Why Muncie is Middletown and More
Four years ago, while working for The Associated Press on a series of stories about the public's perception of the presidency with my friend Ted Anthony, we decided to explore how the wrenching socioeconomic change of the early 21st century was changing politics. Where to go? The choice was easy, actually, once I decided to look to history for answers: Muncie, Ind, is the home of the famed early-20th century "Middletown" studies that documented the social and political impact of industrialization.
The AP story, "Measure of a Nation: We are the Change," attempted to pull the camera back from breaking, short-lived political stories and cast the campaign in a broader backdrop of change:
"This year's presidential candidates have talked a lot about change -- as something to be embraced, as something to be desired. But there's been far less talk about the kind of wrenching changes that have strained the fabric of Muncie -- and America.Muncie was the perfect place to do that story because it had "one foot planted in the industrial age and another stepping gingerly into the 21st century:" The north side of town, anchored by Ball State University, was globally and technologically connected. The south side of town was, well, Detroit: Like my hometown, south Muncie was a collection of abandoned auto factories and decaying neighborhoods.
So let's view U.S. politics through the prism of its fast-changing culture. Let's visit Muncie for a fresh perspective on the tumult of the 2008 election: the clamor for post-partisan politics; the yawing gap between "haves" and have-nots;" the growing number of independent voters; the public's loss of faith in government and the widespread belief that the country is on the wrong track.
Politics is only part of the story, the stuff of small talk between life's rude interludes. Still, if you want to understand how Americans are voting in 2008, come see how they live -- and have lived -- in Middletown."
Muncie also illustrated the many parallels between our times and those of the Gilded Age, when sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd studied the hard first years of the industrial era.
Recently, my colleague Jim Tankersley and his editor Kristin Roberts launched a multi-platform project for National Journal called "Restoration Calls," a year-long narrative series on the nation's crumbling foundations and the people buffeted by the crisis. My assignment was to explore the causes and affects of a decades-old trend: The loss of faith in public and private institutions. That brought me back to Muncie because the Lynds had documented a similar loss of trust in the early 20th century.
I reconnected with people I interviewed in 2008, most notably the city's first female mayor, Sharon McShurley, and the subject of a "Middletown" video documentary, Howie Snider. I interviewed Muncie's congressman, Republican Mike Pence, who is likely to become Indiana's next governor and considers the failure of institutions to be a seminal national problem. I didn't have time to track down the men and woman who watched their Chevrolet plant turn to rubble in 2008 but I did meet another blue-collar hero. His name is Johnny Whitmire and he is the central figure of this week's cover story.
Even with a 4,200-word hole, the material in Muncie was too rich to fit. So, over the next several days, I will use this space to write more about Johnny, his town, and our country.
Please let me know what you think about all this. Questions, comments, and criticism are welcome in this space or on Twitter -- @ron_fournier