If This Is 2016 and I'm American, Why Am I So Cheerful? What Can I Do?

All of the pundits and all of the cues and signals are telling me I’m supposed to be angry and suicidal right now. Even though that seems like a conflict in and of itself, I still want to do what’s expected of me, but it’s really hard because I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area.

Things are going and blowing here. The economy and employment are off the charts. I just read a long piece about President Obama that said pretty much the same thing for the national economy.

But I feel bad, because I know I’m supposed to shoot myself. I know that because I open the opinion section of The New York Times, my favorite daily read, and I’ve got a choice between David Brooks, “If Not Trump, What?”; Paul Krugman, “Wrath of the Conned;” Timothy Egan, “Working Class Fraud;” and an op ed contributor, Ben Spielberg, “How to Prepare for the Next Recession.”

Brooks grabs me by the throat and pulls me right down to the bottom of the emotional barrel: “(In) this election,” he tells me, “not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also, has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century.”

So why do I feel so good? No, really, please tell me. I’ve got to shake this off.

It’s because I read this other stuff like a March, 2016 bulletin from the Bureau of Labor Statistics telling me that employment in my area has grown by almost 130,000 jobs in the last year at a rate of 3.9 percent, the highest in the nation and almost twice the national rate.

There’s got to be leaden lining in this somewhere, some way I can manage to get depressed about it so I won’t be out of step with the electorate as portrayed on the Times op-ed page. Hey, I know: maybe we only look good here because things are so bad nationally.

But, no. Earlier in the week I read another really fascinating piece in the Times, an interview in which President Obama cited numbers to show how incredibly strong the national economy is, especially when compared with what he inherited from President Bush. The national economy has added 14.4 million new jobs over 73 months, the longest period of sustained job growth in history.

Since Obama took office, meanwhile, the national deficit has declined by almost 75 percent. Unemployment, which was at 10 percent in his first year, is now half that and lower than President Ronald Reagan ever got it.

But what about the Pew report cited by Brooks? It said 75 percent of voters think things suck. Didn’t it? Let me go back and look. Aha! That wasn’t quite it. It didn’t say “voters.” It said “Trump voters.” Is there something there that would help explain my inappropriate and embarrassing mood of general good cheer?

In the face of robust job growth and the kind of shrinkage of deficit that tells us it’s not a bubble or a trick, why would Trump voters in particular be so terribly off their feed?

I’m going to look back at the BLS circular about my own area, Dallas/Fort Worth, and see if it gives me any hints about who’s in on the good times we seem to be having and who’s maybe not so much.

Aha, again! Another little surpise. I have a tendency to think all the big new business and real estate growth in the region is over in the super-new suburban growth area northeast of Fort Worth, but the BLS found the hottest part of our regionally hot economy closer to my neck of the woods, not in Dallas proper but in the suburban “tech corridor” north of Dallas:

“The Dallas-Plano-Irving Metropolitan Division, which accounted for 71 percent of the area’s workforce,” the BLS tells us, “added 112,600 jobs from March a year ago, an increase of 4.8 percent. The Fort Worth-Arlington Metropolitan Division, which accounted for the remaining 29 percent of the area’s workforce, added 17,300 jobs during the 12-month period, a gain of 1.8 percent.”

The BLS cites as a major contributor, the “Dallas-Plano-Irving’s computer systems design and related services industry where employment increased by 8,500, a 13.6-percent gain.”

Oh, yeah. I know that area. China. Well, that’s what I call it. Nobody else does. I call it that because I’m an old white guy from post World War II dreaming-of-a-white-Christmas America, and every time I go up there nobody looks like me.

Everybody in that area is the sister or cousin of a guy who came here 20 years ago from China, India or Ukraine, put himself through the University of Texas at Dallas engineering school by changing bedsheets in a hospital all night, invented some kind of eyeball catheter or something and started his own company, talked 17 relatives into coming from the old country and now the only ones who aren’t Ph.Ds are the ones who are MDs. And they own a chain of tire stores.
I imagine this? I don’t think so. Not entirely. Three years ago the Dallas Fed published a report called “Gone to Texas”citing important causal links between a dramatic uptick in international immigration to the area in the last 20 years and the region’s robustly productive economy.

The Fed study did paint a certain tale of two cities where international immigrants here are concerned. Some are upwardly mobile well-off rockets, but many live and struggle in conditions of grinding poverty. And far be it from me to speak dismissively of grinding poverty.

But, wait. The Guanajuatan Mexican family living off day-labor wages in a poor neighborhood so their kids can go to an American high school have something important in common with the Bangladeshi family living by a golf course in Plano: they all have a shot.

Some of them are farther along with their shot than others, but they share a certain diamond-gleam in the eye, the fierce light that says, “This is working for me and my family, and this is going to keep working, because I will happily die making it work.”

My name for that area north of Dallas, China, is overwhelmingly stupid for a number of reasons, one of which is that many of the people I see up there doing well, the ones who don’t look like me, are American way farther back than I am, at least on my dad’s side. But they’re black. It’s increasingly common to see upwardly mobile black families in that band of upbeat territory and even more common in the upwardly mobile black-dominated suburban turf south of Dallas proper. I think I see in them that same gleam, that look in the eye that says, “I feel very good about my life, so don’t get in my way.”

I’m not sure how to express it in political terms, and it’s certainly not exclusive to or excluded from any ethnicity. Lots of white people who are making it have that look. It reminds me very much of my own grandfather, the immigrant progenitor on my father’s side, a man who loved life and was very pleased with himself but also had a very straight-on no-nonsense take on the world.

I wonder sometimes if it’s a missed factor in explaining the white-black split on Bernie Sanders, which, by the way, is never explained. The heads, the white ones anyway, just shrug and tell us that black people like Hillary better. But why? I’ve heard a couple heads take a stab at it by explaining that black people have heard a lot of big empty promises before and don’t want to be disappointed again.

Yeah, maybe, but it could also be something more positive than that, something more like my grandfather. Black people who kind of have it going a lot more now than they ever did before may just have my grandfather’s attitude, which was, “I can see it ahead of me now, so I’m not in a mood to mess around, and if you are in a mood to mess around, I may have to knock you down. But I hope not, because you look like a nice guy, But I will.”

It’s that hope, that thing, that fire in the heart that has always been the great American secret: I am going to make a better life for myself and my loved ones. Join me or not, but do not get in my way.

Is that conservatism? Or isn’t it just human nature, drawn forward into the forest by hope and determination? Later we can decide on the conservative/liberal details.

A lot has been written about the erosion of the American middle class and about the anger and frustration wrought by that decline. But I can’t help looking at my own environment here in Texas – I mean literally looking, by driving up and down those streets – and wondering which middle class we’re talking about.

If the middle class changes color, do we not still have a middle class? No, we don’t have anything like the post-World War II suburban middle class I grew up in, because that one was all white. If that stretch of suburbs north of Dallas still looked the way suburbs looked when I was a kid, I would call it Finland. Which, of course, would also be unfair.

Here’s the thing. I look at things like that op-ed page in The New York Times, and I feel like shooting myself it’s so depressing. But then I cock my ear toward the window here in Dallas, and I hear some kind of big party going on out there.

I want to be in on the party. I don’t care if it’s China or Finland. There’s some kind of major action going on here and in the nation, and I’d rather be in on it than out. Guess I just live in the wrong place for being depressed.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze