Note To Coasts: Please Do Not Un-Friend The Midwest.

As a current coastal elite that was raised in Northwest Indiana I’m writing this note to both the Midwest and to the coasts — but mostly people the coasts — to try to get you guys on the same team. Specifically, the team of the Democratic Party. I think historically coastal Democrats have assumed the Midwest would follow along with their lead at all costs, because the Democrats are the party of the working people and the Midwest is historically full of working people. In the wake of the Trump election, I’m afraid that a lot of elites are reflexively going to go along a downward spiral of saying “well screw you white bigots!” to the Midwest, to which the Midwest will continue to respond “screw you! preppy special rich people!”

Let’s take a look at what happened. Here is the electoral map from 2008 and 2016, the states that changed between this election and last are in Midwest (Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio) plus Pennsylvania, Florida, and South Carolina.

Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.
Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.

I’ve also lived in Florida — I went to college there — it’s a weird and less straightforward state. South Carolina I know nothing about. Pennsylvania I also don’t know much about, but I think of it as sort of like a cultural continuation of Indiana and Ohio — rural/industrial — except for Philly which should just be part of New Jersey.

I grew up in Michigan City, Indiana. Indiana, the Mike Pence state. Indiana that voted for Obama in 2008, but not in 2012, and certainly not for Hillary in 2016. Indiana that has flip-flopped its governorship between Democratic and Republican parties for the entire 20th Century.[1]Wikipedia, list of Governors of Indiana There have been few other articles by Midwesterners who are now themselves liberal urban dwellers that I’ve read recently,[2]David Wong, Cracked: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind[3]Jeff Guo interviewing Kathy Cramer for WaPo: A new theory for why Trump voters are so angry — that actually makes sense but I want to add my voice because I think this is important, and I may have a slightly more political bent than the other ones I’ve read.

I lived in Michigan City from age four to age eighteen. I then left for college in Florida, and moved to California where I became a computer programmer and then went to law school at Berkeley.

Until the age of sixteen, I did not meet any Black people, or LGBT people (some could have been closeted, of course), Muslims, Jews, or basically anyone else who was non-white or non-Christian. There were a couple of girls from Korea in high school, which was exotic and interesting, and one guy who was half-Asian, and one half-Lebanese family. That’s all I can think of for twelve years of school, K-10. I went to Catholic schools, so for me growing up a “minority” was a Polish kid. Michigan City has a fair number of Black residents, mostly segregated, mostly in a housing project.

The most racist statement I can recall was a friend telling me that whenever I drove past the projects I should hope my car didn’t break down. Saying “nigger” was on par with saying “fuck”; one did not do that. It didn’t carry the rage-inducing historical context that it would for a Black person to hear it, but no kid I knew would’ve gone around saying it in front of any responsible adult.

I don’t want to say that the Midwest isn’t racist. I very much believe in implicit racism — across the entire country we all got, and still get, messages that white is superior to black in movies, television, advertising, and all the rest of mass media. But the racism of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan is fairly weak by American standards. Looking at lynchings as a historical indicator, there have been lynchings in Indiana, but more white people have been lynched there than Blacks — 33 to 14 respectively. There is only a record of a single Black person being lynched in Michigan, and none in Wisconsin. That stands in contrast to, say, Tennessee at 352 lynchings of Black folks, or 539 in Mississippi. The numbers for all states are for the years 1882-1968.[4]Charles Chestnutt Digital Archive, “Lynchings by state and race, 1882-1968” Indiana might have elected Mike Pence as its governor, but Wisconsin holds the title for first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

On the Daily Show a few days ago, Hasan Minhaj said in criticism of Trump voters: “You may not personally be a racist, sexist xenophobe, but that comes with the package […] so if you take that deal, what you’re telling me is, ‘Hey man, I don’t hate you. I just don’t care about you.’ ” [5]Marissa Martinelli at Slate: The Daily Show Did a Very Good Segment on Why Trump’s Bigotry Wasn’t a Dealbreaker

Although he meant it as a criticism (as in, “Hey assholes, why don’t you care about my civil rights, my ability to go about my business and not be in fear?”), I think it’s actually also pretty descriptively accurate for most white Midwesterners. For most people in those states, the idea of Black people, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and LGBT people are abstract concepts. As Patrick Thornton put it about is fellow Ohioans, “Denying marriage rights to gay people [for someone from rural Ohio] isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.”[6]Patrick Thornton at Roll Call, I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America It’s not that they want to harm you, it’s just that you — and the idea of oppression based on skin color or other protected subcategory — are outside their experience.

