To quote Tom Petty—I was talking with a friend of mine.
The conversations ran the gamut, as conversations do. The Olympics, old friends, politics, teaching (we’re both teachers), and also—since we were overlooking Long Island Sound—the beach. Like millions of others we had had opportunities to buy beach property “cheap,” had let them pass by, and now lamented the loss. There was no weeping—there were no wails of disappointment. Just simple observations.
But I was reminded of how this country has changed. In the 1950s my father worked in a non-union factory and made a very modest salary. He worked hard—45-hour weeks on balky and tedious machines in a winter-chill and summer-blazing machine shop. My mother worked as a secretary for an equally inadequate salary (a woman in the 1950s?) while my live-in grandmother served as permanent child care for my brother and me. We were so much like other families that I never considered us unusual, though I always knew one thing: we weren’t rich, or well-off, or comfortable, or whatever terms people tossed about sixty years ago.
And yet we had a place at the beach—a boxy little house with three small bedrooms, a shower bath, and a rickety porch overlooking an unpaved street. There was no landscaping—occasionally I’d see a house that had a lawn, but that was a rarity. Every September we drained the water from the pipes—there was no insulation. But we had a place at the beach—everyone seemed to have one. And now I’m wondering—how?
My parents, both long gone, sold that house in the late 1960s when my brother and I lost interest in being there—I do regret that, but mostly I wonder how middle-class post-war working families were able to afford such things, or more to the point, what kind of country provided the middle class with opportunities to advance, provided that ongoing promise that everything already good would only get better?
We don’t live in that country anymore.
I still maintain that the economic platform of someone like Donald Trump will render the middle-class even more static and even less likely to improve its lot. And I know also that the Republican Congress has continually thwarted policies that would have helped the middle class prosper. But I also understand why so many Americans are so fed up with policy that they’re willing to support Donald Trump—a crude, bigoted, misogynistic, acquisitive, and ignorant yahoo—just because he’s different. The politics of confrontation and stagnation created Donald Trump. Now he’s the one promising the beach house, and though he’ll never ever provide it (unless it’s another one for himself) lots of otherwise perfectly sane Americans are already buying their lounge chairs and umbrellas.
I wish I could blame them, but the disappearing middle class needs to be heard.