I wrote a story quite a long time ago called “The Quilters of Alto Pass.” It was about a group of old ladies in a small town in Southern Illinois who gathered every day to make quilts they were selling to buy the town a new fire engine. This was the 1970’s, and most of these women were in their 80’s, with a few 90 or 91, which means they were born around 1890 or a little later. I sat with them for an afternoon asking questions and listening to their stories of growing up without electricity or running water in that little farming community where they still lived. Their homes lacked electrical power not just when they were little girls, but well into their adulthood in the mid-20th century, which meant that they carried water from a hand pump for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. One of the old ladies didn’t even have a well and remembered having to take an axe to break the ice in a creek in the winter to get buckets of water. They weren’t poor. The places they grew up in and helped to farm later in life provided a living, but they frequently supplemented their farm income by making quilts and selling them. One of the major drawbacks about not having electricity was that they could only quilt during daylight hours, because kerosene lanterns, by which their homes were lit, didn’t provide enough light to see the fine needlework necessary in quilt making.
So when the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was a very big deal in Alto Pass, Illinois, and all across rural America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Border, from the California Coast to the woods of Northern Maine. The federal government provided loans to local power co-ops so they could afford to run wire to small communities and farms that were too expensive to service because they didn’t provide enough income to justify the expense. So the government stepped in and did what private enterprise could not or would not. The act provided that a single light fixture would be installed in each room of a house with a light switch near the door, as well as one baseboard electrical outlet per room. This was revolutionary out there on the plains, in the mountains of the west, the swamps of the south and the deep woods of the north. Suddenly, they could install electric water pumps in wells to provide running water. They could have indoor toilets! And the ladies of Alto Pass had enough light to do their quilting in the winter long after the sun had gone down at 4:30 or 5 pm. Later the act would be amended to provide loans to telephone companies to run wire to the same rural communities and farms, and voila! They could talk to each other in town, even call a son who was away in the Army or a daughter who had moved to another state with a new husband.
There is still work to be done in electrifying parts of this country, believe it or not. Friends of mine in the Army briefly investigated renting a recently vacant sharecropper’s cottage near Fort Bragg, North Carolina that had an outhouse and no running water or electricity before abandoning the idea, despite the attractively miniscule rent. I was driving through southern Virginia recently and heard on the radio that more than 600 homes in the south end of the state still lacked electricity and running water. The Rural Electrification Act is still in effect and was amended most recently in 2014 to provide a pilot program to provide broadband internet access to rural areas, but little has been done to implement wide ranging internet services out there where the electric lines didn’t used to run.
One of the effects of laws like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was that it made a lot of people happy. A significant part of the American public had been forgotten and left behind as the rest of the country modernized. With electricity, they were able to participate fully in the new life of the nation. And if Congress ever decides to get off its collective ass and actually do something, they already have a law on the books that can be easily and speedily amended to provide the funds necessary to wire broadband into the deep woods and distant swamps and mountains and empty plains and bring them into the 21st century where they belong.
What are the chances of that? Near zero, if you listened to erstwhile White House “chief strategist” Steve Bannon last week, who, before he was ousted on Friday, granted several interviews baiting the perceived political opponents of the President to engage in the kind of culture warfare he and Mr. Trump have seemed to relish. Responding to criticism that the President hadn’t done enough to condemn the Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists who staged a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, Bannon told The New York Times: “The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist. Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
Bannon and Trump sounded last week like trolls in your comments trying to win points in an argument that was settled decades ago. They weren’t just inviting a political war over race and white supremacy (!), they were taking childish delight in the prospect of such a war. It’s the politics of mean. Notably absent from interviews given by Trump, Bannon or any other White House officials over the past week was any mention of what the President plans to do when he returns from his golfing sojourn in Bedminster, New Jersey. Congress faces an immediate need to pass a budget; a looming crisis over raising the debt ceiling; the need to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and about a gazillion foreign policy and military crises around the world, from terrorists attacks in Europe to an utterly failed war in Afghanistan to a restive, loony and nuclear armed North Korea. Not to mention the usual menu of pie-in-the-sky-we’ll-get-it-done-someday legislative shit like health care, infrastructure, tax reform.
