• Flying Over the Purple Midterms

    September 22, 2018 // 18 Comments »


    That slack-jawed yokel look on my face is because I just came back from a wedding and some visits in flyover country, turning the last few days into a highly unscientific survey of old friends and new relatives who’d talk politics with me.

    It was easy, as the media had already slugged my pickup line into the same category as weather, local sports, and whether the buffet chicken was any good: whattya think, is Trump’s craziness gonna lead to big gains for the Democrats in the November midterms?


    I grew up in Ohio, and have written about the flyover voter ahead of the last election, and in a book. Now once again these voters matter. As a bug-eyed Doc Brown preaching from his stool at the open bar would put it, 2020, and the future itself Marty, depends on 2018! If Democrats flip the House by taking 23 seats away from Republican incumbents, they can block appointments, investigate everything in a Benghazi-like loop, and even impeach Trump, paving the way for Elizabeth Warren’s victory dance.

    But for that Blue Wave to reach shore, a bunch of Republicans need to vote Democrat and the New Democratic Base, young people and a list of minorities longer than a CVS receipt, must vote in numbers never before seen. That second part of the plan has its own questions. But my recent travels make it pretty clear depending on a wave of Republicans to vote Democrat, primarily because they no longer support Trump, is out to sea.

    It’s not that Trump is so popular. I met plenty of people as ideologically committed, albeit 180 degrees to the right, as their East Coast vegan socialist cousins. But most of the people I spoke with would be better described as light purple voters. More than a handful enthusiastically voted for their first-ever Democrat in 2008, then backed away from Obama in 2012, before returning to the Republicans, albeit Trump, in 2016. The idea today is Trump’s boorishness will send them back to Democratic candidates.


    Or maybe not. The endless stream of Trump atrocities large and small talked about on Sunday morning TV is not what voters were talking about. Everybody knew Stormy but nobody cared; they had processed Trump’s affairs in 2016 and that makes that old news even if it’s still on Maddow every night. It seems like a new low is declared every day. In response to the daily bombing run of hall monitor gossip, one person said “I get it, I don’t like what he says all the time either, but let the man try and do his job, enough already.” It’s like buying outrage in bulk at Costco; at some point you realize a five pound shaker of nutmeg is too much to deal with and you hide it in the garage.

    Out here candidates are not described as fierce or nasty. Social media is for kids and cats, marches for folks who don’t have to work a weekend second job. Racism and pronouns matter, but only after figuring out how to pay for healthcare. Anything else stinks of elite indifference from people whose pensions didn’t disappear in the last merger. There is a sense being black, brown, gay, Muslim or female is not by itself a qualification for office. There is uncertainty over too easily excluding men, old people, straight people, entire regions of the country, until most everyone was, or cared about someone who was, deemed unworthy. Not status anxiety, more a sense of what used to be a difference of political opinion now making someone illegitimate as a person – “deplorable” came up more than once.


    So it’s not all about Trumpism. And where it is about him, most support a part of Trumpism that hits them financially.

    Democrats campaigning against the economy? It matters, however modest and fragile, that median household income rose 1.8% and poverty declined .4% under Trump. Anything that brings a nose above water is really good for that voter. Economists misunderstand it as a bad thing most middle income families are only now clawing back to 2008 levels, while most middle income families see that as a pretty good thing, finally. I heard the word “results” a lot. “Optimism” is about the future same as voting, and it counts as much as “hope” once did.

    Telling people economic progress is a result of the former administration is a punch line. It is hard to overstate how deeply these Americans despise the Obama response to their 2008 financial crisis. Many saw the value of their homes, the largest investment they will ever make, dramatically decrease. They don’t own much stock outside of a flaccid IRA, and so benefited little from a recovery that bailed out Wall Street. Obama’s decisions are still not done with them ten years later, because their retirement is based on home prices rising enough so a downsizing sale will cover late-in-life costs.

    When people are excluded from the most important decisions affecting their basic livelihood, they lose faith. That bitter lived experience fueled distrust and an ideological drift that manifested itself in electing Trump. I didn’t hear that distrust has dissipated enough for many who did first voted Democrat in 2008 to do it again in six weeks. Many of the people of color I met felt the same way as their white neighbors. Having started at the same place in the factories, and fallen together into being poor and white, or poor and black, they ended up in the same ironic state of equality. A big difference however is black frustration often shows up as low voter turnout, while whites vote Republican.


    These are a practical people, who in one Kansas author’s words “speak a firm sort of poetry, made of things and actions.” It wasn’t racism or Russian Facebook ads; ask and these people will give you the specifics. While darkly certain all politicians will always hand them some version of the dirty end of the stick, the people I spoke with at least felt they understood what the Republican candidates would give them. With an eye on the 2008 bailout, they seemed less sure of the Democratic side.

    I didn’t see what the New York Times thinks it sees, “Democrats Embrace Liberal Insurgents.” I didn’t find many people looking for the local version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though I found a lot of people who asked me “Alexandria who?” People said if someone promises Medicare for all, they need to also hear how she planned to deliver. Because unlike folks who tweet about it from Brooklyn, these are the people who still try, or in some cases, tried and failed, to get healthcare instead of just insurance out of Obamacare. They remember not fixing that system was part of the Democratic platform and question changes of heart that coincide with changes in polling.

    You don’t have to always understand it but you have to realize there are ground truths present. Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing assistance are a way of life now. One can accept food stamps but still think handouts are for lazy people. People can feel cheated working for minimum wage at a Walmart full of junk made overseas without being anti-immigrant racists. Trump understands all this viscerally better than many Democrats now speaking for their party, and people in return ignore a lot of other things. People seem likely to vote Republican even if they don’t support Trump in 2018. Democrats used and lost the “better of two evils” argument in 2016.


    So polls asking if a midterm voter supports Trump, or approves of his performance, may be asking the wrong question. If Democrats insist on November being Trump vs. Trump, a referendum on the first half of his term to see if he gets to play out the second half, all without themselves bringing something new and real forward, they may not like the answer voters give.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Trump

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