This election year, we’ve heard, and we saw evidence at the convention, that the Democrats are more united than ever before. It’s a refreshing change from the usual bickering factions of which the party is usually composed. I fear, however, that our philosophical leaders—not those who we elect to office as much as those who traffic in ideas, including many of the excellent writers whose words grace the pages of publications like Salon.com, The Nation, The New Republic, numerous blogs, and the airwaves of Air America—are in great danger of squandering this unity in the same way that our current president squandered the nation- and worldwide unity we experienced after September 11.
You see, I live in a red state. Chances are, if the residents of my state are referenced, the state isn’t even called by name. We are “Middle America,” “the Midwest,” “the Flyover States.” We are nameless, faceless—a large blob of indistinguishable masses who love McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Jesus, not necessarily in that order. We are Fox’s minions, and we do Bill O’Reilly’s bidding.
Frustratingly, I read examples like Salon’s Scott Rosenberg’s blog last night, post-debate. In critiquing the president’s performance, he wrote: “His lines are writ in stone, and we've heard them already. Here they were again: "He changed positions." (As if that in itself were a crime.) "I know how these people think." (The line reeked of dismissive condescension in the first debate, yet here it was again: does it play to the know-nothing xenophobic heartland?)” I agree with Rosenberg that Bush’s line was condescending; I question whether his analysis, however, is any less so.*
This position is not displayed solely by commentators; in a recent cover story on Salon, Jason Flores-Williams, an activist and political writer, is quoted as saying, "I don't see this budding movement being in any kind of dialogue with mainstream America….Mainstream America is going to work and turning on the TV, and they're going to think what they're going think regardless." This attitude is all too indicative of that which permeates even the best lefty publications and organizations. There is a pervasive disdain for us non-coastal “folks,” and while the Left’s willful ignorance of our diversity is nowhere near as insulting as the right’s pandering while creating policies that show nothing but contempt for the people whose very votes (and ignorance) they depend on, that willful ignorance plays directly into the charges of elitism the right is so fond of making.
It is disheartening to read my favorite writers flippantly referring to the entire middle of this country as if it doesn’t matter—a barren cultural wasteland whose only value is a bunch of electoral votes, many of which aren’t even worth fighting over. Neither presidential candidate is even running ads here, because we’re supposedly so red that either one might as well flush that ad money down the toilet. Well, yes, we’re a red state; a majority of us (inexplicably) voted for Bush last time. But we also have a governor and a senator and many other elected officials throughout the state who are Democrats. That isn’t solidly red; that’s purplish.
As equally maddening is reading folksy articles about the swing states (I’m talking to you, Slate), where the interviewees seem hand-picked to suit the author’s (and readership’s) idea of the eccentric blues tucked in amongst the sea of reds.
The purveyors of ideas on the Left must rid themselves of prejudices that suggest we are Ground Zero of the Culture Wars. Yes, there are bigots and zealots and plain old run-of-the-mill idiots here—and there are in the big blue city in which I lived for ten years, too. But there are also plenty of people around here who don’t even understand what the fuss about gay marriage (for example) is all about, because it’s totally removed from their daily experience—not because they don’t know any gay men or women, but because they resolved it years ago as No Big Deal (also see: None of My Business). Any of Fox News Channel’s dubious newsmen can parade out an endless stream of fear-mongers to talk about how gay marriage is a sign of the coming Apocalypse, and we all shake our heads—wow, those red states sure are backwards, huh? But we’re all so used to that being the normal state of affairs that it seemingly never occurs to anyone that there are just as many people in the middle states who think the whole thing is ridiculous. And for a lot of them, it isn’t a Constitutional issue—or, rather, it doesn’t have to be. It’s as simple as minding one’s own damn business, no fancy arguments required.
My goal in writing this piece is not simply to complain, but to raise awareness; the real issue is that there are people in between the coasts who want more information, who are straddling the fence, and whose minds can be changed, yet nowhere to direct them, when the disdainful elitism is in all our best sources. They believe the oft-repeated mantra that democrats are elite. Mark my words—it’s not the “liberal” tag we Lefties have to worry about; it’s “elite”—because there’s nothing wrong with being liberal, but there is something wrong with being elite, especially when one wields it like a sword. I understand the tendency toward intellectual snobbery; it’s inevitable to some degree as we’re all well aware of the correlation between education and liberalism—we are the smarter party that relies on reason and logic and doesn’t depend on the ignorance of our electorate for their votes. That necessarily and rightly gives us a sense of betterness, from which flows, then, the urge to reinforce our difference from the currently ruling party by brandishing our mighty brains and sense of superiority. And, in some circles, that works very well—particularly in a blue city where all of the very blue people in your midst are fashionable and erudite and have fabulous jobs, and no one needs convincing because it’s common knowledge that everyone with a brain is blue like us.
