Historian Eric Foner's epic Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 has for several decades been the go-to-account of how northern Republicans flubbed and abandoned the project of making a different South after defeating the Confederacy and preserving the Union. Their retreat left former slaves under the thumb of their former planter owners, terrorized by "Redeemer" white authorities and largely trapped in a new kind labor bondage, tenant farming. He summarizes the result of this brutal process:
That is, in Foner's telling, for all his rich detail on white terrorism and brutality in the service of resubjugating the former slaves, it was the national capitalist revolution in the rest of the country that set the terms for what happened to Reconstruction and to the South.
This left me wondering about what we see today in parts of the Midwest, the so-called Rust Belt. I was born in Buffalo. I never thought to remain there in adulthood; even in the late 1960s the steel, and auto, and chemical, and grain transport economy was contracting. It wasn't a happening place. And as we all have been reminded by the November election, a couple of generations of mostly white industrial and manufacturing workers in similar Rust Belt locations are hurting, the jobs that once bought their parents into a "middle-class" having disappeared to China or perhaps the anti-union South. Eric Loomis insists that this pain is plenty enough to explain the Tangerine's appeal in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.
Okay, so that is familiar turf, turf which raises up white economic distress and downplays racial backlash as motivating the recent vote. But maybe Foner's paradigm is just as useful for thinking about those once mighty, now so depressed, industrial centers: the former manufacturing heartland, battered by corporate flight and globalization, may be the country's current "impoverished colonial economy integrated into the national capitalist marketplace." Being relegated to colonial status doesn't make people wiser or more generous or more kind; it's more likely to make them bigoted, desperate, and ignorant.