Indiana: A Hoosier Remembers Eating Government Cheese

By Sean McCloud | August 22, 2012

President Ronald Reagan speaking at a Rally for Senator Durenberger in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1982.

(Michael Evans)

I can’t remember when I bought it. But I do remember that I got it from Von’s Books and Records in West Lafayette, near Purdue University. My three friends and I made a pilgrimage to the record shop any time we drummed up some cash, and could get someone to drive us the 40 miles down State Road 421 from our hometown of Monon, Indiana.

Let Them Eat Jellybeans! was a compilation LP, featuring songs from some of the greatest punk bands of the early 1980s, including The Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, and Half Japanese. The cover featured a black and white image of President Ronald Reagan standing in front of an American flag. As a rural, working-class Hoosier, my political and class-consciousness—along with my love of punk, hip-hop, and just about every other kind of music—developed during the 1980s, the heyday for “Reaganomics.” As far as I could tell, trickle-down economics (the idea that tax breaks at the top leads to job creation and greater employment opportunities for poorer Americans) led to the drying up of once stable employment for my small, northern Indiana town. I saw my grandfather (who, along with my grandmother, raised me) forced out of his job as a forklift driver at an aluminum factory in Lafayette. I witnessed the weakening of his union and the layoffs of some of our neighbors.

It was also a period when I ate my share of government cheese, packaged as two-pound blocks of uncut, white American, and distributed at Monon’s community center. We were not poor enough to be on welfare, but we were not so financially secure as to refuse government cheese. We also got large chunks of butter and boxes of powdered milk. It only took me a few glasses to decide that there was nothing like the taste of warm, powdered milk to make the flavor of Reagan’s beloved Jelly Bellys seem like the indulgence of an aristocracy. Let them eat jellybeans, indeed. 

Music moved me to think about the material conditions I experienced and the cultural assumptions in which I grew up. I listened, laughed, and danced to the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor,” a satirical critique of political attacks on social welfare programs. I felt a combination of anger and pleasure when Stiff Little Fingers sang, “they take away our freedom in the name of liberty.” In short, my favorite bands often put words to my inchoate and adolescent thoughts, urged me to question assumptions, and helped me to imagine a life that might exist outside of the rural Midwest. In Pascalian Meditations, the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu argues: “[T]he symbolic transgression of a social frontier has a liberatory effect in its own right because it enacts the unthinkable.” For me, music was precisely this kind of “symbolic transgression.” It was something subversive and potentially freeing.

As a teenager, I did not understand much about the long-term effects of the Reagan administration’s neoliberal economic philosophy and its union-busting activities. But I did hear the President speak about those who struggled to make ends meet, those who had lost their homes, and those who had to turn to welfare to feed their families. In other words, I heard him speak about some of the people I knew from my childhood neighborhood. And I knew that his assessment of my neighbors was wrong. Reagan claimed that the homeless were homeless by choice. He declared that “welfare queens” lived in luxury by collecting excessive, fraudulent welfare benefits. He mocked television interviews with small town workers—like my grandfather—who had been forced off the factory floor through lay-offs or mandatory “early retirements.”

Reagan’s caricatures did not fit the working poor that I knew. This actor-turned-politician sounded like he had no use for my Indiana. Yet many in Monon praised Reagan and even aped his claims about the poor. They often infused such harangues with racist jabs at African Americans—imagining that Reagan championed the Hoosier white underclass. In 1984, Reagan won reelection in Indiana with 61.7 percent of the vote.

Thomas Frank addresses this incongruity in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Why, he asks, would working-class people vote against their economic interests? Frank’s answer, in large part, is that conservative Republicans garnered votes by fomenting working-class outrage over cultural issues such as abortion, prayer in public schools, and civil rights for LGBT people. Frank’s analysis probably works best for the emerging lower middle-class cohort who identified with the new Christian Right in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Redeeming America, these are the same people whom Michael Lienesch describes as whites who recently left small towns and farms to reside in the suburbs of New South, Bible Belt, and Heartland cities.

But such an analysis is too simple. First, it wrongly views the working and lower middle classes as a monolith of interests and attitudes, rather than as diverse and often conflicting sets of groups and individuals. Second, such an analysis is inattentive to statistics about voting patterns. Simply put, the poorer you are the less likely you are to vote, and those lower class folks who do vote—contrary to the popular belief of many pundits—do not usually vote for “moral values” over their economic interests.

For me, a third problem with the “culture and values” argument is that it seems to grant more consciousness to voting behavior than may be warranted. In other words, analyses that focus on conscious choices, rather than habituated patterns of practice, miss the unspoken but intensely “felt” force of habit that moves and motivates people to act, think, and vote the way they do. Joe Bageant, a champion of the working class, was on to something when he suggested, in Deer Hunting with Jesus, that “conditioning is everything” to the way people perceive of and act in the world. One might be reminded, in Bageant’s description, of Pierre Bourdieu’s observation, in the Logic of Practice, that people have a tendency to encounter situations, individuals, and institutions that reinforce already established assumptions and habits. Our habitus—Bourdieu’s terms for those behaviors that become so ingrained that the behaviors’ original purposes are forgotten—initially develops within the social milieu in which we come of age.

