November 21st, 2016
I know I’ve told you about my great-grandmother Easter. She lived a block away from where I grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio. She was born in 1898 in the hollows of Kentucky, and I used to go to her house and ask her to tell me stories about “the olden days.” She was as good as any library to me and I loved spending time with her.
And I know I’ve also told you this story about the time I asked her what the word “hick” meant. I must have heard it somewhere. Maybe I heard it from her. I don’t remember. But I remembered that she answered by describing people who grew up in the hollows of Kentucky, much like she had, but who had never left those hollows and knew nothing about the world around them. They may have thought they knew about the wider world — nobody think’s they’re particularly ignorant, especially now that we had radio, television, movies and newspapers — but, as she said, unless you actually go out into the world, there are things you will never know. Hicks, she said, are people who never left their homes and knew nothing about the world outside of their tiny communities.
And then she stopped and thought about it a bit, and added, “You can find them back in the hollows, but you can also find them in some mighty fancy places. You can even find them in New York City.”
I’ve been thinking an awful lot about that lately. Two weeks after Donald Trump’s surprise election, I’ve been seeing various posts pop up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds and in following some of the discussions taking place in private email listservs of progressive activists. And their simplistic explanations for what went wrong in the election tell me that they are hicks, at least as Easter defined them. But since the word “hick” conjures a very particular pejorative image, I’ll discard it and coin another one that I think is more accurate: Blue Bubble Democrats.
To be clear, you don’t actually have to be in a geographic blue bubble to be a Blue Bubble Democrat. You can easily do this by building your bubble through social media, carefully culled friends, and the particular neighborhoods you chose to call home. And also to be clear, there’s nothing sinister about it. It’s not a moral failing. In fact, it’s perfectly natural. We all do it. I’m in a rather nice blue bubble myself right here in blood red Arizona. But I’ve long recognized that this bubble exists and I’ve worked hard to stepped out of it, and I think I’ve recognized some disturbing trends that I think an awful lot of Blue Bubble Democrats have been ignoring for far too long.
So who are these Blue Bubble Democrats? Well, you can know them by their reaction to this month’s general election. They are the ones who, outraged over the abandonment of the Democratic party by blue collar Americans, are condemning and dismissing them as horribly racist, hopelessly xenophobic and congenitally homophobic. Their solution seems to be, as far as I can tell, to yell at those workers, demand that they stop voting against their interests, check their white privilege, and just generally get over themselves.
And don’t get me wrong: many blue collar/white middle class Americans are racists. Maybe very many them are. I’d be perfectly stupid to argue otherwise. But let’s be honest here: not all of them are. Not even close. And think about it: those who are would never have voted for a Democrat even if Jesus Christ himself were the nominee. They certainly wouldn’t have voted for a Black man in 2008, and they wouldn’t have voted for a man they branded a Black Muslim Kenyan in 2012. These aren’t the voters who swung this election. They were already in the bag for Trump, just like they were there for Romney, McCain, Bush, and so forth all the way back to Nixon’s “southern strategy” which, truth be told, held an awful lot of appeal outside the South.
Racism was the most visible part of Trump’s campaign. It was visible because it was so shocking, and we reacted strongly (and rightly) to that shock. Neo-nazis, White nationalists and Klanners have openly rejoiced over having “one of our own” running for President. And Trump’s playing to the more sinister impulses of hatred has emboldened them, and more than a few others, to unleash a wave of attacks both before and especially immediately after the election, as we’ve documented here at BTB. We’re all rightly alarmed by it, and we will continue to call it out, as we should.
But while focusing all our outrage in that, we should have been also paying attention to the twin ravages of long term economic crisis and ballooning heroin epidemic in Middle America. In fact, that epidemic should have been our canary in the proverbial coal mines. Instead we just said we’d shut them all down.
And so millions of other blue collar, white working class Americans — who voted for a Black man, and who returned to vote for that Black Muslim Kenyan, turned to Trump. If you’re going to say their vote was all about racism, then you’re going to have to explain why they waited so long to act on it.