I’m not creating a ridiculous scenario for effect; I’ve been at that table, and I think that any of the blue commentators to whom this is directed will admit they’ve been at that table, too, if they’re being honest with themselves.
But that insularity is a problem. A big problem. It makes the charges of elitism accurate. Elitism in fact does cripple this party, and the vast divide between the intellectual leaders of the party and the party faithful in the otherwise-red states is widening by the day. It used to be just a (perhaps unavoidable) disconnect, but it has grown beyond that. Increasingly I read and hear comments from the coasts bemoaning the middle of this great country and lumping its residents into one big grab-bag of unappealing attributes. You have forgotten that we blues exist out here, or you simply don’t care.
What we all must remember is that the base of this party has always been the blue-collar worker, the union member, the hourly wage earner. We are yielding appeal to these people through our derision of who we assume they are. In this area of this red state, we are the redneck Fox-devouring idiots that you might expect, driving around beat-up pick-up trucks with bumper stickers that read “WARNING: In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.” We are also, however, all colors, all national origins, religious liberals, secular humanists, gay, gay-supportive, interracial families, and we are politically active. Out here, political activism isn’t always as glamorous as blogging on blackberries from the Fleet Center, or as noteworthy as walking across the country for a cause. Often, it’s finding people who are open to liberal ideas and talking to them, and spending time, person by person, discussing the issues and spreading information. It’s changing minds vote by vote by vote.
It can also mean getting your car scratched (or getting fired) if you have a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker. It can mean getting ignored by a coworker who still doesn’t understand that Saddam wasn’t behind 9/11. It can absolutely infuriating, living among people so different than you, especially when you’ve lived in a city where there was so much sameness. Even the Republicans in my former blue city weren’t the kind of Republicans in my current red state. Out here, there’s a brand of Republicans like none I’ve ever encountered, and still we try to debate with them, to open their minds, if not change them.
But now tell me…when I find someone who’s open to the ideas I want to share, where do I send them for more information? Do I send Mr. Smith, the young father, the factory worker who commutes two hours to his job, who doesn’t own a suit because he has no need, who chews tobacco and hides it from his schoolteacher wife, do I send him to Salon, so he can be insulted by dismissive portrayals of the morons in the middle states? If I tell him that Bill O’Reilly isn’t giving him good information, do I sent him to Henry Quinn’s blog at Sweet Jesus I Hate Bill O’Reilly.com, where amidst the brilliant debunking are unfortunate tirades against Middle America? How will he feel if I send him to read The Nation, and he comes upon Katha Pollitt referring to “Thomas Frank's fascinating analysis of the growth of the right in the so-called heartland”? What does that mean—so-called heartland? I assure you, Mr. Smith believes the Midwest is the heartland of this nation, and he would be offended that someone thought otherwise and chose to derisively mock it.
It may be too late to change gears in time for this election, though I have every hope we will win. I call on the leaders of our party, both elected and those in the chattering classes, to revisit their tactics over the next four years, even if and especially if we win back the White House. There has been great debate about our need to level the playing field—particularly in terms of creating a media and communications infrastructure to rival that of the conservatives. I also argue that we need to look at how the Republicans have found a way to connect with Middle America so effectively that the voters who will most suffer from their policies turn a blind eye to that very possibility. It’s not about pandering; there is no need to dumb ourselves down or embrace a more centrist approach to appeal to conservatives. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Republicans out here in the vast middle of the country simply because the Republicans have managed to convince them that they are more representative of their interests by presenting themselves as “normal folks,” despite the charmed circumstances from whence they may have sprung.
It is our obligation to return to a time when the American middle class worker, who sees the potential of the Left’s policies to make his life better, is respected. It’s easy to forget that it is not the fortunate among our ranks who most need Democratic leadership; when John Kerry says, “I’m going to fight for you,” he is talking to Middle America, and we should never forget that they are worth fighting for.
Marginalizing Middle America has only disenfranchised those who would otherwise support the inclusive, middle-class strengthening policies of the Left. It’s time to start talking up the concern we have for the average American, not because it will win us votes, but because it’s actually true. That’s what separates us from the Right, and if we lose that concern, then we are truly doomed.
*Update: In response to a comment regarding the above, Rosenberg did offer an apology and noted that he did not intend to impugn the “heartland” in its entirety.