It was always this way, until it wasn't

Paul Constant

July 04, 2017

I’m in southern California.

I’m in southern California because Seattle’s cloudy and rainy weather has finally become too much for me. The year 2017 has brought with it a few pristine sunny days, but those days have been the briefest of punctuation marks in a long, run-on sentence of gray skies and brutally cold rain. This winter has tested my patience, and I have a few days off work and so I’m visiting some friends and following the sun.

The trip to California has affirmed a question that has been nagging at me — a sensation that I had been carrying inside myself, without much analysis, over the last few months. Since the beginning of this year, I have begun to think of myself as a West Coaster, by which I mean a citizen of the West Coast. This is not to say that I don’t consider myself to be an American — of course I do, and proudly; I’ve known nothing else in my life — but if you were to ask me to identify myself based on my region, I would do so as follows, arranged from my first likely answer to my least:

  1. I am an American.

  2. I am a West Coaster.

  3. I am a Seattleite.

  4. I am a Washingtonian.

Number two on that list didn’t exist for me last year. I never thought of myself as a West Coaster, or even really of the West Coast as a region unto itself. I was always a Northwesterner, not a coastal partisan. But now the coast has insinuated itself into my identity and it’s not likely to disappear anytime soon.

The reason for this shift is pretty obvious: the West Coast has stood up against the inept and/or malevolent policies of Donald Trump as a unified front. California and Oregon and Washington stood strong against the Muslim ban, they are combating the regressive Drug-War-era policies of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, they are fighting back against the slow-motion murder of the Affordable Care Act. West Coast states are continuing to join the civilized world in its fight against climate change. West Coast states pay their minimum-wage workers a living wage. West Coast states are becoming more inclusive and progressive as the leadership of this country becomes more xenophobic and exclusionary.

In the past, I’ve been mistrustful of California; something about the state was too big, and too alien, to comprehend. California used to feel more like another country to me than one of the 50 states. But on this trip, I’ve been sitting in the sun and eating In-N-Out Burgers and going to the beach to watch kids try to surf and it all feels very comfortable to me. All of us here at the beach — eating tacos, walking on the boardwalk, building sand castles — we all share a nationality. We are all West Coasters. We breathe the same air and we work toward the same goals.

I don’t know if I can say that I share those beliefs with people who live in, for instance, Alabama. Or South Carolina. Or Oklahoma. Do Arkansans believe that everyone deserves a decent shot at success? Do Mississippians believe that all humans were created equal? Do most people in Kansas believe that government is necessary to promote the general welfare by building roads and promoting regulations that protect our safety? My gut instinct is to say that they don’t, but maybe I’ve fallen prey to media conditioning. Perhaps our differences aren’t that great, but these days it feels as though I’m looking at the rest of the country across a chasm, and that distance has made everything on the West Coast — even the unfamiliar sun and relentless cheer of southern California — feel closer to me than ever.

While I’ve been lying in the sun and walking around the cactus-strewn bird sanctuaries of southern California, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Wisconsin, a state I’ve never visited. I’ve been reading Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein’s new book Janesville, a journalistic study of the Wisconsin town that gave the world House Majority Leader Paul Ryan. Goldstein’s book examines eight years or so in Janesville’s recent history — from roughly the Great Recession of 2008 to roughly the election of Donald Trump.

The story of Janesville begins with the closure of a General Motors auto plant that had been at the center of Janesville’s economy for decades. The GM plant had become a way of life: fathers told their sons that when they grew up, they’d work at the plant, and their children would do the same. People graduated high school and planned on building cars for the rest of their lives. Then one day the plant closed and the national economy lurched and stumbled and nearly died.

Though Ryan loves to piously wrap himself in his Janesville roots, the town is liberal, packed with union supporters. They believed in the idea that working hard and playing by the rules, that old political cliché, would pay off. For years they believed in the promise of the American Dream, but all of a sudden, in the remarkable year of 2008, they believed that the American Dream stopped believing in them.

