MUNCIE, Ind.—Johnny Whitmire shuts off his lawn mower and takes a long draw from a water bottle. He sloshes the liquid from cheek to cheek and squirts it between his work boots. He is sweating through his white T-shirt. His jeans are dirty. His middle-aged back hurts like hell. But the calf-high grass is cut, and the weeds are tamed at 1900 W. 10th St., a house that Whitmire and his family once called home. “I’ve decided to keep the place up,” he says, “because I hope to buy it back from the bank.”
Whitmire tells a familiar story of how public and private institutions derailed an American’s dream: In 2000, he bought the $40,000 house with no money down and a $620 monthly mortgage. He made every payment. Then, in the fall of 2010, his partially disabled wife lost her state job. “Governor [Mitch] Daniels slashed the budget, and they looked for any excuse to squeeze people out,” Whitmire says. “We got lost in that shuffle—cut adrift.” The Whitmires couldn’t make their payments anymore.
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They applied for a trial loan-modification through an Obama administration program, and when it was granted, their monthly bill fell to $473.87. But, like nearly a million others, the modification was canceled. After charging the lower rate for three months, their mortgage lender reinstated the higher fee and billed the family $1,878.88 in back payments. Whitmire didn’t have that kind of cash and couldn’t get it, so he and his wife filed for bankruptcy. His attorney advised him to live in the house until the bank foreclosed, but “I don’t believe in a free lunch,” Whitmire says. He moved out, leaving the keys on the kitchen table. “I thought the bank should have them.”
A year later, City Hall sent him salt for his wounds: a $300 citation for tall grass at 1900 W. 10th St. Telling the story, he swipes dried grass from his jeans and shakes his head. “The city dinged me for tall weeds at my bank’s house.” After another pull from the water bottle, Whitmire kicks a steel-toed boot into the ground he once owned. “You can’t trust anybody or anything anymore.”
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Whitmire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: noncollege-educated white males. He feels betrayed—not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn’t rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else’s error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off. “I was middle class for 10 years, but it’s done,” Whitmire says. “I’ve lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government.”
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Whitmire is a story of Muncie, and Muncie is the story of America. In this place—dubbed “Middletown” by early 20th-century sociologists—people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.
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Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, “In Nothing We Trust.” Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion. “We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything.”
We’ve been through this before, and Muncie is again instructive. Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions. But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.
Perhaps the problem is merely cyclical. “To a degree unlike any time since the Lynds’ time, we’ve lost trust in one another and the institutions that are supposed to hold us together,” says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University here. Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don’t always restore Americans’ faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations’ power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don’t recover—and our faith dies with them?
Yes, frustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It’s how things get done.
When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. “Institutions—even dysfunctional ones—are why we don’t run amok in the woods,” Hansen says.
Still, no metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.
What if, in the future, they don’t? People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain their mojo? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.
Beneath a 110-foot Gothic tower, 180 worshippers at High Street Methodist Church scatter across pews that could hold twice that many. A balcony capable of seating hundreds more rings three sides of the church. It is empty. Nattily dressed worshippers crane their necks to watch robed choir members, a cross bearer, and two ministers walk down the main sanctuary aisle. A booming pipe organ marks each step. After an opening prayer, a dozen white-gloved handbell ringers perform “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” composed by an Englishman in 1881.
Ten or so children are among the worshippers, a couple of them small enough to fit on a parent’s lap, but the vast majority of congregants are middle-aged or older. Pastor N. Dale Mendenhall uses his prayer to ask the Lord to help guide “the best in people of all ages” in the community. “We live in a city struggling to regain its future direction,” he tells them.
Away from his pulpit, Mendenhall confesses that his own downtown church is struggling to regain its direction. The 176-year-old institution is emblematic of a trend in Muncie and America: Mainline churches are losing relevancy and worshippers because they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of their communities. From 1981 to 2011, High Street’s membership dropped 52 percent to 700. The average Sunday attendance declined 27 percent to 379.
That decline reflects the experience of older religious institutions around the country. Those who have left the Catholic Church, for instance, now outnumber those who have joined it 4-to-1, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2008 survey. The large Protestant denominations have lost more than a million members in the past decade or so. The most telling statistic may be the number of Americans who declare themselves “unaffiliated” with any church tradition; it has been rising since the 1960s, and it topped 16 percent in 2010, according to Gallup.