I would take Hasan’s words differently: if they don’t hate you, that means they are potential allies. I read recently (unfortunately I can’t recall where) about an American adviser that was sent to somewhere like Turkey or Greece in the ’50s or ’60s to help mobilize a pro-US political party in upcoming elections. Reviewing the various political constituencies with them in a strategy meeting, he was like “How about the gypsies? They are probably as afraid of right-wing oppression as you are.” And the Turks (or Greeks) were like “They gypsies? They are dirty and disorganized. We wouldn’t stoop to asking for their help.” And the American adviser was like “Ok, well you lost that chunk of the vote then right off the bat.” I feel like the Midwest and coastal elites are both kind of doing that to each other: failing to engage because the other seems so different.

Educating The Midwest? Like Thornton, I started to encounter different people as I pursued higher education. I was sixteen and went to the Indiana Academy, a public magnet boarding school that was in Muncie, about three hours from home. Although still mostly white, there were more minorities; some of my best sources for reading about the modern Black experience is from a couple of Black friends from the Academy. I went to college in Florida (still mostly white, but some openly gay people), and then moved to the San Francisco Bay area (lots of openly gay people, and everything else). I traveled around Asia for a year; I went to Berkeley Law school, where I was surrounded by people who were interested in social justice, representing all manner of different underprivileged groups.

It is hard to provide a similar experience to everyone in the Midwest, at least on a short timeframe, like before 2020. Many of the people you are trying to reach are dogs that are too old to teach new tricks. You are not going to be able to reach them on the basis of your anger, or shaming them into voting for you candidate. While I think that across-the-board radical increase in funding for public K-12 education is one of the main lessons Democrats should draw from this election, the time frame on that is too slow to be the only thing.

Allying With The Midwest.  The Midwest was union country, once. In 1964, Michigan was the most unionized state, followed by Washington state and Indiana.[7]NPR: 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map Although the demographics have changed somewhat since then, the unions have more or less been broken, I think there is still enough of a memory and a culture of that kind of class-warfare mindset that could provide a hook to reaching them.

There is no doubt that the Midwest is angry. It is a disappointed flavor of angry. Disappointment, as an emotion, is a result of expecting something, and not getting it. The Midwest grew up expecting to make, build, assemble, and farm things. There’s not much of that left to do in those fields. The largest employer in Michigan City is now a casino, followed by a hospital and then a prison. I suspect big-box retail stores are also high up on the list. There’s jobs, but not ones that pay well or that match the expectations set by the past.

The ideas of fighting big banks and big corporations resonate strongly. Midwesterners feel like a giant truck of some kind of financial nature hit them and they’re not sure what it was. All the manufacturing jobs going away, the subprime mortgage crisis, high costs of healthcare — all kinds of anonymous elite bad stuff that happened to them. They are pretty much open to any kind of solution that strikes back against the abstract elitism, or that proposes a constructive plan for employment and dignity for them.

The strategy of the Democratic party has to be to communicate a “strike back against elites” strategy that has an underlying constructive plan. Right now it seems like Democrats are the party of the top 30% of the population — right all the way to the top. For me, the emblematically fatal moment for Hillary Clinton in this campaign was not the emails, or Benghazi, but the unapologetic alliance with Goldman Sachs. Why did she take so much money to talk to them? “That’s what they offered.”[8]Hillary Clinton is going to really regret saying these 4 words about Goldman Sachs Lots of less-educated less-political Midwesterners were turned off by that financial elitism in a way that Trump was able to channel. You can’t say you’re sticking it to the big banks when you’re taking whatever they offer.

The top one percent is in such a different category from anyone below them that it should be an easy alliance. To be in the top one percent (by wealth, not income) you have to have eight million dollars. To be in the top ten percent, you have to have almost a million dollars.[9]Net Worth in the United States: Zooming in on the Top Centiles Most people who are coastal “elites” are not elite enough to fit into even the latter category — many are elite by education but not by finances.

The challenge for Democrats, then, is focus communicating about sticking it to big banks, taxing the top 1%, and trade agreements: the Sanders-Warren-Reich strategy, in other words. And put it in the hands of those that can deliver that message with honest passion. I’m not trying to say that civil rights, gender equality, or any other issue shouldn’t be more important — just that you can’t connect with the Midwest en masse on those issues.

Chuck Schumer isn’t going to cut it as that messenger. We do not need the voice of the Democratic Party to be another New York Senator. Bernie is the obvious choice, with his national profile and popularity. However, I think that everyone is making a big error in understating the power that Sherrod Brown from Ohio, or Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin could have, if we were all paying attention to them — including perhaps Brown and Baldwin themselves, who may not be doing enough to stand up and lead.  Both are as progressive as it gets, beating even Sanders on the Progressive Punch index, and yet both were elected by Midwestern states.[10]Progressive Punch Senate Index If they were shoved forward by their party as the voice of leadership, or they chose to ally with Sanders to help provide a coherent class-based message of the Democratic Party, I think its odds of success in the future would be much better.

 

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