Goldstein points out that General Motors is not the first corporate father figure to abandon Janesville. For many years, the town had been home to a Parker Pens factory. You probably don’t know the name now, but Parkers used to be famous worldwide for ending the biggest war in human history:

In May of 1945, the treaty of German surrender that ended World War II in Europe was signed with a pair of Parker 51 fountain pens belonging to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, who held up the two pens for the cameras in a V for victory. At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, a Parker pavilion sponsored the biggest international letter-writing program that had ever been undertaken. It featured an early “electric computer,” which could, within seconds, match a fairgoer with a pen pal of similar age and interests overseas. Uniformed women known as Pennettes, from Janesville and around the globe, handed out pens, postcards, and stationary.

Just as those primitive computers eventually rendered the expensive Parker pen almost entirely useless, so would the automated wonders that made factories safer and more efficient eventually push human workers aside. Goldstein clarifies that the GM closure is not a unique event; it’s merely the latest (and the most acute) event in a pattern as old as Janesville itself.

Goldstein’s book follows a handful of Janesville’s citizens through about eight years in their lives as they navigate a world of ballooning unemployment and uncertain futures. It’s kind of a thriller without explosions or car chases, and the fate of the nation at stake.

Janesville stars men and women from every one of Janesville’s myriad economic layers. Some of the laid-off factory workers have the resources to find new work. Others grab onto any job they can, because their lives literally depend on it. Teenagers plan for a future that is more tenuous than expected. Paul Ryan is a character in this book — his time as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 election earns special attention — and his concern for the citizens of Janesville feels earnest and real. Not all of these people will survive until the end of the book. All of them will be profoundly changed.

When economic devastation visits small-town America, politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about retraining the laid-off employees, to help them prepare for the future. The people in Janesville find out that it’s not that simple.

Whatever the reasons, Bob is becoming aware that the retraining gospel that the federal government and the Job Center’s own caseworkers have been spreading is based on a rock-bottom premise that hasn’t turned out to be true — at least, not yet. The premise is that this recession would be like past recessions and that jobs would come back at the pace that they have before. It is not happening. So Bob is aware that the Job Center, with good intentions but wrong expectations, has sent people into what he is starting to regard as a double whammy. They lost their jobs. They went to school to equip themselves with new skills and they still can’t find jobs.

When your own job is secure and your city is enjoying prosperity, it can be easy to forget that those unemployment numbers that newscasters are murmuring about are actually real human beings. It’s easy for self-satisfied men in urban bubbles to talk extravagantly about creative destruction and industry disruption, but for the people who get crushed under creative destruction and industry disruption, it’s more like warfare. Janesville gets to the heart of that truth, reveals the names and circumstances behind those evening news statistics. It’s a compassionate work, and patient, and beautiful.

Rather than J.D. Vance’s wrongheaded Hillbilly Elegy, Janesville is the book I’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand what’s happening in rural America. Goldstein has a particular gift for combining facts and figures with the stories of real human beings. I don’t know how many Janesville citizens she profiled for this book, but in some passages it seems like she must be on a first-name basis with everyone in town. Janesville isn’t a partisan polemic, but it is a call to action. It’s an indictment of a country — the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, in fact — that let everything fall apart in the name of greed. It’s a requiem for a way of life that we all thought would last forever, until suddenly it didn’t.

For this West Coaster reading this book in the California sunshine, Janesville doesn’t speak in the rarefied language of an anthropological survey. It doesn’t tut-tut at the bad decisions of conservative voters who opted again and again for politicians who had their worst interests in mind. It doesn’t swoop in from ten thousand feet in the sky.

Goldstein expertly makes it clear that these residents of Janesville are no different than anyone else, from New England to southern California. They’re all American, and so is Goldstein, and so am I. In Janesville, there is no chasm between the West Coast and Wisconsin. We are united by a common country, and together we stand, humbly, before an uncertain future. If we can unite and overcome the hardship in our future, it will be because we are Americans—every last one of us.

Americans built this country once. We carved Janesville out of forests and we populated it and we constructed great factories in it. And then we ruined it. As Americans, we can decide to build it once again — but only if we find a way to build it together.

Books in this review:
  • Janesville
    by Amy Goldstein
    Simon and Schuster
    April 18, 2017
    351 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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