The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.
Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”
After the service, people of all ages gather in the coffee shop and concession area outside the gymnasium, chatting, reading the newspaper, and browsing the bookstores. To be clear: That’s the church coffee shop, the church concession area, the church gymnasium, and the church bookstores. Many in the congregation wear T-shirts and sneakers; no man wears a suit. “They seemed to just take care of their own,” says Nancy Hopper, who joined Union Chapel in 1993, when she grew unhappy with the rural church she had worshipped at. “I like reaching out to the community.”
If Parris’s church is fresh, new, and relevant, John Hunt, the head usher back at High Street, knows how his church is perceived. “Some people think it’s cold and unfriendly,” he says. Mendenhall, too, knows he’s failing to reach people, as are other traditional churches struggling to keep pace with the times. As the 60-year-old Methodist pastor puts it, “Churches are still stuck in the mentality that we just have to fling our doors open, and people will come. That’s not the case anymore. Just look around.”
Traditional churches often cater to people who no longer exist—men and women guaranteed long marriages, many children, and a single job that lasts a lifetime. Today, as people search for moral grounding in an uncertain world, what is more relevant to them, Mendenhall must wonder: choirs or rock bands? Church-basement socials or Starbucks? Bake sales or yoga classes? Missions that serve the poor overseas or those that help the church’s own destitute neighbors?
It’s not that Mendenhall isn’t trying to adapt. He very much wants to draw the same people that Union Chapel serves—or even just to recover some of his own flock. High Street Methodist’s poverty campaign is now focused more on Muncie’s poor than on the needy overseas. It has a nontraditional service with somewhat modern music. Mendenhall has reached out to a downtown-based vocational-education college in hopes of attracting students. Back in his office, he is intrigued to hear about Parris’s coffee shop and wonders if something similar might make his church a gathering spot. But he’s not sure his white-haired church board would go for it. “The way we’ve always done it,” he says with a sigh, “is not going to do it.”
Maranda Whitehead remembers fondly her son Jordan’s first days at the neighborhood public school. He was “excited, happy, thrilled to go to kindergarten,” she says. It was downhill from there. Teachers could barely keep track of the students in their crowded classrooms; they had no money to keep up with modern trends in technology or education; and after the early grades, they taught a rote style focused on the state’s compulsory tests.
“Every year,” Whitehead says of Jordan, “the light got dimmer and dimmer, and finally he hated school.” His joy of learning didn’t return until she enrolled him in the sixth grade at Hoosier Academy, one of many charter schools that have sprung up across Indiana to provide an alternative.
It’s a national trend: Parents are fed up with traditional public schools because they are failing to adapt—or failing outright. The number of charter-school students nationwide has nearly quadrupled over the past decade to more than 1.6 million in the 2009-10 school year. In 2007, the most recent data available, the number of homeschooled students was about 1.5 million, a 76 percent increase since 1999. Many new charter schools cost the state less money than traditional schools and craft school-specific curricula, free from rigid state and district requirements. And although they spring from Indiana’s attempt to create competition for (and, thus, higher quality in) public schools, they also represent a demand-side phenomenon: Parents would not seek alternatives to a healthy public-school system.
Indiana surrendered to the demand in 2001, when its Legislature sanctioned charters. A few years later, it went further and allowed state funding to follow the student. Muncie’s two high schools began hemorrhaging pupils, and the pace is picking up: They have lost more than 17 percent of their enrollment since the 2007-08 school year.
At Hoosier, four days a week, the queue of small sedans, SUVs, and trucks waiting to drop off students forms a wide circle around the parking lot. The academy leases space in the unused wing of a Catholic school on the city’s south side. Under its “blended” model, children go to their classrooms two days a week for face-to-face instruction. Three days a week, they work at home with a parent or other adult while connected electronically to the high-tech school. Teachers and coaches meet at least once a month to review each child’s progress. “Everybody is on the same page all the time,” Whitehead says.
