Small Towns can Live. But Only if We Don’t Let Them Die

I spent last week in my hometown of Bear Lake, Michigan, with my wife, parents, extended family, and friends. Monday was Independence Day, and the following Friday and Saturday were “Bear Lake Days”. Because Northern Michigan is beautiful in the summer, it’s always been a tradition for all of my aunts and uncles and cousins to come up for the 4th, and because I love my hometown, I try to get back for Bear Lake Days every year if possible.

If you know me, or if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know I’m fiercely proud of my hometown. Last week though, as I drove into town for the first time I felt ashamed. And angry.

Bear Lake has always had issues. There’s always been poverty and drugs and a lack of decent jobs. And ever since I’ve been alive there have been a couple of abandoned, blighted buildings in downtown. But in the last few years the abandoned buildings have gone from being the exception to the rule. First the Bear Lake Bar, where I spent many an evening drinking $1.25 Bud Lights with friends, went out of business. Then the “Village Variety Store” which has always been a stretch to call an “open business” closed its doors for good. Now it’s decaying to the point that they have the road on one side closed off so people don’t get hit with falling bricks. Then the bank closed, leaving a big empty building which serves the exclusive function of supporting a still functioning ATM. The café closed. Basically the only things left are an auto parts store, two “antique” shops which seem to be open sporadically at best, and a single chair barber shop which will undoubtedly close when Hugh, the elderly barber, retires or dies. That and a bunch of empty buildings in varying states of decay. You could pick up the main drag of Bear Lake and drop in on Chene or Gratiot in Detroit and it wouldn’t look a bit out of place.


Hugh’s Barber Shop


The sad thing, the infuriating thing, is that it didn’t have to be like this. When people talk about the decline of small towns they tend to fall into two camps. One group looks at small town America with rose colored glasses and denies that a decline is even happening. To these people, the blight, the drugs, the poverty, the emptying out, are just minor blips, nothing to worry about in the long term. Distressingly, many people in leadership roles in our towns, as well as at state and federal levels seem to fall into this camp. The other camp shrugs and says that the decline of small towns is inevitable (or even, in the case of certain smug urban liberals I’ve met, a good thing). These attitudes, when held up to even the tiniest bit of criticism are, of course, bullshit. It’s obvious to anyone that has driven a few miles of two lane roads anywhere in the US that there are small towns all over the country that look like Bear Lake. It should be equally obvious that a select few have avoided that fate through good planning and policy.

The majority of the buildings in downtown Bear Lake are owned by two families. One that has owned a bunch (including the variety store) forever, and let them fall into decay, and another that has recently purchased closed businesses and held on to them for what seems to be real estate speculation. In a town as small as Bear Lake, one or two families owning a few buildings each can basically determine the future of the commercial district. What these two families either don’t realize, or are two callous to care about, is that by sitting on an empty property, they not only contribute to the decay of that individual building, but to the decay of the entire community, and the loss of valuable tourist dollars to neighboring towns. They aren’t passively allowing the town to collapse, they are actively destroying it.

Variety Store

The Village Variety Store. Always an eyesore, now a collapsing danger to the public.

I’ve heard enough rumors about people wanting to move businesses into those buildings that at least some of them have to be true. In every case, they were denied by these families. Maybe the families didn’t think their offer was high enough. Maybe, as some have claimed, they nurse a grudge that is manifested in their spitefully empty storefronts. But the fact of the matter is there is no policy tool that allows the township or county to remedy this situation. If we were to develop legislation with the specific goal of reviving our small towns, specific tools for towns of under 2,000 residents to redevelop their commercial districts, rather than a cookie cutter approach that says what’s good for Detroit and Bloomfield Hills must be good for Bear Lake, then perhaps we could have that brewery or bakery, rather than a collapsing building or empty storefront. There should be a law that allows townships to seize commercial properties from the owners if they have sat empty for a certain number of years, and sell them to the best business that bids on it, the business that would provide the most benefit to the community. Then a large percentage of the sale price could be paid back to the original owners.

