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February 26, 2006

Don't Feed the Regionalism Monster

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Atrios is talking about boycotting South Dakota in light of their near-total ban on abortions. Roxanne and Amanda don't think that's a good idea. I'm with the ladies on this one -- as they point out, a boycott would harm lots of poor hard-working women, and it's very unlikely that it would accomplish anything.

The point I'd like to add here is that one of the least-understood forces causing trouble for progressives everywhere is red-state regionalism. Making the abortion issue look like some kind of battle between left-wing coastal elitists and ordinary Americans from the flyover states will make it even harder for us to fix things in the Dakotas and elsewhere. Here I want to quote one of the best comments from my personal blog, which my Nebraska ex-roommate posted shortly after the 2004 elections:

Red-staters (myself included) have a serious inferiority complex with respect to people on the coasts. Whether easterners consider themselves elite or not is really besides the point. The fact is people in the Midwest (I don't know the South) suspect that easterners think we're just a bunch of ass backwards hicks, and we worry and worry about showing that (i) we're not, and (ii) we don't care what they think anyway. Part of the reason Bush goes over so well in the Midwest is that he's one of "us" -- yeah, yeah, he's privilleged, but he speaks naturally in religious terms, which counts for a lot. Voting for Bush is actually a sort of populist move for many red-staters: it's a way of saying fuck you to the elite easterners who think they know everything and put us down. I actually think the gay marriage results are partly (though certainly not entirely) a reflection of this sentiment.

People in the Mountains, the Midwest, and especially the South are deeper into their regionalism than people on the coasts are, so having a particular position coded as the Midwestern/Southern view makes it politically stronger than having it coded as the NY/DC/California position. (By the way, if you haven't read John Rogers' brilliant post on regionalism and what Democrats can learn from standup comedy, please do. I'm probably going to vote for it as post of the year when the Koufax voting gets on.)

I'd guess that the greater appeal of regionalism in the interior of the country is part of why the predominantly coastal punditocracy tends to underestimate its significance. David Brooks is one of the few pundits who really understand regionalism. Of course, he expresses his understanding not by describing it, but by doing whatever he can to intensify and increase it. Part of his job in the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy is to feed the media caricature machine with pictures of Democrats as sophisticated elitists who sneer at the salt-of-the-earth working folk from the plains, and he does his job well. Elsewhere, you see Bush clearing brush on his Crawford ranch, making sure that years in Washington don't dilute perceptions of him as an ordinary fella from Texas. After eight years and more in DC, Al Gore stopped looking like an ordinary fella from Tennesee, and that was the end of him.

Making the abortion ban into another gay-marriage kind of issue with which red-staters can say "fuck you" to blue state elitists, then, is a very bad idea. So what do we do? I like Amanda's suggestion of using this issue to rally support among unmarried women everywhere, though I don't know the numbers on how many extra votes we can pick up that way. (As she points out, they're already a reliable Democratic bloc.) The other big thing is to defend our values without inciting regionalism by running a pro-choice red-state Democrat with common-man appeal in the next presidential election. You know who I'm thinking of.

February 26, 2006 in Electoral Politics | Permalink

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"The other big thing is to defend our values without inciting regionalism by running a pro-choice red-state Democrat with common-man appeal in the next presidential election. You know who I'm thinking of."

Where will Edwards have picked up his foreign policy/national security cred by then? Currently an Edwards candidacy only works if we assume the electorate no longer considers terror/national security a major priority, which is dicey at best even without the possibility of an attack within the next two years.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Feb 26, 2006 4:27:16 PM

Gaining credibility on national security/foreign policy isn't a matter of what's on your resume. (If it were, Kerry would've done a lot better than he did.) It's a matter of being able to say things about national security and foreign policy that make people nod. Don't doubt John Edwards' general-purpose nod-generation capabilities.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2006 4:34:58 PM

On behalf of people with less overwhelming inferiority complexes to the vast middle of America, then: get the fuck over yourselves.

Posted by: Alexander "Benjamins" Hamilton | Feb 26, 2006 4:38:21 PM

I'm beginning to find the a John Edwards presidency compelling because it would be a stiff poke in the eye to every Republican claiming that important issues and "gravitas" are what placed Bush into the White House. I'd be able to say, "see, the Democrats can bamboozle the American people into electing an empty suit who says all the right things just as easily as the Republicans can. And we're going to keep doing it, just to prove we can beat you at your own game."

As Neil points out, America had its chance to elect candidates with outstanding qualifications to understand and deal with the challenges facing us in the 21st century, and we turned them down both times in favor of W.

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 26, 2006 4:50:41 PM

"Gaining credibility on national security/foreign policy isn't a matter of what's on your resume. (If it were, Kerry would've done a lot better than he did.)"

No, I think the proper observation here is that national security credibility isn't just a matter of what's on your resume. But for a guy whose entire time in public office consists of one Senate term, two years of which were spent largely on campaigning for president and/or vice president, Edwards has a significant resume gap of the "what's this guy actually done?" variety. Pretty speechifying is good as far as it goes, but it won't make up for the impression that he can't actually run the country.

