I’m not insensitive to the condition of the White Working Class today, which as an identity politics category seems accepted by chin-stroking pundits in comparison to Environmentalists, now some kind of No Go Zone for political strategists if you listen to the opinion writers (Don’t pander to those Green people). After the immigrant ancestors from cold Quebec in the 1880s, I’m a product of the Northeastern class of white workers who didn’t make much money in the 20th century, just to be clear. That said, I’ve read and heard enough about hillbilly woes and the various justifications for the Rust Belt votes for president-elect Donald Trump. Whether it is another review of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” or semi-academic essays about why West Virginia turned against the national Democrats, the public conversation is saturated with talk and writing about one slice of the electorate. The demographic slice under the microscope is in danger of becoming as much of a cartoon as the 1960s TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Poverty and social resentment are not exclusive to the upper central U.S. Poverty and resentment are not strictly white in racial terms. Lowell and the Merrimack Valley went through de-industrialization in the 1920s. The cliche’ here is that the Great Depression (not Great Recession of recent) took hold here earlier and stayed longer than almost anywhere in the country (1920s to 1980-ish). While the city in those decades leaked about 20,000 people from its population high of 112,000 to a low of 92,000 around 1970, the community retained enough grit, drive, and imagination to find a way forward (matching some clever, sensible ideas with private and public money). In the mid-70s, Lowell’s official unemployment rate was 12 percent, the highest in Mass. and one of the worst in the nation. The unofficial figure, including “discouraged workers,” people working under-the-table, part-timers, and the underemployed, could have been another 10 percent. The economic circumstances of millworkers (I’m choosing that occupation because it was common) were as difficult if not worse than those of former steel workers, miners, appliance makers, and energy company employees in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. There are people today struggling financially in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota (next door to Wisconsin), and everywhere, really.
While Greater Lowell is known to display at times a strong Republican streak, the larger river-valley communities and some towns pull for the Democrats. A lot of those “D” voters are descendants of mill workers from the classic red brick factories along the river, offspring of the survivors of cold-blooded financial moves of long-ago corporate deciders. The old mill towns, Gateway Cities in the new vocabulary of social-and-economic analysts, constitute a key piece of the current Democratic base in our state. I realize Massachusetts is not Kentucky. My fifth-generation American cousins mostly stayed around and found their ways to being cops, nurses, business owners, teachers, dentists, accountants, sales executives, technology industry workers—and their kids are computer engineers, landlords, soldiers, fire fighters, lawyers, software trainers, movie industry managers, and more. Several from the current generation have gone away farther than their parents to school and jobs. Some of my cousins chose Trump over Clinton, which would be worth hearing more about. But I don’t see them acting out of desperation or anger in the most negative way, which has to be factored in. Some people simply voted for a big change or against the entire federal government system and its inhabitants. Vice President Biden said something similar about the motivations of the people he grew up with in Pennsylvania.
However, instead of another elegy for the hillbillies, how about a deeper dive into “mill-billy” culture and its trajectory? Is the Rust Belt’s post-industrial process now in a comparable situation as 1950s Lowell-Lawrence, and can the miners learn from the Mill Belt experience? (My father was a tradesman in wool production during that time, regularly “laid off” because of business ups and downs. In the mid-1960s, his prospects were so bad here that for several years he took a much better paying job in California and was a migrant, in effect, for eight months each year, working as a wool grader for a huge sheep ranch cooperative in the Great Central Valley. My mother, who was employed as a women’s clothing store sales clerk, would fly out every few months to stay with him a while. It was like he was in the U.S. Army again.)
Does it make a difference that the Merrimack Valley’s early industrial growth was immigrant-fueled? Regarding the response to newcomers as job competitors, is there a qualitative difference between the original Yankee human stock here (from 1620s) and the Scots-Irish stock prevalent in Appalachia and surrounding states? We have had our share of tribalism and group prejudice here, too. There used to be Democratic votes a-plenty in some of those places that are deep Red for the GOP. Culture and religion come before politics most of the time. Did our modern-era religious mix in this region set us up for different outcomes compared to the fundamentalist practices in coal country? What is being noticed now that was there all along in the hills? The hillbilly votes have given us an unexpected political future. The pattern could hold for a while. We should look for commonalities, for lessons.