Politics & Policy

The Bronx, North Carolina

Both parties appeal to the middle class. Who’ll speak for the poor?

If you are in search of hipster food trucks, vegan cafes, or art galleries in Charlotte, you head down to the South End — or, as Dan Foster has taken to calling it, “Brooklyn” — which is where Chuck Barger runs a local institution called Common Market. It is hard to say exactly what kind of a business Common Market is: part bar, part deli, part convenience store, part coffeehouse and Internet café.

Mr. Barger is a more or less conventional liberal but also an entrepreneur, the sort of liberal who brings to mind Robert Conquest’s observation that everybody is a conservative about the thing he knows best. His sense of timing is not exactly flawless: He pulled out of his old business (designing educational materials for the Smithsonian and PBS, among other clients) and changed careers just as the U.S. and world economies were getting ready to go into a round of unpleasant convulsions. He signed a lease for his new business in April 2008, but it was the next April before he was ready to open his doors.

“It was kind of scary,” he says. “We were signing leases and buying equipment, and I was thinking, ‘What do I do?’” Entrepreneurial success stories look like slam-dunks only in retrospect, and in many cases not even then. Mr. Barger shakes his head with a little bit of disbelief: “We started a business, which turned out to be a successful business, in the worst month the economy has seen in the past 100 years.” He describes Common Market as a classical “third space” operation: “It’s about community as much as commerce. We want to make money, but we also want to make people happy.”

He had a few other advantages as well: Charlotte’s economy is uncommonly dependent on finance and was hit harder than most cities by the financial crisis, but not so hard that people were going to stop buying coffee or sandwiches or going out for the occasional beer. (Mr. Barger refers to his tiny four-seater bar as “the family-values bar, a place you go have a beer but bring grandma and the young’uns.”) He also benefited from a local effort to revitalize the center-city area and thinks that the 1 percent surtax that local businesses pay to fund it has been money well spent.

And that’s where Mr. Barger gets in touch with his inner Tocqueville. He describes a classical, locally oriented civil-society ecosystem in which the economic-development authority, Center City Partners, is counterbalanced by the South End Neighborhood Association and the hatchling local merchants’ association and homeowners groups. “You get a check-and-balance system,” he says. I invite him to contrast that approach with such nationwide programs as stimulus bills and ask whether he thinks that the powers that be in Washington understand the local challenges in Charlotte. He laughs: “They don’t even know what’s going on in Washington.”

He says he has enjoyed the convention and the protests, but he does have a complaint: “The voice of the poor has not been heard at either convention, not the Republicans in Tampa or the Democrats here. The economy is not getting any better for them.”

You don’t have to go very far to see that. Head the wrong way down Freedom Drive and you get into the sort of exurban wasteland where businesses erect chain-link fences around their properties. A mile or two past that and there’s barbed wire atop those fences, and soon enough there’s barbed wire around private houses. On that side of Charlotte, you can see the remains of what once clearly were solidly respectable neighborhoods, neat little brick houses now enclosed by antiburglar bars. If South End is Brooklyn, this is the Bronx. (In truth, it’s somewhat worse than the Bronx: In four years of living in the South Bronx, I never saw a prostitute on the street with the exception of the very specialized trade in transsexuals that characterizes the Third Avenue Bridge. I never saw a drug deal happen on the street.)

At one out-of-the-way intersection in this other Charlotte, two shirtless young men loll back and forth, never touching or even looking at the backpack balanced on the trashcan between them. Cars stop, business is transacted. They are not too happy about being observed and soon decamp for another corner. A few blocks over, prostitutes are working the lunch trade. But even here, there is evidence of social norms at work: The obvious prostitution and drug-dealing suddenly disappear around 3 p.m., and the sidewalks are full of children coming home from school. One young man rides a bicycle in full football gear: helmet, shoulder pads, the works. Commerce will continue later in the afternoon and spread to the other side of Highway 85 after dark.

I speak with a woman working near a particularly ratty-looking hotel. She says that she has been in the business off and on since she was a teenager — she appears to be in her middle 40s — and has had some other jobs, too, working in retail and in bars. She finished high school, says she drinks but doesn’t use drugs (little vials crackle underfoot in hotel parking lots here), and just simply needs the money. She knows to the penny the price of a beer at the nearby gas station but is a little vague on the whereabouts of her children.

Somewhere between the South End middle class that both parties make themselves hoarse flattering and the dealers and hookers working roadside hotels is a class of people who are indeed poor — what would have been called “the deserving poor” in a different age. And my experience at both of the conventions this year confirms my belief that neither party really has much to say to them. Republicans sincerely believe that economic growth and policy innovations such as universal school choice have the potential to substantially improve the lives of the poor, and they are right about that, so far as it goes. And there are conservatives such as Charles Murray who have offered clear-eyed analysis of the cultural forces at work among the underclass, acknowledging that the poor have problems not caused exclusively by lack of money. But I cannot remember the last time a Republican elected official or party activist brought up the issue of poverty with me in conversation unprodded. The Democrats use the poor as props and as easily managed ballot banks, but in their hearts they believe that deprivation means having to pay for your own birth-control pills while you’re finishing up Georgetown law on the wrong side of 30. (If you doubt that, you were not paying attention to last night’s speeches.) But in the end, both parties are fundamentally middle-class parties, and the middle class is where the votes are.

Bill Clinton spoke a great deal last night about “cooperation,” a word that conservatives should not have conceded to the Left. Where property is secure and people are free to negotiate among themselves, they discover ways to cooperate on a massive scale: How does Bill Clinton think sand becomes semiconductors, or people on three or four continents, all working for different firms with competing economic interests, figure out how to jointly produce a computer or a telephone or a vaccine? Cooperation is precisely what people in the market are engaged in. And genuine cooperation turns out to be very good for the poor. It is precisely the cooperative institutions, both in the marketplace and outside of it, that have made the lives of the poor in the developed world radically better in the past 60 years, while the political institutions, from public schools to the police, have failed them, and failed them consistently.

I have no hope for the Democrats; as I argue in The Dependency Agenda, they are in the business of exploiting poverty and economic anxiety for partisan gain and private financial gain. What I want is a Republican party (and, more important, a conservative movement) that puts the poor if not at the center of its agenda then at least on equal footing with the middle class. The church-based wing of the conservative movement historically has done a pretty good job with that, but there is a real need for free-marketers to get out of the think tanks and into the streets.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.

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