Threadbare Country

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 4

Outside a shuttered mom and pop store in Cairo, Ill., last summer, there isn’t much to do but clean the sidewalk. The weathered American flag covering the shop’s entranceway seems to invoke — or perhaps indict — the ideology of American progress. All over the heartland towns like this are being hollowed out. And as our guest today explains, finding common ground and a common purpose that might equitably redistribute the fruits of democracy won’t be easy, especially when politicians stoke longstanding racial and ethnic animosities. This much is certain: it will take political work to sweep away our fears of each other and weave a new vision of America.

Photograph by Jon Rehg via

When reporting from the rural heartland, Eduardo Porter confronted a weird reality: The very people who rely most on government assistance are also most opposed to widening the country’s social safety net. Racial animosity has a lot to do with it, he concluded.

White communities fear losing the social status their racial identity tacitly provides. It’s an ideology that is so strong many people would reject a better tomorrow for themselves just to keep it from others. That’s why it’s impossible in the United States to make sense of economic injustice without making sense of structural racism, and vice-versa, Porter says. They are twin sides of one coin designed to keep poor people cynical about the democratic process, dangling the American Dream before them, only to yank it away.

Our schools meanwhile continue to teach that democracy comes with a warranty: opportunity, social mobility, the promise of success from hard work. But the fabled American Dream is fraying. In fact, Porter says, it was never sold as advertised. From the beginning, the myth cheated people of color and poisoned working-class solidarity with the bitter root of racism. To mend this tattered republic, Porter tells Siva and Will, we need “a new idea of America” — one made from the raw material of laws and policies that begin to address wealth inequality across the social spectrum.

About our guest

Eduardo Porter is an economics reporter for The New York Times, where he served on the editorial board from 2007 to 2012, and is co-host of the economics podcast The Pie. He previously wrote for the official Mexican news agency Notimex; edited the São Paulo–based América Economía; and covered the Latino community in Los Angeles for The Wall Street Journal. Porter is the author of The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost and American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise. Follow him on Twitter @portereduardo.

This episode was recorded in January and posted on Feb. 23, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Which comes first in shaping American politics — racial or economic differences? It’s a trick question, really. In American Poison, Porter argues that racism blocks economic reforms that are crucial for a healthy democracy, failing white and black Americans alike.

Read all of Porter’s work in The New York Times. He has analyzed the dilemma of Medicaid for all, the post-covid workplace, the protectionist resonances of Trump and Biden, the failures of the U.S. unemployment system and much more.

Harlan County, Ky., ranks fifth in the nation for dependence on federal aid, but residents use government as a dirty word. Social anxieties — and the Trump effect — help explain why, Porter writes.

From around the web

With Trump’s policies having failed them, African Americans are looking to President Biden for a concerted approach to address systemic racism through economic relief.

Raising the minimum wage is both a stop-gap policy and huge sea change, depending on how you look at it. The Atlantic has detailed some of the surprising benefits of increasing the pay of America’s lowest earners to $15 an hour — for one thing, it’s good for business.

But USA Today reports that odds are still in up in the air for a wage increase to pass as part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

The Brookings Institution has amassed a wealth of data on the wealth gap between black and white Americans, and its social consequences.

It’s no secret college plays a big role in income disparities. Americans with a bachelor’s degree are significantly better off than those with only a high school education, according to data from the College Board. Stay tuned for more on this issue in our conversation with UVA President Jim Ryan, next week.

How should we understand the voters who supported President Obama in 2012 but apparently switched to Trump four years later? One study has argued that racial dynamics were very much, if subtly, at the core of that shift. But reality is messy. It’s hard to ignore other demographic data, like the share of non-college-educated rural and suburban white voters who gravitated to Donald Trump, as suggested in a 2018 analysis by the Pew Research Center. Let us know where you fall on this debate!


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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