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.