“I wish you could have met Bill Cooper,” a Maytown official said to me out of the blue one day. “They don’t make men like him anymore.” Born and raised in Maytown, Bill Cooper never did leave the tiny southwestern Ohio town, minus his time in World War II and the retirement home where he died. As the village mailman, Bill knew everybody, and everybody knew Bill.
“Bill was an all-around nice guy,” said Lucille, a former colleague of his at the post office. “Worked at the post office and took care of his family.” Once, when Lucille had major kidney surgery, she couldn’t work for months at the post office, which threatened her job. “Bill stood right here on that front porch and said, ‘Lucille, before I see you lose your job, I will work free of charge on Saturdays.’” Lucille kept her job.
“This man did as much as anyone to make Maytown what it is today,” is the way that one son of an Appalachian migrant put it. “This whole area was blessed by his presence.”
Bill’s family had been a mainstay in Maytown since the nineteenth century, but the town changed a lot during Bill’s lifetime. It witnessed a mini-boom during the 1950s and 60s, as streams of impoverished Appalachian migrants headed to cities like Cincinnati and spilled into small towns like Maytown, searching for work in Cincinnati’s factories.
In many northern cities where Appalachian migrants settled, tensions between the natives and the newcomers exploded. The middle-class citizens of the North stigmatized the “hillbillies” as lawless and lazy and poor.
Still, Maytown’s new hillbillies “took over without firing a shot,” as Alice (herself an Appalachian migrant) phrased it. But if Bill ever resented them for moving in, he never told them. Because when Alice and her husband moved into their modest, square home in Maytown, there was Bill Cooper, delivering their mail and welcoming them to the neighborhood. He was just as friendly as could be. And instead of moving to a new neighborhood, Bill continued raising his three boys and building up their town: he was the Knothole baseball league founder, Boy Scout troop leader, school board member, and town councilman.
In Bill’s day, you didn’t want to be seen as a “big shot,” as I once heard an older resident derisively refer to a resident whom she felt had too great ambitions. While Bill became something of a legend in Maytown, he was, as his grandson put it, “the town’s man. He was a little big shot.”
‘Not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.’
That’s how Maytown was back then, residents told us. You looked out for each other, and the doctor and the Frigidaire factory worker lived on the same street, and no one was better than anyone else. It was a town where, according to one elderly resident, “everybody knew everybody and their dog.”
But as another elderly woman says, “Neighbors don’t neighbor like they used to.”
It’s a sentiment we’ve heard from working-class young people, too. On Facebook recently, I saw a single mother lament that “I really don’t think there are friends in this day and age.” In an interview, another single mom said “My interactions with the world [are] through Facebook. And that’s not always fun either, because there’s so much drama on there.” Lamenting what he saw as a lack of concern for others, one young man said, “That’s kind of the American way: this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”
It’s easy to take out one’s frustrations with this isolation and alienation in an anger that further isolates and divides people. Donald Trump is organizing precisely this kind of anger among the white working class: it’s the Mexicans’ fault, it’s the Muslims’ fault, it’s our stupid leaders’ fault. And he is the rich businessman who can negotiate a better deal for America—all we have to do is elect him. Not much constructive solidarity in that pitch.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Behind the frustrations of the working class, there also exists an amazing hunger for friendship and community and connection. My wife and research partner, Amber, first noticed this during our interviews. Many of the young people we spoke with found the process of telling their story very meaningful. They thanked us for listening to them, and in some cases, our initial interviews became the gateway to friendships. As Amber and I have written,
Things that we took for granted in relationships with new acquaintances—asking questions and listening to the responses, returning phone calls and text messages, extending invitations to dinner—soon earned us “best friend” status among a handful of the young adults we were meeting. Starved for friendship, they were quick to jump from acquaintance-level chit-chat to intimate conversations about their life experiences and then to declarations of deep friendship. It was an irony of the climate of distrust: distrust kept most people at a distance, but anyone who broke through to extend the slightest promise of meaningful connection was enthusiastically embraced as a friend.
