It’s strange to be living on an alien planet

At least, that’s how I feel when I read an article on Midwestern politics in Harper’s.

In January, I sublet my studio apartment in Los Angeles, flew to O’Hare, rented a purring silver Audi A4 from an unmarked garage miles from the airport (this was somehow the cheapest option), and headed north to begin my winter in a little lakefront house. The night after the Packers game the weather warmed up slightly, and I went for a long walk along the crashing shore.

We are so barbarous that the big national publications need to fly in a journalist to cover the exotic perspectives of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Put him in a comfortable lake house with a nice car and let him make forays into wilderness of bars and cafes, like an anthropologist among the cheeseheads, and have him take notes on his interactions, which he then synthesizes into a grand thesis on why the middle class of the Midwest voted for Donald Trump.

You will be happy to know his answer fits comfortably into the extant ethnographic literature — it’s all about economic anxiety, you know, and the word “race” is only used in the context of the Democratic vs. Republican horserace, and there are more quotes from Grover Norquist than there are from black folk. The only black person mentioned, we are told, was a former drug dealer, while the author seems more interested in a cranky old white man who drives away customers in a bar by insisting that the television be tuned to Tucker Carlson. When you focus on the stuff you’re comfortable with, that you understand will fit your narrative best, it’s no wonder the story you send back is so lacking in insight. It’s not that I disagree with his conclusion, but that he could have sat in his office, enjoying his view of a tangle of freeways, and written it without making the dangerous voyage to a savage Wisconsin winter wilderness.

Still, the Democrats’ strategy might work out this November. Trump’s response to the pandemic and the protests has been so wanton and self-serving that enough Americans might be convinced to vote for a candidate offering steadiness. But tacking toward the middle will do nothing to sway the Kenoshans I met, among the many Americans who have decided that voting changes very little, and that both parties are more beholden to the elite than to ordinary citizens.

In the long run, a Democratic Party that wants to govern is going to have to respond to this feeling, not by offering incremental reforms in policing, or tweaks to existing health care laws, but by beginning a real transformation. It will require new structures—we have not yet tried to govern a metropolis without a police force, but we soon might—as well as a recommitment to things that the Democrats have abandoned, like organized labor. It will take admitting that the morass we’ve ended up in was not created by accident. It will take naming the people who brought us to this point, and it will take a willingness to confront them and to make enemies—something Republicans have long been happy to do. It will, finally, take a political project that can match the feeling of participation and excitement that the Trump movement has offered. Democrats picked a candidate who has promised to return the country to normal. That may end up being the most dangerous choice of all.

Yes? The Democrats will have to gather their courage and actually fight for things that matter to people in Wisconsin — and California and New York — in order to earn their votes and get them involved. But, you know, the lesson here is that the Trump campaign didn’t do any of that, yet somehow got the people of our benighted hinterlands, as well as Orange County, to vote for him. I still don’t know how to combat outrageous demagoguery with the bland vaguenesses that Harper’s offers us.


  1. Allison says

    It’s the way people from privileged classes always talk and think about people from the less privileged classes. Whether it’s 19th century Europeans talking about Africa or cis people talking about trans people, it’s always about the (often superficial) things that strike the privileged person as peculiar, and not only shows no understanding of the lives and struggles of the less privileged, but no desire whatsoever to learn about them. It’s nothing but another way to feel superior.

    It’s about entertainment, not enlightenment. Of course, that’s true of the Mainstream news media (MSM) in general.

  2. unclefrogy says

    we have not yet tried to govern a metropolis without a police force,

    that comment really pushes a button.
    It is such a conservative talking point and is the same kind of use as talking about urban instead on “the ghetto”.
    Daryl Gates the infamous L. A. police chief who was instrumental in things like swat teams said in a speech i heard back then some time in the 80’s that police were left to clean up the mess created by the neglect of the social and economic problems that created them. It has always been the republican policy to be strong on crime and not support the poor and working classes “they should get a job and work harder”. If they actually addressed the problems that create “crime” they would not have anything with which to distract the voters from their real actions that only benefit themselves and their cronies.
    from the excerpts that was very poor article following the conventional talking points of the conservatives offering no incites.
    uncle frogy

  3. says

    Also twigging on

    we have not yet tried to govern a metropolis without a police force, but we soon might

    No. There is literally no one I’ve heard saying that there should be no law enforcement whatsoever. And I’ve taken my trips to Kenosha Portland’s downtown Tear Gas Memorial Park.

    Don’t fucking lie. Just… don’t fucking lie. Is that so much to ask?

  4. says

    While I agree with you that the approach taken by Harper’s is condescending and awful, the “Trump won because racism, period,, no more debate permitted on this question” approach that you’re de facto championing doesn’t fit the facts either. Voters in the midwest turned out for Obama, for crying out loud! An actual black man took Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in 2008, and won them again in 2012! Every one of those states went to Trump in 2020, when the candidate wasn’t black, and if they hadn’t, Trump would have lost. The Michigan GOP — the Republicans! — just nominated a black man for Senator! (And predictably he has already turned out to have unsavory financial links to the Trump administration.) Racism may be a factor in the upper midwest, but it is at this point completely and totally unrealistic to suggest that it was a major one, let alone the controlling one.

    If you like, you can claim that the difference was sexism, or that it was a decades-long smear campaign against the Clintons (which may have been based on lies but which was not actually undeserved), but “midwesterners are racist” just doesn’t work as an explanation.

    (And why am I saying this? Because the focus on the demographics of candidates rather than policy is one which is, in the long run, harming Democrats, by permitting policy questions to be deflected by minority membership. Thanks to the insistence on boosting identity politics, the fact that John James — that Republican Senatorial candidate I mentioned above — is black is going to give him an easy way out of any tough question anybody asks, or anything negative which turns up in his history. They can even turn the tables and say that critics are racist and only talking about James’ flaws because he is black.)

  5. stroppy says

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    It should go without saying that racism isn’t always conscious, and someone who may not be racist may also not be explicitly anti-racist. There is plenty of ugliness lying beneath the surface that’s never been properly dealt with in this country, that’s ripe for manipulation as we have seen, under cover of “plausible” deniability. Much of what we know now about Trump’s racial attitudes were already out there in 2016 for all to see. That alone should have been disqualifying, yet he got elected anyway.