Let's also not ignore the possibility that after eight years of George Bush - including the disaster of the Iraq war and the Katrina response - a lot of Americans are going to specifically look for a president who appears qualified to be president. John Kerry's flaw wasn't that he was a resume candidate; it was that he was just a resume candidate. Picking a guy with no experience governing and no real experience in foreign policy or lawmaking is a recipe for disaster - especially if he runs against someone with experience and media savvy (for example, McCain).

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Feb 26, 2006 5:15:33 PM

Constantine, I'm going to risk destroying your support of Edwards by suggesting that he's not an empty suit. Did you read Ezra's piece on how Edwards is way beyond everyone else on how to tackle poverty? There's a good wonk brain beneath that shiny brown hair. Admittedly, he's not a superstar on foreign policy. But I don't think we have many candidates who are.

Iron Lungfish, you might be interested to know that polls show Edwards doing better against McCain than any other Democratic candidate does. And if American voters regard experience as a positive factor rather than a negative in presidential elections, I have yet to see evidence of it. Heck, 19% of Americans voted for a completely inexperienced paranoid billionaire in 1992 even after he dropped out of the race and came back. Experience also means that you've had opinions on tons of things, and that means that at least some of them will be unpopular, and you can be beaten up on those as Kerry was.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2006 5:29:30 PM

Oh, great. "We should be all things to all people." I guess that means we have to give up complaining about our elected leadership being a bunch of empty, spineless suits. Apparently, that's what we want.

Regionalism exists for a reason. It's not simply that Red Staters believe we think them thick. Their cultures are different from ours. They have a different conception of America than we do. We should absolutely stop behaving like dicks to the "hicks." But glad-handing and mumble-mouthing our way through the elections is not going to get us to victory. At a minimum, we need to choose the regions we think we can pick up, and sell ourselves to them, and them specifically. And we should stop trying to pick up the South - they don't like us at all. The DLC/TNR crowd will just have to get over that.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Feb 26, 2006 6:30:28 PM

mccaain will never win the GOP primary. every politically active republican hates him. he's their joe lieberman.

Posted by: anon | Feb 26, 2006 7:08:23 PM

"And if American voters regard experience as a positive factor rather than a negative in presidential elections, I have yet to see evidence of it."

Sorry, but Ross Perot doing well among dissatisfied Republicans in 1992 after the end of the Cold War when electoral priorities had undergone a massive shift from foreign policy to domestic concerns is a far, far cry from today's terror-and-security-dominated climate. Do you honestly believe that no one is going to ask Edwards any questions about Iraq? About Iran? Pakistan? About how he'd fight al Qaeda? Where is he on Israel/Palestine? Is he for dealing with a Hamas government or not? I don't expect the unwashed masses to care about these questions as much as I do, but I do expect my candidate to have detailed and coherent responses to them, and the last time I remember John Edwards answering a terror-related question - in the middle of the debates - he responded with a condescending yarn about feeling sympathy for victims of a bombing he heard about while flying back from a junket.

The vast bulk of the work Edwards has done has been related to poverty, and good for him for doing that - but to pretend that the next candidate for president won't need anything on his resume that relates to foreign policy is downright delusional.

There seems to have been this hope that Katrina would switch the national conversation from national security to domestic and economic concerns. This just didn't happen. Most Americans seem perfectly happy to sweep the poor back under the rug, and in the meantime Democrats need to beat Republicans on national security again - a task that shouldn't be so Herculean given Bush's track record. But it won't work if the first question asked about our candidate's qualifications is "why should we elect some shmuck who hasn't even done anything?"

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Feb 26, 2006 7:19:35 PM

So far, you haven't given me evidence that anybody cares about experience.

Do you honestly believe that no one is going to ask Edwards any questions about...

Of course they'll ask lots of questions! And Edwards will produce what he thinks are the most politically sellable answers, just like McCain will. Leaders with foreign policy experience regularly screw up their answers to these questions, because they're bad talkers (Kerry). Leaders with no foreign policy experience regularly give winning answers, because they're good talkers (Bush 2000). I don't see what experience has to do with winning. In the end, they judge you on your answers. There's so much going on in a presidential election, and resume stuff is so boring, that in the end nobody really gives half a damn about it.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2006 7:56:12 PM

"So far, you haven't given me evidence that anybody cares about experience."

Democrats cared about it in 2004 when they failed to nominate John Edwards for the Democratic primary. They didn't just nominate John Kerry because he had a nice resume: they rejected Edwards because he'd only been in politics for five years, looked forty years old max, and had only won one election in his political career - a record he's yet to improve upon, I might add. Every crack about Edwards's age was a barely-concealed jab at his inability to lead, and for the most part people bought it because (1) he didn't have the background and (2) he didn't look like he had the background, either. That's a killer combination when you want to be the most powerful man in the world.

"Leaders with no foreign policy experience regularly give winning answers, because they're good talkers (Bush 2000)"

George Bush is a good talker now? When did this event occur? And what is it about having no foreign policy experience that makes one a good talker? Does the area of the brain that governs speechwriting shrink as the area that governs treaties and troop deployments expands? How well does Bill Clinton speak these days, by the way? Having a lot of foreign policy experience as a two-term president, he must be a pretty shitty speaker these days.

