I’ve wanted to write this story for a while, but kept stumbling over how to begin. I have listened to others question who I am, or more collectively, who the people are that I call friends, family, and neighbors. In the wake of a political season that seemed to throw everything known into disarray, many people are confused about Middle America. I read characterizations that are false. I listen to commentators and talking heads speak with well-staged authority about people they have never met. It’s time to correct the record.
What qualifies me to speak for all of Middle America? Well, nothing. When compared to the most talked about demographic groups, I’m nobody. I am a forty-something white man with a wife and three kids. We live in the suburbs and go to church on Sundays. We are educated, work white collar jobs, and between 2008 and 2016, felt the sting of an economy that left a vast majority of the people in our community behind as the people in Washington, New York, and California prospered. I live in a state where every county went for Donald Trump in 2016. I know why it happened, and all of the pundits have it wrong. The fact that they don’t understand, is just another example of why America is so divided.
I am troubled by the division in American society, but not surprised. I watched it grow over the last fifteen years, even while people in Washington and New York wouldn’t even acknowledge it existed. Before things started to really fall apart, I worked as a publisher and consultant in Washington but lived in Hurricane, West Virginia. As the editor of a small defense journal I was afforded the opportunity to interview service secretaries, members of the joint chiefs of staff, congressmen, senators, governors, defense industry executives, and hundreds of soldiers, marines, and airmen in the field. It was an interesting life. On some days, I’d be doing a one-on-one interview with the likes of John McCain on Capitol Hill, and seven hours later I was scooping the cat pan and taking out the trash at my home in the heart of Appalachia. I operated in both worlds, and even though that was long before President Obama took office, I saw then that the system was broken.
Despite what’s said on Sunday morning talk shows, Middle Americans aren’t that hard to figure out. We don’t share the same values as hipsters in New York, Wall Street bankers, career politicians, or the lobbyists on K-Street in Washington. That doesn’t make us backwards or somehow shut-off from the rest of the world. Personally, I have travelled to forty-three of the fifty states. I have witnessed the poverty of Central America, and the depravity of man in Bosnia. I have dined at some of the finest restaurants in Washington, and met with business associates in almost every major metropolitan area in the country. I have also baled hay. I have camped in remote wilderness. I am a veteran. I mow my own grass, fix my own cars, and clean my own house. I have mended barbed wire fences, worked manual labor, and slept in every imaginable environment including snowy mountaintops to bug infested swamps. I’ve hung out with bikers, farmers, construction workers, lawyers, soldiers, entrepreneurs, coal miners, and doctors, and call many of them my friends. I know how to shoot a firearm very accurately, and there have been times in my life when I had to seriously contemplate who or what I was willing to die for. I’m not alone in my experiences, and millions of people like me have lived life on both sides of the chasm. There is a sense here, however, that many of the people who cast dispersions on Middle Americans have never experienced the things we have. In my mind, Middle Americans who have lived in both worlds are more well rounded than any of the people who talk down to us in the media and on the campaign trail. We’ve seen both worlds and have chosen to live where things make the most sense.
What confuses our detractors most is our complete and utter rejection of the things they seem to hold most dear. We don’t accept their standards for what constitutes a successful life. It’s that simple. We see the world differently. What’s shocking is that the urban elites on Madison Avenue and Hollywood can’t even compute that possibility. I admit, their astonishment is amusing to me and it’s what’s inspired me to start a research project called the American Averagist.
But what, one might ask, is an Averagist? Truth be told, it’s not even a modern word. I found references in old textbooks dating back to 1908, but a precise definition has escaped me. When I decided on the name for the project, I wanted to focus on the fact that I am nothing special; I’m average. Whether that means we use the word Averagist as an adjective (i.e. the most average of average people, which is numerically impossible), or as some sort of noun (a person who looks at and considers things that are average, kind of like a radiologist looks at x-rays), is up to the readers. I don’t care. As long as the assumed meaning doesn’t place me beyond the realm of being anything special, I’m good with it. Which brings me to my real mission.
Middle Class America is rising. The conversations that are taking place on main street will affect everything from government policy to consumer product development. Over the last thirty years, companies have spent billions trying to reach emerging markets around the world. I submit, that the greatest emerging market the world has ever seen will be the one that grows out of a resurgent Middle Class America. The American consumer is the most powerful economic force in the world. As the economy improves for people who have been left behind, new spending patterns will appear, new political constituencies will develop, and a new discussion will take place about American priorities. The conversations that drive this emergence will not originate in the media. They will not originate in Washington. They’ll start in small towns and cities across the country. Government officials and businesses can be part of this reawakening. All they have to do is stop listening to the talking heads and political hacks. The heartland is speaking clearly.