The Democratic Party is reaching out to conservative-leaning voters in the Heartland. But the tactic is doomed to fail the party and erode progressive values.
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From the moment I first started becoming politically aware, I always identified as a Democrat. I spent my teens yelling at Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” comments on talk radio and my college years dipping in and out of Women’s Studies classes. I first registered to vote in a local mall, eager to cast a ballot for Bill Clinton’s second term. I stayed up all night watching the 2000 election go back and forth between George W. Bush and my candidate, Al Gore, believing with all of my heart that if Howard Dean had not screamed his way out of the nomination, we never would have seen an election get so close. I ran a liberal drinking group for years (yes, we met at a bar and yes, candidates were happy to meet us to chat us up), a liberal blog, eventually a liberal news site and unsurprisingly eventually became a liberal-leaning (although I hope still fair) reporter.
And through every step along the way, I have been a Midwesterner. Because no, the two are not at all exclusive.
Born in Nebraska, schooled in Iowa, and now living for nearly two decades in Minnesota, I couldn’t be a bigger Great Plains stereotype. I like my burgers well-done, I pine if I go more than a year without a Runza, and I’ll throw down hard if caught up in the “Duck Duck Gray Duck” debate (born Goose, but now surrounded in a Gray Duck world). I’m also pro-marriage rights, anti-racism, pro-abortion rights, pro-environment, pro-environmental regulations, and basically as pro-income equity as you can get without becoming an outright socialist.
If you talk to political pundits on the coasts, however, you would think I’m some sort of anomaly. From reporters to strategists, the coastal analysts seem to remain convinced that the “typical” Midwesterner is the rural, anti-government, pro-traditional “family values” voter that is either casting their ballots for Republicans directly, or is supporting those “Blue Dog Dems” that may carry a D behind their names but vote so often with the other side of the aisle that their party designation is essentially meaningless. And it’s that assumption that could be the death knell for any hopes of Democrats taking back the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms if it doesn’t get immediately addressed.
The myth of the “typical” middle America Democrat—an alleged pro-Trump, anti-immigration, anti-abortion pro-gun rural voter—is popping up yet again in a recent Politico article discussing a new report commissioned by Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois. The report, called “Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington,” is, according to Politico, “based on interviews with 72 Democrats who hail from none of those places (cities, coasts, and college towns) but rather largely agricultural, blue-collar areas in the vast, eight-state center of the country.”
Of course, you can go ahead and stop right there, since problem No. 1 is already quite obvious: Contrary to the interviews in Bustos’s report, there are a very large number of cities and college towns peppering the landscape of each of the states that make up the “eight-state center of the country.” And those areas not only represent the largest number of people in these states, they also are being completely dismissed as the “typical” Midwest voter, despite in many cases being the majority of the residents.
In fact, as University of Michigan Professor Mark Newman showed in his 2016 post-presidential election analysis, when adjusted for population, the Midwest is almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. Yet that fact is utterly ignored in the Bustos memo, which assumes that progressives are not only a small minority, but an ever eroding one.
“The facts are harsh,” claims Politico’s Michael Kruse. He writes that, “In 2009, the report notes, Democrats held 57 percent of the heartland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now: 39 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama won seven of the eight heartland states. In 2012, he won six. In 2016? Trump won six. There are 737 counties in the Midwest—Trump won all but 63 of them. ‘We can’t keep bombing in the rural parts of these states,’ Bustos told me.”
Bustos’s answer, apparently, is to bring in more Democrats who appeal to Republicans: Democrats who oppose abortion, who vow to protect gun rights, even, if the narrative framing the Politico article is to be believed, Democrats who aren’t necessarily ready to write off racists or xenophobes. Bringing in more voters—and cutting into the GOP’s margin—is apparently the path to electoral wins for Bustos and those Democratic strategists on her same wavelength.
They are also completely wrong.
It’s true that when it comes to tipping the scales on Midwestern electoral victory, when you have such a slim margin it only takes a handful of votes to shift to a win. What Bustos’s report appears to ignore, if Politico has it right, is that the GOP has found their last handful of votes not from converting Democrats, but from making it far harder for them to vote on Election Day at all.
It’s no coincidence that the dwindling electoral victories of the Democrats in the last few elections have gone hand in hand with rampant state-wide gerrymandering and voter ID laws. While much of the attention on voter-suppression tactics have been focused on the Southern states, the Midwest and plains has seen its own surge of redrawn districts predominately favoring the GOP—and there is little doubt that voter ID was responsible for at least one Midwestern state, if not more than one, sending its electoral votes to Republican Donald Trump. The middle of the country is finding it harder to vote than ever before—either by gerrymandered districts that pile their votes into areas where they count for less, by offering fewer voting sites and creating longer lines, or not allowing early voting at all, or by requiring IDs that are much more difficult for those of lower income, college students and those who have changed their names to obtain—which is having far more impact on election results. Because when every suppression tactic targets Democrats and the voter pool is virtually tied, the end results will favor the GOP every single time.
On the one hand, it’s laudable that the Democratic Party’s answer to winning elections is to try to get more people to vote for the party’s endorsed candidates—unlike the Republican tactic of trying to stop their opponents from being able to cast ballots at all. But reaching out to conservative-leaning voters by offering candidates who don’t even adhere to party principles isn’t creating a “bigger tent,” it’s tearing down the tent all together. And doing that by making room for bigots, homophobes, misogynists and racists isn’t winning elections, it’s dismantling the principles of justice with which we identify.
I am a Midwesterner and a long time, fully committed Democrat. And I am by no means an anomaly. Stop treating us like we are an aberration, because we are your real path to victory.
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