Over the past few weeks I have had the luxury of having a few workmen in to fix up our house here in rural North Carolina. I’ve listened to them talk, and spoken to them at length about religion and politics. Nearly all are Baptist; one is even a preacher who as I write is firing up a congregation at a revival in Georgia. Even though I don’t share their religious beliefs, I do respect them. “You don’t drink. You don’t smoke. You don’t gamble and you don’t chase women. You’d make a good Baptist,” one told me. I took that as a compliment.
Most of the men I’ve hired are middle aged or older. I’ve paid them by the job or by the hour, and none make what most in my field of IT would consider a decent hourly rate especially when they are covering their own taxes and insurance. And all of them are way more conservative than me, social conservatives who know their Bible better than I know anything.
A constant thread of their conversations was how bad the economy was. In their lifetimes they had seen manufacturing which had come to the South for its cheap labor chase even cheaper labor abroad. Tobacco once employed hundreds of thousands from planting, processing, and packaging but today employs only a fraction of that due to a confluence of factors: a more health conscious population, increased mechanization, and cheaper labor abroad.
Nothing has taken the place of these lost jobs. To survive these men refined their skills and become home improvement contractors. Each also has a side business – preaching and in the case of another, rehabbing and selling homes that sell for under $100k. Nevertheless they are much more exposed to the winds of the economy and the whims of government than most.
They are especially bitter when it comes to illegal immigration. Mexicans have flooded into North Carolina and driven down wages for skilled and semi-skilled workers. They are constantly underbid by contractors employing illegals at a fraction of the going hourly rate.
Such men have always been pressured by immigration. 120 years ago my great-grandfather left Bohemia and came to the United States as part of a large migration of skilled and unskilled laborers from central Europe that didn’t end until immigration laws were passed after World War I. But a century ago there were more opportunities in manufacturing, construction and other trades that absorbed the influx of foreign workers. Add in the American dream that saw education as the ladder to a better standard of living and the desire of immigrants to assimilate (my great-grandfather learned English at the age of 35 and refused to speak German at home) and the relations between immigrants and citizens could have been much worse.
Contrast that with today when the ladder of education seems only to lead to debt; one of the contractors employs his son for $12 an hour who graduated college but can’t find work. He’s swimming in student loan debt and doesn’t know how he’ll stay afloat. The Mexican immigrants haven’t even tried to assimilate. They shop at their own tiendas that dot the area, and even attend their own Catholic churches – the only outposts of papacy in this land of 31 flavors of Baptists. Their children attend the same public schools, but the politically correct dogma of the educators only encourages their isolation from the other students. My son regularly reports on the racial tensions that he experiences in middle school: latino girls prohibited by their peers from talking to black or white boys. Teachers afraid to appear racist by demanding the same out of their Hispanic students as the others, condemning them to the poverty of low expectations.
Meanwhile the government only makes things worse for them. They see it as completely detached and unconcerned with their struggle. It passes laws and creates regulations that cost money for them to comply with. It spends profligately and they know deep down that they and their children will be left with the bill. It bails out banks, yet they and their customers can’t get loans. It does nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigrants who underbid them and lower their wages.
These men are in a vise – between the failure of the American dream and its expectations of a brighter future for their children on one side, and a government that seems hell bent on reducing them to penury on the other. They aren’t angry; they are enraged. These great- grandsons of confederate soldiers speak rebellion not in whispers but in loud, firm voices that would sound all-too familiar to their forebears. They aren’t traitors; they see their government as betraying them and their country, not the other way around. Seeing what has happened here in North Carolina, it’s difficult to disagree with them.
The Leftist elites might brand them racists and call them hillbillies and rednecks, but those epithets only expose the ignorance of those that hurl them. These men aren’t stupid even though they didn’t attend Ivy League universities. In fact given how poorly the Ivy League elite is governing, these men have a better understanding of economics than the elite does. After all, they live in the economy; they eat, sleep, and breathe it every day. How many University of Chicago professors, K Street lobbyists, or career politicians do that? They aren’t racist: this is former Klan country, with an emphasis on “former.” If this economy isn’t enough to drive men out in their bedsheets, then the Klan is truly dead. But don’t kid yourself. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t cleanse these men’s hearts of prejudice, their religion and upbringings did.
I’m not sure where this anger is heading. I’m hoping that it will be channeled into the elections in the Fall, but I’m wondering it that will be enough given how unresponsive the government is to the needs of all of its citizens – not just these men. The events of the past ten years have caused me to question my faith in America, especially when it comes to curtailing the power of a federal government determined to manage all aspects of our daily lives. It just may be time to don a gray hat and fly the stars and bars myself.