Whether rich or poor, factory workers or college professors, we all develop habits that are hard to break. They lurk below consciousness and creep into the very ways we move our bodies, and react to situations. Rather than wondering why Hoosiers (or Kansans, for that matter) consistently act, think, and vote the way they do, it might be more useful to ask what would have to happen to get them to act, think, and vote in a different way? When do combinations of circumstances—material, economic, social, personal, and otherwise—propel people out of their comfortable, habituated patterns of action?

In terms of Hoosier voting patterns, something obviously happened in 2008, something that broke—at least temporarily—some deeply embedded habits. Barack Obama garnered 49.9 percent of Indiana’s votes, beating John McCain by approximately 26,100 ballots. While Obama won only 15 of Indiana’s 91 counties, most of those he lost still voted for him at higher percentages than his recent Democratic predecessors. In White County, where Monon is located, Obama lost to McCain by about 900 votes, or eight percentage points, 53 percent to 45 percent. From 1992 to 2004, the Republican presidential candidates won the county by margins of victory anywhere from 15 percent to 35 percent. The largest margin of victory came just four years earlier in 2004, when the incumbent George W. Bush topped John Kerry by 67.3 percent to 31.6 percent. Indiana had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and 2008 was only the fifth time that it had done so in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That any Democratic presidential candidate won Indiana is surprising enough, but the fact that it was Barack Obama—the child of a white mother and a black father, a man identified in doxic American racial classifications as “black”—is even more so. When the pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet in the spring of 1990, I thought that the album’s title summed up the anxieties of a good portion of Indiana’s white populace. This is partly because racism is so thoroughly ingrained into Indiana’s past. In addition to being the first state (in 1907) to create mandatory sterilization laws for those considered genetically “unfit” (a category in which the minority poor were over-represented), in the 1920s Indiana boasted about 350,000 Ku Klux Klan members. Weekly Klan parades occurred in towns large and small, and Klan members held positions of governance in villages and cities throughout the state. Though Indiana’s Klan membership eventually declined, the state’s racist structures did not all disappear. James Loewen’s research suggests that, throughout much of the twentieth century, Indiana had at least 229 “sundown towns.” These were small cities and villages where laws prohibited non-whites from spending the night (let alone residing) within town limits.

But my perceptions about the correlation between Public Enemy’s album title and the racist views that dominate parts of the Hoosier state were based on personal experiences, as much as a careful study of Indiana’s recent racist past. After all, I came from the land of lawn jockey statues. My hometown of 1,700 people seemed to have one on every block. These large-lipped and white-eyed figures, in all their cruel caricature, spurred little critique in Monon because the stereotypes they embodied went all but unquestioned.

But racism went far beyond cheap concrete statuary. Both as a child in the 1970s, and as a teenager and college student in the 1980s, I heard whites of various ages regularly use racial epithets. When Vanessa Williams became the first African American Miss America in 1984, one woman in my neighborhood complained furiously that black women should not be allowed to compete in America’s most prestigious beauty pageant. Another neighbor, upon hearing that I was going to Chicago to see a concert, warned me to be careful because “they” pulled white people out of cars at stoplights there. On a few occasions, fellow students in my elementary school even asserted that blacks and whites were “different species.”

Of course not everybody was like this. Fortunately for me, my grandparents were not. Given our surroundings, I am not sure how and why, but Grandma Ruth—in particular—vocally expressed disdain toward any racist remarks she heard, teaching me by example early on to contest such speech. Plus, my experience as a 14-year-old farmhand (my first non-yard work job) suggested to me that the poor white kids from my rural county, the poor black kids bussed in from Gary, and the Latin American migrant workers—all of us trudging through the humid July sun and pulling the tassels off six foot high corn stalks—had something in common that trumped whatever anyone imagined our respective “races” to be. But my views—like Grandma Ruth’s—were in the minority, at least in my little part of the “sundown state.”

Given all of this, it goes without saying that I was pleasantly shocked when I saw Indiana turn blue in 2008. Why did it occur? Frankly, I’m still not sure. But certainly, the economic downturn, an increase in minority and youth voters enthused by Obama’s positive campaign messages, and perhaps even a few Republican voters disillusioned with the Bush-era GOP, helped Obama squeak out a narrow victory in the Hoosier State.

But don’t get me wrong. I am most assuredly not suggesting that Obama’s 2008 win in Indiana makes me think that the state has become a bastion of diversity and tolerance amidst the corn stalks. Nor would I suggest that the Indiana’s vote for a moderate Democrat signals any sharp left turn in Hoosier politics. By most accounts, the state remains conservative to the core. I have no idea if Indiana will ever choose a Democratic candidate for president again, let alone a non-white Democratic candidate.

Yet something unusual did happen in November of 2008. If only briefly, at the voting booth, some habits were broken and some prejudices were temporarily quelled. Still, on the front lawns of many parts of Indiana, my guess is that this summer, lawn jockeys outnumber Obama campaign signs.

Sean McCloud is an associate professor of religious studies at UNC-Charlotte.

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