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Dairyland Confidential: Is Middle America Up for Grabs?

05/31/2006 07:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An extended holiday visit to my birthplace in Eastern Wisconsin--Sheboygan County, to be exact--convinces me that the Time of the Right may be coming to an end, even in the whitest heart of Middle America.

My people, often derided by me and others as overfed cheeseheads, appeared rather less at ease in Zion than I remembered them to be in the past. While I was there, the flag was still flying and the bratwurst was still frying ("fry" being Ouisconsin for "barbecue"), but this year's Memorial Day parade up the main drag of my little hamlet lacked a certain fervor. I talked at length to my 84-year-old mother's friends, all of them members of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, and most were openly contemptuous of the smirking draft dodger who was on the tube again Monday, urging them to stay the course while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They were similarly dismissive of their very own Know-Nothing congressman, the Hon. F. James Sensenbrenner, after watching him lose all three of his shiny chins to the deft punches of a much nimbler Chuck Hagel on Sunday's "Meet the Press."

Crude nativism seems not to play that well among these stolid citizens, who know full well that the foreigners in their midst aren't going anywhere. They've lived as neighbors with displaced Hmongs from the Laotian highlands for 30 years now, and their world didn't come to an end. One old Hollander confided to me, "Sheboygan has a Mexican mayor, for crying in out loud!" Not to mention the stunningly good Jamaican player who led the girls soccer team at Sheboygan South High through a season of unbroken victories.

Surrounded as they are by real live Holsteins, my people all know what fresh manure smells like. They may not be totally immune to distractions and propaganda, but they are no longer easily swayed by calls to "support our brave men and women in uniform" by supporting daft policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, lots of brave Badger State men and women have been coming back and also writing back--most to say that it's all been a terrible waste of blood and money. As the Haditha story broke over the weekend, I watched my mother shake her head sadly. She and people like her know in their gut that this is what happens when there is spreading rot at the very top of the chain of command.

The good burghers I grew up among have concerns closer to home than what they now see as a tragic fool's errand in Mesopotamia. Here are just a few worries that I heard voiced more than once over the course of a six-day visit:

  • Too much work for not much pay: Eastern Wisconsin once boasted a vibrant manufacturing sector, made up mostly of unionized machine shops that sustained a middle-class lifestyle for their workers. No longer. Light manufacturing is still plentiful along the lakeshore, but now it's almost all non-union work with much lower wages and no benefits. Lots of older workers know their children will be having a tougher time making ends meet.
  • Small farming facing its final eclipse: A May 28 wire story published all across the state reported that Wisconsin is still losing more than 100,000 acres of prime farm land each year to development and suburban sprawl. Most of the land is being sold by small farmers caught in a squeeze between very low milk and crop prices and fantastically high land prices.
  • Health care profiteering: Cheeseheads are quite worked up about the arrogance and greed of for-profit health care providers and insurers. The State of Wisconsin has been operating a very good low-cost prescription drug program for its seniors; now that will be dismantled over the next year so that Bush's bungled Medicare Part D (a.k.a. The Big Pharma Profit Maximization Act) won't suffer from any embarrassingly efficient competition.
  • Murder and mayhem in Milwaukee: White people in the sticks may not understand or fully respect their state's tiny minority of African Americans, but they seem to feel nothing but compassion and anxiety over the seemingly endless spate of shootings and murders now taking place in Milwaukee's inner city.
  • The Late Great Lakes?? Despite the important legacies of home state heroes Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, everyday people in Wisconsin were quite slow to adopt a deeper-level environmental consciousness. Now nearly everyone in the shoreline communities of my youth can speak knowledgeably about species loss, ominously fluctuating water levels in Lake Michigan, and the urgent need for fossil-fuel alternatives like wind and solar power. Sheboygan County boosters were even thumping their chests over news that the county is one of just four places in the U.S. that will be getting special federal funds to support the creation of commuter bike trails.

My dear mother is at that point in her life when events that took place 60 years ago are much easier to recall than things that happened six weeks or six days ago. She frets about this. I have been telling her not to worry because--to my mind at least--the affairs of 60 years ago are still vastly more interesting than today's fluff and bother. But after this just-concluded visit I am not sure my filial counsel has been entirely sound. Maybe I should tell the old gal to start paying closer attention. Things could get interesting once again in a state that has (God help us) produced its share of Jim Sensenbrenners and Joe McCarthys--but that has also shown itself capable of supporting a Fighting Bob La Follette, a Tiger Tammy Baldwin, and a Raging Russ Feingold. Ja denn: real world politics could still trump those lousy Packers as something to get cranked about. Just don't send them Hillary.