The tragedy of the 2016 election is connected closely, at least for me, to the larger tragedy of the industrial midwest. It was in the ruined industrial city of Cleveland that the Republican Party came together in convention last July, and it was the deindustrialized, addiction-harrowed precincts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that switched sides in November and delivered Donald Trump to the Oval Office.
I am a midwesterner too, and I like to think I share the values and outlook of that part of the country. I have spent many of the last 15 years trying to understand my region’s gradual drift to the political right. And I have spent the last three weeks driving around the deindustrialized midwest, visiting 13 different cities to talk about the appeal of Donald Trump and what ails the Democratic Party. I met labor leaders and progressive politicians; average people and rank-and-file union members; senior citizens and Millennials; sages and cranks.
Along the way I gawked at abandoned factory complexes and at Gothic-style water filtration plants. I visited affluent college towns and crumbling relics of twentieth-century prosperity. I ate pork tenderloins in Iowa and ribeye steaks in Indiana and “fast-casual Italian offal” (as a friend called it) in a bohemian zone of Chicago. I saw countless old fighter planes mounted on pedestals. I stood in a union hall in Indianapolis and breathed in that glorious odor of industrial beer mixed with decades of cigarette residue, the sweet fragrance of my youth.
And what I am here to say is that the midwest is not an exotic place. It isn’t a benighted region of unknowable people and mysterious urges. It isn’t backward or hopelessly superstitious or hostile to learning. It is solid, familiar, ordinary America, and Democrats can have no excuse for not seeing the wave of heartland rage that swamped them last November.
Another thing that is inexcusable from Democrats: surprise at the economic disasters that have befallen the midwestern cities and states that they used to represent.
The wreckage that you see every day as you tour this part of the country is the utterly predictable fruit of the Democratic party’s neoliberal turn. Every time our liberal leaders signed off on some lousy trade deal, figuring that working-class people had “nowhere else to go,” they were making what happened last November a little more likely.
Every time our liberal leaders deregulated banks and then turned around and told working-class people that their misfortunes were all attributable to their poor education, that the only answer for them was a lot of student loans and the right sort of college degree ... every time they did this they made the disaster a little more inevitable.
Pretending to rediscover the exotic, newly red states of the Midwest, in the manner of the New York Times, is not the answer to this problem. Listening to the voices of the good people of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan is not really the answer, either. Cursing those bad people for the stupid way they voted is an even lousier idea.
What we need is for the Democratic party and its media enablers to alter course. It’s not enough to hear people’s voices and feel their pain; the party actually needs to change. They need to understand that the enlightened Davos ideology they have embraced over the years has done material harm to millions of their own former constituents. The Democrats need to offer something different next time. And then they need to deliver.
They are already failing on this front. Consider the idea, currently approaching revealed truth among American liberals, that last November’s electoral upset was in fact an act of political vandalism attributable to some violation of fair play by the Russians or the FBI director; that it had no greater historical significance than does an ordinary act of shoplifting.
I met few who are actually buying that line. Tell people about how the Russians stole the election for Trump and everyone knows you’re just reiterating a Beltway talking point. Mention how the Democrats betrayed working people over the years, however, and the radio station’s board immediately lights up with enthusiastic callers. Remind people of the ways in which the Democrats have reoriented themselves around affluent, tasteful white-collar people and you hear a chorus of angry yesses; talk about how the Democrats live to serve the so-called “creative class” and a murmur of recognition sweeps the room.
People in the labor movement that I met in my turn around the midwest expressed complicated feelings about Donald Trump. On the one hand, everyone understands that he is an obvious scoundrel and they fear that his administration will bring about (via a possible supreme court ruling against public-sector unions) an epic defeat for organized labor.
In the union hall of the Steelworkers local that represents workers at the Indianapolis Carrier plant – a union hall where you might expect Trump to be venerated – I spotted instead a flyer depicting the billionaire president with his famous pompadour on fire. The headline: “Lying Con and Volatile Gasbag is Enemy of the Working Class.”
On the other hand, Trump at least pretended to be a friend of the working class, and it was working-class people in this part of America who turned against the Democrats and helped delivered him into the White House. By a certain school of thought, this should make working-class people the Number One swing group for Democrats to court.
Of course it isn’t working out that way. So far, liberal organs seem far less interested in courting such voters than they do in scolding them, insulting them for their coarse taste and the hate for humanity they supposedly cherish in their ignorant hearts.
Ignorance is not the issue, however. Many midwesterners I met share an outlook that is profoundly bleak. They believe that the life has gone out of this region; indeed, they fear that a civilization based on making things is no longer sustainable.
They tell me about seniors falling prey to Fox News syndrome and young people who are growing up without hope. And just about everyone I talked to believes that the national Democratic party has abandoned them. They are frustrated beyond words with the stupidity of the party’s leadership.
One thing we must never forget about the midwest, however, is that radicalism lurks just beneath the surface. The region has always swung back and forth between contentment and outrage; between Chicago Tribune-style business-worship and Eugene Debs-style socialism. I was reminded of this one night in Minneapolis, when a friend told me the story of a local Teamsters strike in 1934, a conflict that briefly plunged the Twin Cities into something akin to civil war.
I have no doubt that people in this part of America would respond enthusiastically to a populist message that addressed their unhappy situation – just look, for example, at the soaring popularity of Bernie Sanders.
As things have unfolded thus far, however, our system seems designed to keep such an alternative off the table. The choice we are offered instead is between Trumpian fake populism and a high-minded politics of personal virtue. Between a nomenklatura of New Economy winners and a party of traditional business types, willing to say anything to get elected and (once that is done) to use the state to reward people like themselves. The public’s frustration with this state of affairs, at least as I heard it on my midwestern trip, is well-nigh overwhelming.
The way I see it, the critical test for our system will come late next year. The billionaire great-maker in the Oval Office has already turned out to be an incompetent buffoon, and his greatest failures are no doubt yet to come. By November 2018, the winds of change will be in full hurricane shriek, and unless the Democratic Party’s incompetence is even more profound than it appears to be, the D’s will sweep to some sort of mid-term triumph.
But when “the resistance” comes into power in Washington, it will face this question: this time around, will Democrats serve the 80% of us that this modern economy has left behind? Will they stand up to the money power? Or will we be invited once again to feast on inspiring speeches while the tasteful gentlemen from JP Morgan foreclose on the world?