Coordination with parents is a given. “It took me a whole school year to see he wasn’t keeping up” in public school, says Jamie Leffel of her second-grader. Frustrated, she too moved him to Hoosier. What he got there highlights where the public schools have gone wrong. Hoosier students receive a passport to the digital age: Everyone who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch is eligible for a free desktop computer and printer, as well as an Internet stipend. Pupils still need to take government-mandated standardized tests, but the academy’s computer-driven metrics allow teachers and parents to track how well the kids are doing in real time. (They record the grade for every assignment, confirm that work is completed on time, and inform teachers that students need special attention when they can’t exceed 80 percent performance after the first few attempts.) It’s a high-tech education for a high-tech world. Parents get a constant stream of e-mails and, therefore, feel more invested. With Hoosier’s approach, “the partnership with the parent and teacher becomes crucial,” says Melissa DeWitt, the academic director of Hoosier Academies, the parent company based in Indianapolis.
Surprisingly, you won’t get an argument from Muncie Community School Superintendent Tim Heller. “If we were doing our job,” he says, “why would parents want to go to charter schools?” Heller worked in Indiana schools, including Muncie, for 32 years before leaving to run a wealthy public-school district in Kentucky. He returned last year to find Muncie’s system a shell of its former self. Years of declining enrollment has strained budgets, Heller said, and violence in the high schools worries administrators and parents. Add a high-profile scandal (a high school principal failed to report a rape allegation) and it’s not surprising that parents are voting with their feet.
In the Bluegrass State, Heller put laptops in the hands of every one of his high school students. But in Muncie, he has been ordered to slash some $4 million (about 8 percent) from the budget. Plans to install wireless Internet are just plans, for now. Teachers can’t offer the kind of real-time metrics that their competitors at Hoosier can.
Heller is challenging his staff to recognize why parents are yanking their kids. He is also cracking down on unruly students and raising academic standards. He plans to convene a meeting of parents who homeschool their children or send them elsewhere. “I want to ask them, ‘What don’t we do that you need us to do?’ ” But he hasn’t reversed any trends yet. And further budget cuts—not an unreasonable expectation as Washington passes debt off to states and municipalities—could reinforce the vicious cycle.
The first City Council meeting in 2008 is the stuff of legend. Republican Sharon McShurley had just become Muncie’s first female mayor. (Her margin of victory: 13 votes.) Coming into the session, it was all-out partisan war. Democrats were contesting the election in court. Republicans accused Democratic council member Monte Murphy of voter fraud after rounding up a half dozen witnesses who said that Murphy pressured them to vote Democratic on the absentee ballots he collected. The Democratic-controlled council had vowed to gridlock city government if that’s what it took to consign McShurley to a single term.
The hearing opens and in walks Cary Malchow, a clothing-shop owner bearing political ambitions and what might as well be a lit fuse. He demands that the City Council investigate one of its own. “This city has a member on its council, Monte Murphy, who has been publicly accused of the ultimate misconduct,” Malchow begins.
Bang! Bang! Bang! President Sam Marshall pounds his gavel to protect his fellow Democrat. “Sir, we will not have any …”
But Murphy doesn’t need Marshall’s help. He makes his own defense. Publicly accused? “By who?” More interruptions. “No, wait a minute. He brung up my name. By who?”
Malchow calmly replies that he read about the accusations in the newspaper. Returning to his prepared remarks, the businessman cites a city code allowing for corruption inquiries, before he is cut off again.
“Hey!” Marshall shouts. “We’re going to stop this meeting if this continues …”
Malchow is undeterred. If Murphy consents to an investigation, then he can “prove his innocence,” Malchow says. “By saying no, you’re leaving no doubt in everybody’s mind of a cover-up and that the gentleman is surely guilty.”
At this pronouncement, all hell breaks loose in City Hall. “That’s enough! Marshall shouts, banging the gavel. “That’s enough! That’s enough, sir! You’ve had enough time.”
“No, I haven’t,” Malchow avows.
Marshall rolls up his sleeves in a cartoonish gesture. He looks ready to fight. “You’ve had your three minutes, sir.”
“No, I haven’t,” Malchow says. “We have set standards …”
“Sir!” Marshall yells.
“… for students …”
“… athletes …”
“… and coaches and teachers …”
“Get this guy out,” Marshall growls.
McShurley’s crowd of supporters jump to their feet and chant, “Let him speak! Let him speak!” Marshall gets up and declares, “This meeting is over.” He grabs his glasses from the council table and walks away. People are wagging fingers and shouting.
Within hours, the video is on YouTube. Four years later, Democratic and Republican voters remember it with pinched faces and rolled eyes. “And we wonder why people don’t vote in this city?” asks Virginia Nilles, Muncie’s head librarian, the force behind a civic group formed to fill the leadership vacuum at City Hall.