But can our politics do anything about alienation and our need for connection? And even if the answer is “yes,” can presidential candidates redirect the frustrations that many working-class Trump supporters feel away from xenophobia and racism and toward a “politics of solidarity”? I’d argue that they can and that we’re already witnessing the politics of solidarity on the campaign trail.
Can presidential candidates redirect the frustrations of many working-class Trump supporters toward a “politics of solidarity”?
Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich, whose mailman dad sounds a lot like Bill Cooper, wants Americans to “slow down and listen and help one another.” He emphasizes that we’re all connected and we have an obligation to stand with “the mentally ill, the drug addicted, [the] working poor.” Just days before the New Hampshire primary, at one of the town halls that he said has “changed” him, he offered a surprisingly non-political commentary. “I think many of us just feel lonely,” he said. “We don’t know where to go. There’s nobody around to celebrate some of our victories. Sometimes there’s nobody around to sit and cry with us. Don’t we want that back in our country again?…Everybody on this Earth is connected. We’re just a part of a mosaic in a moment of time. And when people are broken, it hurts all of us.”
Down in Georgia, a college student heard all this. He had recently lost a man who was like his second father to suicide, and earlier he watched his parents divorce and his dad lose his job. He showed up at a South Carolina town hall just to tell Kasich his story and ask him for a hug, evoking the kind of connection that young people say we’ve lost.
On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders has staked his entire campaign on calling attention to the economic troubles of the working class. Unlike Trump, he says that we can’t fix America’s most urgent problems unless the disaffected and disengaged do something constructive: engage in the political process and organize. In his campaign ads and speeches, Sanders says that he wants Americans of all stripes to “stand together and demand that this country works for all of us, rather than the few.” Only then, he says, can we make straight a “rigged economy.” He, too, is urging a version of the politics of solidarity—and it’s surely one reason why he has won working-class voters.
Marco Rubio talks about standing with the single mom earning $10 an hour, the African American male singled out for discrimination, and the child in poverty who grows up with “four strikes” against him. “If a significant percentage of the American family feels that they are locked out the promise of America,” he says, “we will never be able to fulfill our destiny as a great nation.”
And arguably Chris Christie’s finest hour in his campaign came when he made an emotional appeal at a New Hampshire town hall for Republicans to adopt a more compassionate approach to drug addiction.
Whatever one thinks about the individual candidates’ policies or party affiliations, and however one judges their intentions, the rhetoric is a welcome departure from the politics of division that has dominated the election cycle thus far. Both Republican and Democratic candidates could do the country and their campaigns a favor by applying the rhetoric in concrete ways that would get noticed by the poor and working class.
How? Here is just one idea.
Whoever goes on to win their respective parties’ nomination, campaign from the margins for at least a month before the general election. Go on a nationwide, town hall–style summer listening tour, with a special preference for the Flints of America: the places where people feel left behind and forgotten, the places that are easy for politicians to ignore because their residents lack economic power, or don’t bother voting. Go to the hollers of Appalachian Kentucky and listen to the stories of people battling drug addiction and poverty and the loss of livelihoods. Go to West Liberty, Iowa’s first Hispanic-majority town, and listen to the challenges that immigrant strivers face as they seek to integrate into the heartland.
Americans are big-hearted people. At bottom, they want the little guy to rise up; they don’t want to leave anyone behind. Do it right, and when more affluent Americans see you focusing on Flint, Michigan, and Hazard, Kentucky, and West Liberty, Iowa, they won’t cry “class warfare” but join you. Because they want to feel that they’re part of something bigger and better than themselves. And over time, more poor and working-class citizens will entrust you with their stories and confidence and passion, more of them might just turn out to vote for you, and you will definitely govern differently as a result. Because if you are open, you cannot listen to the stories of the down and out for long without finding yourself changed.
If you do this and you mean it, at the least we’ll be able to say, as Bill Cooper’s neighbors said of him, that the country was blessed by your presence. Let’s become a nation of little shots again.