I realize this is a radical proposal, but we have to stop looking at the core of our towns as only individual properties. They are not. They directly impact all residents of the community. We need to understand that the public interest trumps an (already well off) private individuals desire to make a few bucks. Developing a policy like this is possible. It just takes political courage. The courage to admit that our small towns are in crisis, as well as the courage to say we’re not going to allow them to die.

On Friday night for Bear Lake days, my friend’s band was playing a gig. My wife, myself, and two friends walked over with a backpack of beer to check out the show. We walked past all the empty buildings, and I tried not to get too frustrated, but as the show started I felt content. Events like this are designed to attract tourists, but later in the evening they tend to go back to their cottages (or maybe to Frankfort, the town 20 minutes away with lots of fudge and “cute” shops). On this evening, the people trickling in were almost all locals. The band sounded great, and as they launched into a medley of 80’s covers an elderly couple went into the parking lot and started line dancing. In no time flat a handful of middle aged couples joined them. Then a whole mess of little kids. By the third song there were probably 30 people dancing a spontaneous line dance, in an empty parking lot, between an abandoned pizza place and an abandoned real estate office. Little kids flitted between them, older people watched, laughing, and a fuchsia sun set over Hugh’s barber shop.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the buildings in my hometown, or in small towns all over the country. I don’t know if small businesses will ever be allowed to thrive there, if we have the political will to stop treating these places as disposable. I worry about it a lot.

But I’m not worried about the people. We’re gonna take care of each other. We’re gonna be alright.


The New Insiders: The Progressive Movement is Strangling Itself

Rainbow donkey

Tuesday was Election Day. Though you wouldn’t know it by watching cable news, who seem to be exclusively focused on the 2016 presidential race, municipalities across the country elected mayors, states voted on ballot measures and for governors. These are all things that, in most cases, will have a bigger effect on the average American’s life than the results of the presidential election in 2016. And my party, the Democrats, got absolutely obliterated.

If you follow, like me, media from the left of the aisle; Vox, The New Republic, MSNBC, or
(yes) NPR, you’ve heard a lot of stories over the last month discussing the supposed disorder within the Republican Party, stories packed with a poorly disguised glee. These stories tend to center on two things: the chaos within the parties establishment as the tea party battles the old boys club, and the sort of statistical modeling that shows how difficult it supposedly will be in the future for the Republicans to win a national (i.e. Presidential) election. What these stories reliably fail to mention is that with the exception of Obama’s reelection, Republicans are trouncing Democrats everywhere. Yes, the leadership of the Republican Party in congress may be divided, but they control congress by a large margin and will almost certainly maintain their control. States like Kentucky and my home state of Michigan that have been reliably blue for decades are now dominated by Republicans in the legislative and executive branches. Left leaning media loves to point out the incompetence of Republican Party leadership. I say ‘incompetent like a fox’.

I was drawn to the Democratic Party at a young age out of a sense of economic populism. To me, the Democrats were the party that stood up for working people, the party that wasn’t in bed with banks and corporations. Of course, as a good progressive, I’ve always been in favor of LGBT rights, fighting racism and sexism, and defending a woman’s right to choose. But to me, the central issue was economic equity. The social issues were icing on the cake. Eventually, this passion drew me to progressive activism outside of party politics. As a community organizer, I’ve spent thousands of hours talking with ordinary, apolitical people, about political issues.  It’s pretty obvious that the average citizen, no matter what party they tend to vote for, cares about a billion times more about economic issues than social issues. But there’s a disconnect I’ve seen  as I’ve been exposed to the new generation of “insiders” in the Democratic Party.

The people in the establishment, the people working the campaigns, at the state and local level, are mostly young (under 35) and lifelong Democrats. This new generation of progressive insiders is the exact opposite of the average citizen, or me. They identify as progressive and vote exclusively for Democrats solely based on social issues.  Economic justice, corporate accountability, in these circles, is mentioned in passing if at all, and identity politics is the new hotness. For the new insiders, issues like choice and LGBT rights are the core of their political identity, and, in most cases, the totality of it

Having these people with their hands on the controls is a dangerous position for a party or a movement to be in. The danger is that as they continue to establish themselves in positions of power in the movement and party, movement will lose a core piece of its identity. The identity of standing for the poor and the working class. Democrats and progressives continue to get hammered in local and state elections, where the winners have a great deal of influence over tax policy, energy policy, and infrastructure. But no mayor is going to be able to repeal Roe v. Wade. No city commissioner or State Rep can reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. For the most part, social policies that the new insiders are most passionate about are created at the federal level, and in many cases, by the courts.  But these insiders are working state and local level elections and the results speak for themselves. The lack of a coherent, passionate message on economic justice is limits the progressive base and as a result, policy battles are being won by the right at every level.