And why should voters trust City Hall? The rookie mayor’s arrogance and Democratic intransigence ensured that McShurley’s term was a disaster. Murphy was convicted of felonious possession of absentee ballots and stripped of his council spot (the charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor). McShurley got revenge against Marshall by laying him off from his city job (he had been a supervisor at the city’s street department while serving as council president).
Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, McShurley looks back on four years of voter discontent and says, “We have ourselves to blame.” In 2008, she had confessed that her election was the result of a less-than-honest campaign: While promising to bring new jobs to the city, she didn’t tell voters that they would have to settle for far less pay and benefits in postindustrial Muncie. “They want $30-an-hour factory jobs, $15-an-hour benefits packages. No continuing education,” a dismissive McShurley told a reporter a few months into her term. “They want it just like their grandparents had it, just like some of their parents had it.”
Four years later, McShurley has little regret. “Why wasn’t I more honest with voters?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question: “They didn’t want to hear it.” Voters may have lost faith in their leaders, but the leaders, too, have lost faith in the people. McShurley didn’t trust voters to accept the truth in 2007, so she danced around it. It’s no wonder that just 19 percent of the voting-eligible public cast ballots in last year’s mayoral race. And it’s a national problem: After a 50-year decline, just 14 percent of respondents in a 2011 Gallup Poll said that the federal government could be trusted “a great deal.” It’s a vicious cycle. Voters don’t like hard truths; so politicians spin us; so we don’t trust politicians; so politicians pander and lie to us.
In this, too, Muncie’s story is the story of America.
“I’m here to appeal my weed citation.” Johnny Whitmire’s issue is the third item on the agenda for the Muncie Board of Public Works and Safety. For this official occasion, he wears a clean jean jacket. Despite everything he has been through, he’ll take a chance that government can help. The board meets every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the City Hall auditorium. A dozen people, mostly city employees, file in as board attorney John Quirk calls the meeting to order. The agenda fills one double-spaced page and hints at nothing special: Old business … Comptroller’s reporter … AT&T bill … Weed Appeal.
Sitting behind an elevated polished-wood dais, Quirk and two other board members look down on Whitmire when his turn comes. Quirk tells Whitmire that the house at 1900 W. 10th is still in Whitmire’s name. “It’s a fairly common practice,” he says. “Citi doesn’t want any liability should anybody get hurt on the property.”
“So I’m liable for a house I don’t live in or own?” Whitmire sputters.
Yes, Quirk says. “I move that we put a $300 lien on the property and waive your fine, Mr. Whitmire.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Whitmire asks.
Quirk explains that the board’s action would require whoever buys the house to pay the weed fee.
“What if I buy it back?” Whitmire wants to know. Despite everything, he still has hopes.
“In that case,” Quirk answers, “keep track of the times you cut the lawn, and we’ll add to our motion a waiver of the lien should you buy the house back from Citi. That sound fair to you?”
“Sounds like a deal to me,” Whitmire agrees.
The board votes unanimously for the motion. Whitmire wanders out of the auditorium. “Oh, my God,” Whitmire says, his eyes wide with a smile. “Something just worked at City Hall.”
Desperate enough to try, Whitmire showed up to fight City Hall at a public meeting attended by few other members of the public. Somehow, after his travails, he thought government would work. Even more miraculously, it did. A low-level city board gave a guy a break. Its members showed that institutions can respond to change and help people after all.
But it’s a small victory for Whitmire. He and his wife are still unemployed. He is no longer eligible for the federal mortgage-relief program. He is bankrupt. His credit is destroyed. And he’s living in a trailer, with no expectation of rejoining the middle class. He has been buffeted, again and again, by forces that never had his interests at heart.
As he strolls out of City Hall and makes plans to cut the grass at 1900 W. 10th St., this man from Middletown still has little reason to believe in the system that took so much from him.
This story is part of a yearlong series that examines America’s crumbling foundations and how to rebuild them. Find more on the Web at nationaljournal.com/restoration-calls.
CORRECTION: Whitehead says she had a good relationship with public-school teachers, contrary to a clause in an earlier version of this article. It was Leffel who complained about parent-teacher communication. Also, an earlier version misspelled Whitmire's name in one instance.
This article appears in the April 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.