The American road to nowhere (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

March 4, 2021   6 mins

Take any American road. Let’s choose the I-95, which, for a little under 2,000 miles, cuts a multi-lane track down the eastern seaboard from Maine in the north, to the city limits of Miami in the sunny south.

Pull off somewhere, anywhere. Years ago, my family and I eased our lumbering people carrier down an exit ramp a few hundred miles south of Washington DC, close to Charleston, South Carolina. There was a McDonalds with a huge enclosed playpen for young children. Coffee refills were free on weekdays. No spitting was allowed.

Outside, underneath an impossibly huge Stars and Stripes, the seediness of America was spread out as far as the eye could see. Gas stations, tattoo parlours, Bojangles Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, $30-a-night motels, car showrooms, gun shops; the air was filled with the smell of sweat and fried chicken and car oil.

I realised that afternoon that I was in love with it all. In love with the seediness; but in love too with the gentle, beaten-up faces of the folks who lived in these parts or were passing through. I should offer up a BBC series on McDonalds, I thought (I was the Washington Correspondent at the time) — just hearing from all the people who worked in them, ate in them, wandered through en route to start a new life or leave a lover or escape a jail bond.

Damn. I forgot to do it. Got excited about Obama and busy with stuff. And now the market has been cornered by Chris Arnade, author of Dignity. A book, he says, about “poverty, dignity … and McDonalds.” I wrote about it when it was was published in 2019, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Arnade is a former Wall Street guy who photographs people at the bottom of the American pile. Trust me: that is a very long way down. You will need to have teeth missing to get into Arnade’s books — teeth and a lot else you can’t even remember you had.

But you will also be more relevant than you know. That is the 2021 truth. Anyone who thought the Trump moment was going to be the last time a Manhattan-based journalist was going to have to visit a West Virginia diner is going to have to think again.

In his writing, Arnade has a single crystallising insight. In a nation we associate, rightly, with striving — a nation born with ants in its pants, laying waste, refashioning, rethinking, now even inventing its own facts — there is a very large group of people doing none of these things.

They are just getting by, or trying to. Great swathes of America, huge numbers of Americans, often with rheumy eyes and saggy faces, are not going anywhere. And here’s the kicker: They don’t want to go anywhere

In a piece written recently for the American Compass think tank, which campaigns for community to be at the heart of the Republican message, Chris Arnade recalls a typical scene:

 “The young man and older women working the afternoon shift alone in a Louisiana Waffle House, her serving, him on the grill, gossiping about work to pass the time. After he complains about everything and everybody for ten minutes, ending with a threat to quit, she matter of factly asks him, “Well, what do you want with your life?”, to which he responds, “Job that pays enough to get a home, have a family, and do my hobbies.”

Arnade points out that this is an inexplicable response to those at the top of American society, both Democrats and Republicans. They don’t understand the experience of ordinary Americans who work with their hands:

“Work is something to endure, and most do endure it, with an impressive resiliency. Our technocratic class, politicians, and the elite media rarely see this, and if they did most would be hard pressed to understand it, because their resume and career define who they are. They are careerists, so they assume everyone else must be a careerist, and they look at everyone else working, including the guy in dirty clothes driving the F150, and assume he is a careerist as well, just one in a different and mostly icky career.”

An F150, by the way, is a basic and rather boring pick up truck.

The politics of the Arnade insight is simple but I am not sure all Democrats take it fully on board. If he is right, they need to appeal to people who are not going anywhere and do not want to be told they can, or should. Campaigns of social betterment look fake to these people, because they often have been.

He certainly seems to be onto something: Democrats’ margins of support among those earning less than $30k per year have dropped every year from 2008 through to 2020. Obama won these voters by a whopping 33 percentage points in 2008. By 2020, even with blue collar friendly Biden at the top of the ticket, the Democrats’ lead was down to 8 points.

When Hillary Clinton talked of breaking glass ceilings, what did that really mean in the Waffle House? Nothing. She may as well have been addressing the populace of a different galaxy altogether.

The Democrats’ problem in widening their appeal is often portrayed as a nervousness about the identity politics pursued with such vigour by some Left-wingers. But that’s not quite it. The problem is not really an objection to anti-racism or anti-sexism. People in Waffle Houses do not want to be victimised any more than anyone else.

The problem is the idea that it can be drummed up into a movement in which you must take part. The assumption that you want to make your own life perfect. You want the job! You want the corner office! You want power! Freedom! Sex with anyone who consents!

In the Waffle House, in McDonalds, in the front seat of the pick up truck, it just feels fake. It feels like talk from another planet. It doesn’t unite: it separates. It creams off all the “deserving” strivers from everyone else and it makes everyone else sullen and angry. And apt to vote for Donald Trump or one of his acolytes or children. Not because you like them but because you know the Clinton pant-suit brigade don’t. That’s good enough for you.

The point that some in the Democratic party are making is that the choice — in constructing a determined effort to win these people back — is not between Left and Right. It is possible to be Left but not woke, just as you can be Right but not against government spending. An obvious example is the campaign for a high federal minimum wage. This matters in the Waffle House. It matters for people who are not energised by anything more than earning decent money.

Ah, decent money. Not knocking down the civil war statues or changing the names of schools or refighting battles about transgender children winning girls’ races on sports days.

According to the think tank The People’s Policy Project, if you took all the wealth in America and divided it up equally per person every family of four would get $1.2 million in the bank and an income of $208,000 a year.

Of course, there’s no end of all-American reasons for not doing this, but it’s a surprise, to put it mildly, that given all the riches there are in America, and the level of inequality, the argument for redistribution is so far outside mainstream debate. The project campaigns for a high minimum wage and universal child benefit. It’s not exactly communism.

Will the Democrats run with these ideas now? Does the threat of Trump-style politics mean that the non-strivers, the low achievers, finally get a look in? There are hints that it could happen. In his CPAC speech last Sunday Donald Trump hit notes he’s hit before, in particular on illegal immigration. If you are down on your luck in Oklahoma City it may well have made sense to you.

But turn over the TV and what do you see? On the same day as Mr Trump made his speech, Joe Biden released a video with a striking new message. Around 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are voting on whether to join a union. Mr Biden took the time to support their right to do it.

“Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organise a union in their workplace,” said the President. “This is vitally important — a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and the reckoning on race — what it reveals is the deep disparities that still exist in our country.”

What makes the Biden intervention especially delicious is that Jay Carney — Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon — is the very same Mr Carney who was then-Vice President’s Biden’s director of communications and later President Obama’s press secretary.

Carney’s move, since the days of Bill Clinton, has been the modus operandi of the well-heeled Democrats. When things get rough in DC you hop off to the West Coast. You fly over the (many) diners on the way. And when you get back into office you fly east again, sometimes getting your jet to write “Screw you” in vapour trails in the big sky high above the duel carriageways and corn fields of middle America.

Well, metaphorically anyway. But now — well, who knows?

As well as backing union membership, Biden is proposing a doubling, in four stages, of the minimum wage. This — if it happened — would transform life for people in those bits of America that Jay Carney and other top Democrats only notice at election time.

In the great greasy wastes of land sprawling for miles around the intersections of roads. In the McDonalds, in the Waffle House, they are approaching the counter for a refill. Perhaps politically they might do the same. And Joe, the fill-in candidate, the elderly man keeping the Oval Office desk warm — Joe from whom the smartest Democrats expect nothing — might be preparing something rather extraordinary.

Extraordinary because it is ordinary. An abandonment of the hifalutin. A repudiation of the Twitter blue ticks.

Joe Biden might greatly assist his party and millions of Americans if he delivers something modest but massive. Dignity. That’s all.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer