Restoration Calls

In Nothing We Trust

Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great.

Johnny Whitmire, Muncie, New Jersey resident
Ralf-Finn Hestoft
Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton
April 19, 2012, 9:46 a.m.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

Knock around Muncie for proof: City Hall, like Wash­ing­ton, is petty and po­lar­ized, driv­ing down voter en­gage­ment. Stodgy main­line churches are los­ing wor­shipers in droves. Low-tech and un­ruly pub­lic schools are prompt­ing par­ents to pull their chil­dren out. The city’s once-be­loved busi­ness class shuttered its factor­ies, leav­ing a leg­acy of double-di­git un­em­ploy­ment and help­less­ness. Labor uni­ons once cred­ited with cre­at­ing the middle class are now of­ten blamed for the de­mise of in­dustry. Even The Star Press, Muncie’s daily news­pa­per once ven­er­ated for hold­ing loc­als to ac­count, was gut­ted after a job-killing mer­ger in 1996 and the sale, a few years later, to me­dia gi­ant Gan­nett.

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.

Gutenberg to Google

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.”

“The Light Got Dimmer”

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.

“Let Him Speak!”

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 …”

“Sir!”

“… ath­letes …”

“Sir!”

“… 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.

Fighting City Hall

“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.

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. 

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