Before I leave the subject of racism (and Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and so forth), I do think it’s fair to ask how they could have excused Trump’s racism. Shouldn’t that have been a disqualifying factor in and of itself? My answer is yes, obviously. I voted for Clinton even though I strongly felt that she was, without a doubt, the single most flawed candidate the Democratic Party’s establishment could have put forward. (I also didn’t support Sanders either. I was beyond dismayed.) I’ll rant more about Clinton later, maybe, but getting back to that question: yes, I think Trump’s racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia — the list goes on far too long — should have been disqualifying on its face.
But I have the luxury of setting those priorities. Many of those who supported Obama but went with Trump didn’t feel they could do that. For decades, they had been telling Democrats that they have been facing an unrelenting economic crisis, in many places for decades without letup. To compound that misery, many of those once-prosperous communities along America’s rust belt are now being consumed by a disastrous opioid and heroin epidemic that is, each year, setting new records for killing their kids. Kirk Noden describes their reaction:
Deindustrialization was a traumatic experience for white working-class people. Yet we act surprised when this constituency exhibits post-traumatic-stress disorder. And it is we who perpetrate the myth that they are voting “against their interests,” despite all the facts on the ground indicating that for them it makes no difference which party is in power. They have lived through 40 years of decline.
Progressives like to talk about the “erasure” of long-suffering groups from public discourse. There’s trans-erasure, bi-erasure, Latinx-erasure, and so forth. But I haven’t seen anyone talk about another erasure that’s been taking place. Blue collar middle-class Americans had been the bedrock of the Democratic party since the days of FDR. The Democratic party, which had once been the workers’ party, has studiously set about erasing this core constituency from among its ranks as soon as Bill Clinton entered office and his fellow New Democrats and their “third way” took over the party. Former MSNBC host Krystal Ball illustrates the problem: “There was an incredibly revealing moment at the DNC. In an effort to rev up the crowd one of the speakers called out: ‘Who in this room works with their hands?’ Silence.”
Democrats who have been active participants in the erasure of one of their core constituencies cannot be allowed to escape their responsibility for helping to bring about Trump’s victory. Ball, who now lives in Kentucky, has diagnosed the problem quite succinctly:
They said they were facing an economic apocalypse, we offered “retraining” and complained about their white privilege. Is it any wonder we lost? One after another, the dispatches came back from the provinces. The coal mines are gone, the steel mills are closed, the drugs are rampant, the towns are decimated and everywhere you look depression, despair, fear. In the face of Trump’s willingness to boldly proclaim without facts or evidence that he would bring the good times back, we offered a tepid gallows logic. Well, those jobs are actually gone for good, we knowingly told them. And we offered a fantastical non-solution. We will retrain you for good jobs! Never mind that these “good jobs” didn’t exist in East Kentucky or Cleveland. And as a final insult, we lectured a struggling people watching their kids die of drug overdoses about their white privilege. Can you blame them for calling bullshit?
… The arrogance of thinking that somehow we could ignore most of the country and still hold a claim on the nation’s highest office is breathtaking. Demographics are not destiny. Candidates do matter. And it is still the economy, stupid.
So to those who cling to the idea that racism and the other -isms and -phobias were the reason voters turned to Trump, I challenge them to undergo this simple experiment. Grab one of those county-by-county maps showing the red expanse and the blue bubbles. Drive out from those bubbles (if that’s where you happen to live, or get away from whatever bubble you’ve made for yourself). Get in the car and go out into the red. Go to a bright red county seat and get out of the car. Get off of Facebook and take your earbuds out. Look around. And tell me: what do you see?
Closed storefronts. Abandoned houses and empty lots where whole neighborhoods once stood. Crumbling factory buildings, boarded up schools that were once the pride of the community. Look around. You have to ask yourself, what are these people clinging to?
Well it turns out that many of those who live in these communities have been looking around and asking the same question. They saw their broken communities, abandoned by the very party that had once been their champion, and heard Trump say he was going to make America great again. Clinton countered that America was already great. They looked around again and said, no, it doesn’t look so great to me.
And then they voted.
Over the course of the next several posts on this subject, we’ll be taking a tour of some of those places that had turned out for Obama but voted for Trump.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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And don‘t miss our companion report, How To Write An Anti-Gay Tract In Fifteen Easy Steps.
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