Claremont, CA. In a recent episode of “Mad Men,” the lead character Don Draper finds out that his advertising agency is about to be sold, turned over from one conglomerate to a larger conglomerate.

He pleads with his colleagues to help him buy their company back, to rescue it from becoming shuffled around in a corporate shell game. “I want to build something of my own,” he says. “How do you not understand that?”

It may be the great sentiment of this American moment: “I want to build something of my own. How do you not understand that?”

Pretty much anywhere you look these days, you can find expressions of that sentiment, like in the very popular, very excellent, and now Oscar-nominated film “Up in the Air.” In that film, George Clooney plays a “termination engineer” named Ryan Bingham whose job it is to fly around the country and fire people. Bingham is a likeable but aloof guy, who speaks with unrestrained passion only once: when he is standing outside Lambert Airport in St. Louis. There, he rhapsodizes to a younger colleague about the “Spirit of Saint Louis,” the era when middle America stood for the construction of big things, great things, tangible things.

It’s a stark contrast to the middle America that Clooney’s character inhabits, a middle America where little is being built but much is being downsized, where “productivity” rarely signals the production of a material item, and where “streamlining” doesn’t mean that you’re designing a jet but firing your colleague. The new spirit of Saint Louis, it seems, is the spirit of demolition.

Although it’s tempting to see “Up in the Air” as a story of Ryan Bingham’s search for meaningful romance, since much of the movie focuses on his affair with another mobile executive (played excellently, I should say, by my high-school classmate Vera Farmiga), it’s more a story of his search for meaningful work. Bingham wants to build something, too, in a nation where nobody seems to be building anything anymore. He, too, wants to see some evidence of his own work – thus his obsession with accumulating frequent-flyer miles, which in this economy are the only material proof of his professional achievement.

But Bingham’s larger prospects seem bleak, just as bleak as the prospects of the characters in “The Office” working for the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company (unofficial motto: “limitless paper in a paperless world.”) The only thing standing between those employees and termination is the hapless but heartfelt leadership of Scranton branch manager Michael Scott. Scott really wants to build something, too: a people-friendly, team-spirited company that gives its clients something tangible that they need. Part of the joy of watching “The Office” has been the unlikely story of Scott’s various triumphs over a corporate office that want to close branches, make cuts, and fire employees. It’s fun to engage in the fantasy that a guy like Scott, a guy who persists in building things up rather than trimming them to size, could last in the present corporate environment. But in the last few weeks, Dunder-Mifflin has been visited by investment bankers, and it’s not clear how much longer Scott can live off his dreams.

This palpable cultural desire, this yearning to build something, isn’t just a middle-America or red-America thing. It’s an all-America thing. In fact, for me the sentiment of this American moment was captured perfectly a couple of weeks ago, at a party on Venice Beach. Now, Venice, on the surface, seems to be about as far as you can get from middle America, culturally speaking; this is a place where most political activism revolves around the slogan “Keep Venice Weird,” and where the air will make you high if you breathe it for more than 47 seconds. But under the surface, it’s much the same as Scranton. In what began as a generic conversation about jobs, one guy said, “You know, I really wish I could work for a living.”

Someone consoled him about the horrors of unemployment – but he quickly explained that he has a perfectly lucrative job, doing something that involves computers.

“The thing is that I hustle for a living,” he said. “Everyone around here hustles for a living, and I just wish I had a job doing real work.” He paused. “When I was a kid, people really worked for a living.” A lot of people nodded.

This kind of yearning – “I want to build something of my own. How do you not understand that?” – is what made Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft a bestseller last year. It’s what has made hobbyists across the country adopt political language to describe what they do; members of the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Movement or “new craft movement” alternately knit and preach about a counterculture.

It’s what has made a lot of Democrats wish there was a little more New Deal-i-ness in the Obama Presidency; if FDR knew anything, he knew what it means to people to be able to build something with their own hands. He knew how much it means to people when you can give them tangible proof through work that they are part of helping to build a better nation and world.

This kind of yearning has also helped to fuel the Tea Party Movement, since whatever else one might say about them, the tea partiers’ appeals to the idea of private ownership resonate with a public that is increasingly desperate to build something of its own.

Of course, what the tea party folks miss – about the nation and about themselves – is that the contemporary American yearning isn’t just a yearning for atomized or privatized independence. All of the characters I have mentioned, all of whom articulate this powerful cultural desire – Don Draper, Ryan Bingham, Michael Scott – are not characters dreaming just of self-reliance. They dream, rather, of a kind of togetherness. They are all lonely characters, haunted by visions of a time when men and women worked together with a sense of common purpose, interested in making something more than just money.

In fact, one of the great ironies of the tea party movement is that people are showing up at all its rallies because they want to be a part of something bigger and meaningful.

The paradox of the tea party movement is that even as it rails in theory against the idea of big institutions, it is thriving in practice because it is a big institution, one which provides a sense of national community and shared purpose. The tea partiers are excited to be building something together. (As Tocqueville would say, they fail to do themselves justice; they are better than what they take to be their philosophy.)

It’s telling that a number of prominent tea partiers have, contra the Republican Party, come out against the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. It’s an odd position for tea partiers to take – since they ostensibly seek the further freeing of markets – but one that reveals a grand incoherence within that movement. More particularly, it reveals the fact that the Tea Party is filled with folks who are in fact dubious about the machinations of markets, markets that trade on buying and selling rather than building.