Have you heard anything from Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell recently about any of this? Neither have I. With Trump and Bannon watching the backs of their white supremacist supporters and wanting to go to war over Confederate statues, I doubt we’re going to hear anything between now and Labor Day. Why should Trump worry about the health care of some eight million poor children who depend on CHIP when chants by his far right base have them all worried in the White House that that Jews will somehow replace them? And I doubt they’ll be able to begin many infrastructure projects like roads and bridges with blood and soil mixing into a toxic sludge that will support absolutely nothing.
I was downtown having coffee recently listening to my friend Bob Kohut and a couple of his pals play their guitars and mandolins and sing. People passing by stopped to listen with broad smiles on their faces, and some even tossed a dollar or two into a guitar case. People smile and laugh and dance madly every time Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks play out here on the East End, which as frequently as they do, isn’t often enough for most of us. Last night, I was talking to a woman at dinner about our poisonous political situation when suddenly, a smile crossed her face, and out of the blue she started describing a concert in Ohio where she saw James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt. “Listening to them was such a moment of pure bliss in a world of craziness,” she mused. “I’m so glad they’re still playing. I’m so glad I went.”
Bob Kohut and his pals, and Gene Casey and his band, and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt and their bands all have one thing in common. What they do most days of their lives is go out there and make people happy. It’s a wonderful thing, for them and for us, that they’re able to make music and make people happy. There was a time in our political life in this country when presidents and congressmen and senators went to work and passed laws that actually built things and had the effect of making literally millions and millions of Americans happy. Aren’t you happy that you’ve got decent roads to drive on? That you’ve got safe drugs to take when you’re sick and healthy food that’s been inspected to make sure it’s safe to eat? Doesn’t it make you happy that you can buy a ticket and get on a plane and fly thousands of miles in a matter of hours because a whole bunch of laws and regulations and people who are licensed by the government are there to make sure you get there safely? That you’ve got federally mandated seatbelts and airbags in your car that will protect you if some loon hits you in an intersection? That your car isn’t producing so much pollution it actually clouds the air and makes people sick? Aren’t you happy that you can turn on a tap and get clean water and flip a switch, and turn on a light and press a button on your phone and see a video from across the world of prayer flags waving over a Tibetan temple somewhere in the Himalayas? All because at some point in the past, laws were passed, and tax funds were expended to fund the research that made these miracles possible?
Bannon and Trump and Ryan and McConnell and their ilk aren’t interested in building things and making people’s lives better. All they want to do is tear things down: take health insurance away from tens of millions; cut back the EPA so much they turn creeks and rivers back into toxic sewers and pollute the air with more coal burning plants, not less; deregulate the banks and allow payday lenders to rip dollars from the pockets of the poor. They have been gambling that their politics of mean will do just enough to keep them in power, which is all they’re interested in accomplishing anymore. But the departure of culture warrior Steve Bannon won’t change this. The problem isn’t Bannon. It’s Trump and his enablers: Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the lily-livered lamesters in the Republican party. It’s as if they believe that staying in power will provide the power that will turn on the lights in those cabins in the woods of Southern Virginia that are still not electrified, or put Google and Netflix into the farms and schoolrooms of the rural communities that are still without broadband internet service, or solve the problems of Afghanistan and North Korea, or even land Americans of the future on Mars. Well, it won’t. So Democrats, listen up. There’s power in doing stuff and building things and making people happy. If you don’t believe me, go out there to Alto Pass, Illinois and ask around. I’m sure there are still a few people who can tell you stories about what it was like before President Roosevelt and a whole bunch of Democrats passed laws that changed their lives for the better forever.