Now, you may say, what about Bernie Sanders, the fire breathing economic populist and socialist? How to account for his surge in popularity? I would say his long shot candidacy proves my point exactly. Sanders is not of the establishment, and has embraced a message centered in economic policy. But the new insiders are overwhelmingly in support of Hilary Clinton, who is in lock step with them on social issues, but on economics and foreign policy is indistinguishable from a Republican. There’s a broad base of support for someone with a Sanders-like message, but not within the establishment. And the establishment tends to have the final say.

Sanders’ rise has illustrated the distance between the new insiders and the average citizen to me in stark relief. I’m part of a cohort of 25 or so young progressives being trained to work as campaign managers and staffers. All of them will be starting out at local level races, but their opinions of the presidential race are telling. A handful of them are mid-career people like myself, but most of them are right out of college, in their early to mid-twenties. And they are, probably by a margin of 3 to 1 Clinton, not Sanders, supporters. Outside of this group, when I talk to young people about the race, they overwhelmingly support Sanders. In fact, I have only met maybe 2 or 3 Clinton supporters, and even they didn’t seem excited about it. But in the back rooms, the generation of people being groomed to have control over the most grassroots races, and thus, I fear, the progressive movement as a whole, are in favor of the establishment candidate. Their reasons typically are rooted in identity politics, for the most part not extending much beyond either “because she’s electable” or “because she’s a woman”. When talking to them about their opinions, it becomes crystal clear that economic/financial policy are low on their lists of concerns, and the lack of a real difference between a Democrat and a Republican on these policies wouldn’t keep them up at night. In a few of my more disturbing conversations, I came away with the distinct feeling that such a difference was less important than simply being on a winning team.

The more troubling effect of the new insiders rise to power is a sort of smug complacency. Their movement, their identity as a group, though they would probably deny it, is based on public outrage, both legitimate and exaggerated. Their defining characteristic is their opposition to all things “problematic”, the newly in vogue term for anything not politically correct. This opposition to the “problematic” strains of society allows them to feel righteous and holy, even in defeat, and their blinders to anything other than presidential elections allow them to feel destined for victory, even as they fail. The new insiders are so defined by their opposition to so many things, that in order to maintain their sense of self they have to operate at a huge distance from the average voter. A distance that allows them to feel righteous, but that also leads to a condescension that is a recipe for losing elections.

On Tuesday, I spent the evening at a post-election “party” for city council candidate whose campaign I had helped out on. He had to be in the top four to be elected, and he finished sixth. Needless to say, the atmosphere was not festive. Soon, the talk turned to the electorate. “Well, what are you going to do in a place like [X city]?” someone said. “It probably would have been better if [candidate] had made some crazy Christian statement”. Everyone laughed. Over the weekend, at a phone bank, another staffer on the campaign had told me that she didn’t believe that taxes should be raised on the rich, and no one seemed to bat an eye. And in the end we all felt more comfortable blaming the electorate, the citizens, for our loss than ourselves.

Interactions like this took place all over the country on Tuesday night. The new insiders are so sure of their purity on the social issues, that they feel no need to question their privilege on the economic front, or even to develop a strong position. Easier to blame the voters.

If the new insiders aren’t forced to evaluate themselves and their positions, and if they aren’t held accountable, the Democratic Party, and the progressive movement as a whole, are doomed. The attitude of righteous outrage in defeat is simply not sustainable. That’s the thing about Martyrs: they die. Democrats and progressives risk the same fate. Our movement can both develop a strong and true populist message on economics and war, start emphasizing it, and watch our base grow and our movement win, or we can enjoy our ideological purity as we watch our movement die from the bottom up.