Every summer, my wife and I take a road trip. Our path goes from Maryland, to Pennsylvania, to West Virginia, to Ohio, to Indiana, to Illinois, and finally to Wisconsin – that’s five Trump states and two Hillary states, if you’re scoring at home. Personally, I enjoy the opportunity to see cows and corn fields and hear from folks who aren’t politics-addicted progressives like yours truly. What follows are some of my observations from this year’s trip.
Segregation: Years ago, I was told by a white Midwesterner that “When one black family moves into your neighborhood, you embrace them. When a second black family moves into your neighborhood, it’s time for you to move out.” I knew immediately that the statement was not made in jest, and on this past trip, I could see the fruits of such thinking on display in one community after another. Every hour, we would stop to stretch our legs, and I would check out the people around us. Invariably, they were either all dark (black or Hispanic) or all white. The only thing “mixed” were the bags of nuts in the road-side stores.
Keep in mind that 64 years have elapsed since we struck down Brown v. Board and 54 years since the end of Jim Crow. Yet, here we are – our President talks about how he wants fewer immigrants from “Shithole Countries” and more from Norway, and our communities separate the darks and the lights like we’re one big laundromat. Clearly, Americans like to associate with their “own kind.” I suppose we feel less cognitive dissonance that way and therefore less discomfort, which is the ultimate goal of any consumerist society.
Demonization: In and around the Washington Beltway, Donald Trump’s popularity is not exactly at a historic high. But I swear to you that if you think Trump has his detractors here, you should check out Hillary’s popularity in the Midwest. Whenever her name came up, someone would rip it to shreds. Even those who dislike Trump speak out vehemently against Hillary. I’m no fan of hers, but even I was appalled at the ubiquitous vitriol aimed in her direction. She’s Hillary Clinton, not Genghis Khan. On the positive side of the ledger, she is bright, engaging, deeply concerned about public policy, legitimately public spirited, and highly respected among foreign and domestic leaders with various political perspectives. Why then is she so unbelievably despised in the Heartland?
There are several reasons. But one seems to be especially important -- the Republicans are incredibly good at demonizing their opponents. Their attack machine is focused, relentless, and ruthless. They worked their magic successfully with Michael “the Tank” Dukakis, Al “Bore” Gore, John “Swift Boat” Kerry, and “Crooked” Hillary, and they tried valiantly with “Barrack Hussein Al-Obama” and “Slick Willie” Clinton. Now, they’re turning all their attention to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. That’s right, Virginia, the GOP wants you to vote for your local Republican nominee out of spite for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand what is so loathsome about Pelosi and Schumer. I know that one is 78 and the other is 67, and that it would be in the best interest of their political party if their leaders were younger. So yes, criticize them for letting their personal ambitions get in the way of their judgment. But are they so despicable that it makes sense to cast a vote, say, against the local Democrat candidate in Des Moines, Iowa because that candidate is in the same party as Pelosi and Schumer?
As a Jewish man whose parents were both graduates of Brooklyn College, I must admit to being especially struck by the GOP efforts to show off Schumer’s face as if he is some demonic figure. He’s a Jew with a New York accent. I get it. But he doesn’t have friggen horns on his head. What has he done to deserve anyone’s demonization?
Clearly, the GOP is playing to the attitude of its base that whoever doesn’t talk or dress like you is your enemy. It’s just the kind of attitude you want in a country whose motto is “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one).
The Democrats’ Challenge: In my D.C. Bubble, I hear about how the Democratic Party is resurgent and how all the party’s new ideas are coming from its progressive wing. But in the Midwest, I heard about how the progressives have “nutty” ideas and how the Democrats need to find some moderate voices if they want to regain power. Bernie? Nut. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Nut. Hillary and her mostly-moderate, “superdelegate” supporters? Crooked cronies.
So tell me, my Midwestern friends, what are the Democrats supposed to do, nominate God? The last time I checked, s/he isn’t running. The people who are running are either the centrists, who are blasted for being phonies and opportunists, or the progressives, who are blasted for being wingnuts. Talk about a Catch 22.
A few weeks ago, I recommended a pathway for the Democrats: Unify (your party), Simplify (your message) and Defy (the Republicans). I stand by that approach. To unify, the party will have to embrace a combination of progressives and centrists, though the progressives need to watch out for being excessively zealous and knee-jerk in their progressivism (in other words, show a little restraint) and the centrists need to avoid simply putting their finger in the wind and always supporting the middle ground (in other words, take a courageous position every now and then and go all-in for it).
Then, once the party unifies, it might want to simplify its message by focusing on two or three reforms that nearly all Democrats can embrace and bringing out memorable slogans in support of these reforms. Wonkish Hillary never made a clear and simple case for what changes she would bring if elected; Dems can’t make that mistake again. Finally, to “defy,” the Democrats need to fight fire with fire. If the GOP brings rhetoric and the Dems bring reason, the GOP will win. So ... let’s see some hard-hitting rhetoric. Don’t be afraid, my little lambs. The Republicans have it coming.
The Republicans’ Punch Line: On a humorous note, I was also moved by the number of times I encountered GOP partisans speaking about “fiscal conservativism,” as if any objective observer seriously thinks their party stands for budget frugality. At the state and local level, they can indeed balance the budget by gutting infrastructure, education, or the social safety net. But that doesn’t mean they care about red ink – they just hate certain types of spending. As we have seen, at the federal level they love to throw all sorts of cash at weapon systems or provide corporate welfare for affluent or politically-important constituents. Honestly, if you like the national debt, vote Republican. It works every time.
So there you have it, a few reflections from my trip to the Heartland. I had a great time, but I’m happy to be back in a community where I can walk outside every morning, pick up a copy of the New York Times and the Washington Post from my driveway, and not feel like an oddball. I hate DC’s traffic congestion and will miss not being to look out the window and see a lake. But I love living in a place where so many people seek out the best news sources on a daily basis. Our President may call it the “Swamp,” but I’ll put up with shitty weather, corrupt politicians, and even the occasional neo-Nazi march if it means getting to hang out with so many committed, knowledgeable, and publically-spirited citizens. Besides, we have the Stanley Cup Champions.
The best slap shots and the most public service. You can’t beat our nation’s capital. It’s good to be home.