The New Tom Joads

By Matthew Cooper

The Wall Street Journal has a great story this morning about people who have become semi-nomad because of the recession. (Subscription required.) Our own Christina Davidson is making her own recession roadtrip. I recently rented an apartment from a former Democratic press secretary, Jill Greenberg, who is riding out the recession in South America, as much for adventure as economic necessity. Makes you think of Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath and his famous speech and how it might be written today:

"Wherever there's a foreclosure on a condo, Ma, I'll be there....Wherever there's a banker turned barista, I'll be there...."

Are there political implications to this, the new Okies, the new migration of the economically displaced? Probably not. Most people aren't getting all peripatetic in order to earn a living and so it's not some constituency that needs catering to. On the other hand, it's not impossible that the recession will stir forces that will lead to or exacerbate large scale dislocations. Michigan was emptying out before the recession came. What's it going to be like by the time of the 2020 Census? Our former Atlantic colleague, Nicholas Lemann, has written extensively about the great black migration from South to North in the middle of the last century. In general, recessions haven't been enough to shake already prevalent trends, but they probably speed them up.

The political party that figures out migration patterns is going to have a huge advantage. Obviously, at the moment, the growing Hispanic population and its fanning out far beyond the West and Southwest had been a boon to the Democrats. The party that recognizes that we're all migrants now, or at risk of becoming them, would have a big advantage. Is it any wonder that the always cutting-edge HBO is moving ahead with "Americatown," a series set 25-40 years in the future with struggling American migrants huddled in the shadows of a foreign city. America's always been a mobile society, but the forces roiling the economy are maiming it more so, and it'll be interesting to watch which party gets it first.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/06/the-new-tom-joads/20095/