They are not alone. It is the refrain of our time: “I want to build something of my own. How do you not understand that?” The lines hang in the air, waiting for a response, or just recognition.

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  1. Great post. Couple of comments:

    1) I am not a tea-partier but am close kin. Regarding what you say the tea-partiers miss: They do not necessarily aschew collective action. They simply desire for it to be voluntary. Indeed, much of your post centers around – but never mentions by name – the idea of authenticity. Relationships engineered from afar by DC bureaucrats are not authentic relationships at all. Let us have relations among men but let those relationships be spontaneous and borne of our own creativity, ingenuity, and neighborliness.

    2) Re: Mistrust of SCOTUS CU ruling. Tea-partier/libertarians see through the classic business-versus-government ruse and recognize the incestuous relationship between the two institutions. Hence, the apprehension. These types tend to mistrust large-scale organization of any sort, especially when it is backed up by the coercive force of government. They correctly see the CU ruling as an avenue to greater special-interest influence over politics, not less. Their mistrust of the intersection of business and government may be greater than their mistrust of regulation alone.

  2. Excellent piece, Ms. McWilliams!

    I am a few years out of college, and I have been struck by the number of times I have heard my contemporaries say, “I just don’t think I made to work in an office,” as if they were the only one. No one wants to be a cog in a machine, whether physical or virtual, because it is offends our very humanity. To be a cog in a machine that is only aimed at making money, not things, is even more offensive; it denies our bodily nature and treats us as pure spirits.

    On a completely separate note, I am grateful to the webdesigner for getting off the rolling format!

  3. I agree with this post entirely, but I do think it’s important to realize that many of the people pining for the days of “building stuff” do so from a position of real privilege. And this fact leads to a lot of romanticized notions about what it’s like to really build stuff.

    Think of Dunder Mifflin. We see the office and the people selling paper. Know what we never see? The paper mill. Ever been near one? It’s like something out of Mordor, in terms of look AND smell. So yeah. We all want to be Matthew Shepard, tinkering with a motorcycle. But how many people really want to live in a mill town? Not many, I can guarantee you that.

    When I was in college I worked in a plant that built brakes for cars and trucks. It was tangible stuff! It was also back-breaking work on a press-line, where the temperature got up to 125 degrees. I bet the guy from Venice Beach would love it there for a while. But not for long.

    Just keep in mind that there was a reason so many people in places like Pittsburgh and Buffalo worked really hard to send their kids to college. They wanted to give people a choice. And the choice still does exist. You can quit college and go to trade school. But not many people do. Despite the fact that there are lots of good jobs available for highly-skilled tradesmen.

    Just saying.

  4. excellent post.

    I, however, agree with Sam. We’ve worked hard for generations now to provide better for our children. My dad worked days on the farm and nights on an ambulance to provide better for himself and his kids. Work is fun for a while, my favorite jobs have always been on the farm, but I always get to go back to school when harvest is over. A lifetime of hard work is a hard lifetime. I understand the desire to work and produce what is tangible, but lets be wary of romanticizing a lifestyle that much of the world longs to be relieved of.

  5. Ms. McWilliams,

    I enjoy reading your posts, and I agree with much of what you say. I think Freddy makes a good point here, though, in his comment about the tea partiers (my disappointment in that crowd is the topic for another time). Do we want a free society where people are left to choose the for themselves what type of “togetherness” they want? Or do we want a society that is directed in its transactions and its associations from some (ostensibly) benevolent and well-meaning centralized bureaucracy? I would certainly prefer the former, and that is the position of the libertarian. Not that we want evil corporations to take advantage of all the helpless little people. From what I read, I get the feeling that your thinking tends a little too much toward Marxism, which I believe history has proven to be a fatally flawed and harmful philosophy. As for this longing to “build something of our own,” I could not agree more that it is a real and sorely felt sentiment by most Americans. I guess the disagreement is in how to fulfill that need. I don’t count on our “leaders” to do anything other than work against and obstruct such an impulse.

    For a different perspective on (I think) some of the underlying ideas in your piece, check out this piece:

    I suppose what I’m saying is this: the localist utopia that seems to be the end goal of most, if not all (Mr. Stegal excepted) Front Porchers is not possible in a society that is dictated from the top down. It can only be the result of a truly free society uninhibited by government interference (the usual libertarian disclaimer about the rule of law and need for govt. to enforce contracts applies here of course).

  6. Your article starts strong, builds momentum in the middle, and falls flat at the end. A real let down. Let me explain…

    The Tea Party movement coalesced around disgust with trillion dollar bailout stimulus slush funds, and solidified around opposition to health care nationalization. Other than that, and a general anti-incumbency bias, it’s a real hodgepodge with no clear platform. So why the potshots?

    It’s a common theme at FPR: Set up a strawman, call him a conservative, Republican, rightwing, teabagger, dittohead or whatever, then tear him down. But why? It appears the writers here fear being mistaken for one of “them”, the politically incorrect rubes, peasants and great unwashed.

    And so we get the gratuitous posturing. Too bad, because it weakens an otherwise strong argument, and alienates a potentially supportive group. Very supportive.

    One thing Wendell Berry achieved was bringing “those types” of people into the localist and environmentalist movements. Try to follow his good example, and not undo his good work.

    Essays on localism and the economy should stick to the subject. When it becomes necessary to invoke specifics, stick to positions (like corporate funded politics) and forbear wholesale attacks on general groups. After all, isn’t that what “they” do, with their attacks on Democrats, illegals, liberals, or whatever?

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