Several weeks ago, for reasons I can no longer recall, I was thinking about the nicknames of sports teams – Red Sox, Celtics, Lakers, Dodgers, Bulls, etc.

The best, I decided, though I am no fan of the team, belonged to the Montreal Canadiens – “the Habs” for “les habitants,” meaning “the inhabitants.”

In the strictest sense, to inhabit means simply to live or dwell in a place. In a broader sense, particularly if it is to capture the imagination of a team’s fans, the word needs to imply a knowledge of the area, a sharing of the best qualities of the area, a sense of community with others who live or dwell there. In New England, we speak of “Red Sox Nation.” In Montreal, the fans don’t have to make the superfluous addition of “nation.” Their team represents them. It is named for them. It is them.

This reflection led me to consider how the meaning of this word “inhabit” has taken our state and our nation in vastly different directions over the recent past. In large part, our nation’s entire history has been the product of the interplay between forces seeking to broaden the definition of inhabitant – of who “belongs” here – and those seeking to narrow it. Founding Fathers and royalists, abolitionists and slaveholders, robber barons and union members, the internal struggle to delineate who “we” are has been a constant in our history.

From roughly 1950 to 1980, the U.S. economy enjoyed a period of unparalleled growth in which a predominantly (at least in public appearance and power) white and Christian culture expanded its manufacturing base in a world largely destroyed by war, enslaved by totalitarian governments and handicapped by the remnants of 19th-century colonialism. In the U.S., broadly expanding prosperity created a large middle class that came to view its good fortune as both natural and normal.

From roughly 1980 to the present, this “normal” has been replaced by the emergence of an open and increasingly competitive global economy. Overall economic growth has continued, but the distribution of its benefits has become increasingly unequal, favoring the technically educated and the entrepreneurial and their financial backers. In the U.S. and Maine, ever-larger shares of total output come from an ever-narrower set of major metropolitan areas. The result has been a drastic reduction in the economic well-being of the middle class that had enjoyed such steady growth through the early postwar era, particularly those in small-town and rural manufacturing centers.

Naturally, those who have suffered these setbacks are angry and have turned that anger toward a political system they have come to view as rigged to favor a privileged elite unaware and unconcerned with their predicament. The result has been an urge to return to the “normalcy” of the postwar era and the rise of leaders who appeal to that urge. Since globalization is seen as the reason for the loss of prosperity, this view has been expressed in nationalistic, “America-first” terms that are accompanied by a narrowing of the definition of inhabitant, of those who belong. And therein lies the tragedy of this attitude and the policies it proposes as a solution.

Alas, such foresight was not present in the 1980s and 1990s. Those who said so forcefully at the polls in 2016, and those who, with their drug-, alcohol- and depression-induced suicides of despair, continue to say today – “We were forgotten” – are correct. They were forgotten. But that is exactly why the response of “circle the wagons,” define ourselves more narrowly, limit the number of those who “belong” to a select few is so wrong. That is precisely the policy from which these “victims” of globalization suffer today.

To truly inhabit a place is to strive to know it – all of it – its nooks and crannies, its special views and hidden gems, its eccentrics, its young and its old, its old-timers and its newcomers. No one would ever say that personal health means taking care of only a certain select group of organs or cells that “belong.” Personal health is the result of trying to know and care for (to inhabit) the entire body, both internally and as that body exists within a network of human relationships.

Had we truly inhabited our country in the 1980s, we would not be facing the potentially catastrophic divisions we do today. To repeat that mistake today, to ignore the needs of those who are here but feel that they don’t belong, is to prove that we have learned nothing important over the past generation, that by squandering at least two crises, we have merely added fuel for a truly frightful conflagration to come.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

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