Recently 2016 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee was asked to clarify–or given the chance to walk back–a joke he made about being transgender. The former Arkansas Governor instead doubled down on his comment saying, “What people talk to me about is…not some cultural issue. People talk to me about the loss of their job.” In other words, If I’m insensitive or judgmental, that’s OK because I’m going to create jobs. But it’s not uncommon for conservatives to downplay “cultural issues” in favor of talking about the economy.
In fact, when Maine Governor Paul LePage was running back in 2010 he remarked, “If this election is about social issues, the state of Maine is DOOMED!” Again, Lepage was more interested in discussing the economic issues of taxes and state spending than, for example, same sex marriage.
The suggestion here is that the economy and social issues are separate, distinct, maybe even mutually exclusive. What good is equality if everyone is broke? But the economy and social issues are not separate. They are tied at the hip.
One thing most people agree on across party lines is that a community needs young people to thrive. It needs to attract young entrepreneurs with fresh ideas. It needs to draw young creative people by investing in the arts. It needs people under the age of 30 to raise families, buy homes, start businesses, and build thriving communities. Especially in Maine, the state with the oldest median age in the nation, reaching young people is crucial. Fortunately, it can be done.
Most of the ideas to achieve this demographic shift involve some kind of economic incentive. Examples include student loan help and tax breaks for new businesses. In turn, young people will bring energy, creating an inclusive atmosphere open to new ideas and free expression. A youthful community has a healthy economy. Yes, an influx of youth will even create jobs. This approach is sort of like sowing seeds and hoping they will make the ground fertile. Any farmer, old or young, will tell you it’s better to start with good soil.
This means the communities that will be successful in the future will be the ones that can create an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. Not only would this motivate young people to move there, it might even stop them from leaving in the first place.
Hunter S. Thomson observed that when the sixties ended, “you [could] almost see the high-water mark–that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” He was comparing that mythical decade of cultural revolution to flood waters. But how far up I-95 did those waters make it? Did they make it to The County? Or did the water recede before it reached some of the 50+ dry towns in the state? Prohibition originally started in Maine, and in some communities it’s still going.
When most of my friends grew up, they left and put Bangor in their rearview mirror. But it was a different Bangor then. It hadn’t been that long since Charlie Howard was killed in 1984 for being gay. While it’s wrong to suggest that the community condoned that, it’s blind to pretend homophobia wasn’t part of the dominant ideology. Those kind of beliefs don’t just go away, and when faced with them a lot of young people simply leave. As recently as 2009, a “people’s veto” referendum in Maine was passed to reject same-sex marriage. In 2012, however, voters legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote, 53-47 percent.
This puritanical baggage, barely touched by the gradual loosening of cultural mores of the last century or more, is heavy. It’s stifling. It threatens to crush us. (We’re DOOMED!) Seriously, the socially conservative element of Maine is standing in the way of economic progress by driving kids away. It’s bad for business.
Acceptance, tolerance, open-mindedness, inclusion, and equality are still just cultural ideals. But for communities looking to attract young people, they should be your buzzwords. Going forward does not mean going back to the sixties’ summer of love, or the moral superiority of the twenties’ prohibition. It means letting go of that baggage, and letting kids do their thing.
In the final scene of AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper meditated in the sun and envisioned a communal utopia where everyone had a Coke. It was unclear whether he was truly enlightened, but at least he had figured out how to reach the younger generation. He knew that the past can suffocate you if you let it, and that the future is only for those brave enough to embrace it.