce everything that those heart-wrenching decisions entail to the imperious imperative “If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go” is proof—as if we needed any more—that many, even most, of those who call themselves conservatives in this country have no desire to conserve anything other than the political power of the central state and the economic power of multinational—or, rather, transnational—corporations.
That, as I say, is one of the main reasons why I started reading Chronicles, which led, 20 years ago, to my joining the editorial staff of Chronicles, and my desire to find a way to halt the deindustrialization of the Midwest is why I have consistently, over the better part of the last three decades, referred to myself as an “economic nationalist.” The recognition that there is something worth conserving beyond the almighty dollar—that small towns and family farms and the neighborhoods of big cities, and all of the residents thereof, are valuable in ways that cannot be measured on a balance sheet and make little or no “impact” on Gross Domestic Product—lies at the heart of any conservatism worthy of the name. There will always be—as there always have been—some people, of course, who must face the painful choice of whether to stay and struggle in the place where they were planted or to tear themselves up in the hope of forging a better (or at least less bad) future for their family, but the idea that this should be the natural and normal situation of most people in most places in most times is quite simply monstrous. Kevin Williamson would no doubt accuse me (in words he used in his article) of the “cheap sentimentalism that informs the Trump-Buchanan-Sanders view of globalization,” but the connection between civilization and cultivation is obvious to any student of history, and equally obvious is the reality that the phrase “nomadic civilization” is an oxymoron. Nomads cultivate nothing, much less civilization, and they generally leave little but destruction in their wake. Such matters do not concern Williamson, however, because he has no desire ever to return to Phillips, Texas, much less to visit Rockford, Illinois.
A decade ago, I wrote dozens of Rockford Files documenting the shuttering of factories and the hemorrhaging of jobs in my adopted hometown, and it would be wonderful to say that I quit writing them because it all came to an end. It has not; and while the rate of deindustrialization may have slowed, the destruction that comes after the jobs are lost continues apace.
Yet trying to think more deeply about all of this over the past several years has led me to conclude, reluctantly and unhappily, that the McCains and the Williamsons, and the Bushes and the Clintons, and all of the other supporters, in government and in business, of trade policies that have laid waste to America’s industrial base have won. They achieved what they wanted; those jobs “ain’t coming back,” to your hometown or mine.
It’s not simply that the necessary change in trade policy at the national level is unlikely to happen, even if, say, Donald Trump is elected president; it’s that even if such a change in policy were to occur, it wouldn’t bring those particular jobs back, because they no longer exist.
I spent scores of hours working on that collection of Tom Landess’s writing, and it was Landess who helped that realization slowly sink in. Here is what he wrote immediately after quoting Senator McCain’s response to the millworker:
Putting aside the effrontery of publicly lecturing a father on what’s best for his children, Senator McCain was up to his chin in shallow water. Like earlier boosters of textile mills, he [that is, John McCain] clearly believed in the immortality of present economic conditions, the inviolability of the fragile industrial dream. He drew the wrong lesson from the father’s complaint. The global marketplace is just as dicey as Las Vegas, whether the industry be textiles or high-tech or computers.
In other words, for those who value rootedness, who understand that civilization requires cultivation and will never arise among nomads, the basic problem that we face is endemic to industrialism itself. Economic conditions change. Manufacturing processes change. The shape of industry has changed, and will continue to change. The plum job of yesterday and the plum job of today have one thing in common: They’re both unlikely to be the plum job of tomorrow.
For four decades, those of us who have called ourselves economic nationalists have been fighting the same battle, even though the conditions have changed. We speak of jobs “going overseas,” as if this has occurred in a one-to-one ratio—one job lost in Rockford or Cleveland; one job gained in Beijing or Seoul. Yes, one reason American multinationals lobbied hard for trade agreements that allowed them to move manufacturing operations overseas was that they could calculate the cost savings on labor and benefits. But they were counting on other savings and advantages as well, and those are much more important when we talk about bringing manufacturing—and especially manufacturing jobs—back to this country.
The mechanization and robotization of manufacturing was easier to accomplish when building new factories in other countries rather than attempting to retrofit existing factories here. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why it was easier for foreign automakers to open operations here in the United States in the 1980’s and 90’s than it was for domestic automakers to increase production: Starting from scratch provided a tremendous competitive advantage, even within the same industry in the same country.
We can see this even on a more micro level. At the same time that Rockford has suffered the loss of numerous factories and tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, the city has seen new manufacturing startups arise and do well. But the new companies are starting from scratch and begin by investing in technology that reduces their need for labor, so a startup with revenue roughly equivalent to that of an existing manufacturer may employ as few as one fifth of the people as the existing manufacturer does.
But wasn’t that Senator McCain’s point? Aren’t all of those people who used to work in what we might call legacy factories better off when they lose their jobs and are forced to switch professions? And if they can’t find new jobs where they currently live, shouldn’t they “Just go,” as Kevin Williamson commands?
Absolutely—if you believe that man is made for the economy, and not the economy for man. But if the reason you call yourself an “economic nationalist” is that you believe there’s something more to life than being an interchangeable cog in the great industrial machine—that living among a certain people and in a certain place has value in itself—then you have to face the fact that globalization hasn’t really created a new class of problems but has instead accelerated problems that are inherent in the industrial system itself. And those problems have been obscured by the “national” focus of our economic nationalism.
Consider this: If someone used to work for GM in Michigan, does it matter whether he lost his job because GM opened a new factory in Tennessee, rather than in Mexico or China? If your response is, “Well, at least he could move to Tennessee,” how exactly is your position different from that of Kevin Williamson? If your response is, “Well, at least the cars are still manufactured in this country, so our trade deficit didn’t grow,” then you are essentially saying that man is made for the national economy, and not the nation or the economy for man.
We need to take a step back and consider what it is that we hope to accomplish through our promotion of economic nationalism. Is the only thing we’re concerned about the health of the national economy, measured in terms of job creation, unemployment rates, and trade deficits? If so, then we can keep our focus firmly on Washington, D.C., trade agreements, tariffs, and border-adjusted VATs.
But if, instead, we’re concerned about the disruptive effects that industrialism, exacerbated by globalization, has on families and communities, then it’s time to change our rhetoric and to take a more comprehensive approach. Just as a foreign policy that places the American national interest above the interest of other countries and of international organizations is not only perfectly compatible with federalism at home but can help to ensure it, the economic nationalism that we have promoted for decades is better seen as an integral part of what I now call “economic patriotism.”
You could call it by other names—autarchy, for instance, or subsidiarity—but I prefer the term economic patriotism because it drives home the idea that healthy economic structures should serve a particular people in a particular place. No, I’m not talking about “Buy American” campaigns, though there is nothing wrong with that and much that is good. I’m talking about local and regional efforts to create sound economies—plural, not singular—that make it possible for people to bloom where they’re planted. To help people understand why it might be to their benefit, and the benefit of their communities, to buy from local producers. To help such producers see the benefits in attempting to meet the needs of their local community first, rather than assume that everything needs to be measured in terms of one’s contribution to the national economy—which really exists only as a series of abstract numbers that provide a sum total of those local and regional economies.
If this sounds utopian or “sentimental,” that in itself is a measure of how far removed economic activity in the United States has become from the reality faced by most people in most places throughout most of history. Midwesterners who shop at Walmart and eat at McDonald’s are astonished at what they see when they walk the streets of the smallest Italian town, because virtually all economic activity in the United States—all the way down to our food production—has become industrialized and thus centralized. Even organic produce is largely grown on factory farms and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles across the country to be sold at a premium in a Whole Foods Market. But when I walk down the street and buy a tomato at my local farmers’ market on a Saturday in August, I pay less than I do in a supermarket for an inferior tomato—and the tomato tastes better than any that’s ever crossed the threshold of Whole Foods. Chains like Whole Foods are part of the problem, not the solution; those who cannot see that have no idea what the core problem really is.
A local economy that is primarily dependent on national chains and producers is not a local economy at all. It is just another cog in an industrial machine, just another textile mill or auto factory whose days are numbered, just another Phillips, Texas, waiting for lunch to be served.
The underlying problem of the American economy has its roots in the destruction of local and regional cultures. We need to quit treating the economy as an end in itself and view it instead as a new front in the culture war, pouring our efforts into building the economies of our hometowns and regions in ways that will give people a reason and a means to stay in one place. No presidential candidate of either party is going to make this a part of his platform, but Chronicles can and will lead the way, by not simply lamenting the past but highlighting efforts, great and small, from every corner of this country to build a strong economic foundation for the future.
There are times to defend the past at all costs, and there are times when we must build upon it. Many of the cathedrals of Europe were erected not only on the foundations of pagan temples, but in part out of their rubble, by people who understood when to quit propping up an empty shell so that they could dedicate themselves to building a civilization for generations to come.