And you've yet to tell me what John Edwards is doing RIGHT NOW to make up for his giant gaping lack of ability to run a country in wartime.

"There's so much going on in a presidential election, and resume stuff is so boring, that in the end nobody really gives half a damn about it."

It's not just resume stuff. It's a matter of asking, "Is there anything - ANYTHING - this person has done which makes them qualified to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces?" In 1992 and 2000, people didn't care about that question very much. In 2004, they did. You can't seem to answer this question for John Edwards. Can he?

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Feb 26, 2006 8:33:31 PM

People didn't vote against Edwards in the 2004 primary because they thought he wouldn't be able to lead. They voted against him because they thought that other people thought he wouldn't be able to lead. It was the electability argument and nothing more. Then, I argued that this reasoning was mistaken. And I'll argue it again now.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2006 8:39:49 PM

"Then, I argued that this reasoning was mistaken. And I'll argue it again now."

Okay, so as one of those people who thinks he won't be able to lead, convince me that he'll be able to lead on national security.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Feb 26, 2006 8:49:15 PM

The whole "Let's boycott South Dakota" thing was stupid, but not for the reasons Roxanne and Amanda gave.

Realistically, exactly how much business does the average blue-state resident do in/with South Dakota anyway? Next to none, Mt Rushmore notwithstanding. A boycott would make the participants feel all righteous, but it wouldn't actually accomplish anything other than giving the pundits more ways to pound us all with the blue state /red state cudgel.

Posted by: fiat lux | Feb 26, 2006 9:13:11 PM

I can promise you a post on that sometime in the future, Lungfish. It's a bit of a big topic for right now, though.

fiat lux, I agree. Really, Atrios was just venting, I think.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 26, 2006 9:45:35 PM

I do not think people on the coasts are less regionalist its just that their regions are much smaller and juxtaposed with each other more than they are with the rest of the country. Jersey, Philly, Manhattan, Long Island, Boston etc. We compete with each other and do not identify ourselves as being from the East Coast unless we are say in the Midwest or the Rocky Mountains.

We just don't think in those terms we think in terms like "Long Island Girls Best in the World" as the T-shirt used to say.

Posted by: ellenbrenna | Feb 26, 2006 10:35:33 PM

Um, I'm from the Midwest, and please, please, please do not group us with the South. Please. We may be sheltered, but we embrace modernity and equality. We do not celebrate the Confederacy.

(And Midwest = MN, WI, IA, IL, OH, IN, SD, ND)

Posted by: hi | Feb 26, 2006 11:47:02 PM

hi, how about Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri? surely they get in before the Dakotas do.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 27, 2006 12:22:06 AM

I can't grok Democrats who do not like Edwards, look down on him as a hick, refuse to learn facts about his intellectual prowess, international experience and everything else, and buy into Republican talking points of him as a "pretty boy" and "empty suit".

This is two years old but still relevant.
Learn more here.
This is more recent.
And a comparison to Hillary.

Posted by: coturnix | Feb 27, 2006 12:58:01 AM

An economic boycott may be a bad idea, but I am keeping my womb as far as possible from a state that would leave me to die on the table. Maybe it's bad politics, but I'm not literally risking my life for it.

Posted by: jengould | Feb 27, 2006 1:39:53 AM

I'm down with "experience doesn't matter", by why stop at a 1 term Senator? Senator's have expressed opinions after all, which you point out is dead-weight. Get a 1 term mayor of some successful suburb, or even just some high school gym teacher who's really congenial. The consultants can give them all the right answers, and they'll be even MORE like the common-man.

[Doesn't even know whether he's being sarcastic anymore. Though I would like you to answer why Senator > non-Senator]

Posted by: Tony Vila | Feb 27, 2006 3:07:57 AM

I can't grok Democrats who do not like Edwards, look down on him as a hick, refuse to learn facts about his intellectual prowess

I don't look down on him as a hick, nor do I think he lacks intellectual prowess. He's nothing if not an intelligent, successful professional.

My reaction to him was simply, "I like what he's saying, but I wouldn't be able to tell whether he's sincere about it or he doesn't mean a word of it." Combine this with the fact that he's just a one-term senator, and supporting him for president is making a leap of faith that I have no interest in taking. As I said, though, it would be a stiff poke in the eye to Republicans if he can market himself all the way to the White House, and that has a certain amount of appeal.

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 27, 2006 9:20:56 AM

I think there is some confusion here with regard to what constitues the Midwest. The Midwest is a predominately farm region composed of states on the Great Plains, south of Canada, north of Texas, east of the Rockies and west of the Mississippi river. It is a largely rural, poor region with few significant cities. Moreover, it is also the most reliably conservative area of the nation -- other than Iowa & Missouri, a Democratic nominee has failed to capture any of these states since 1964. Hell, these states didn't even vote for Roosevelt or Truman after 1936.

It is a region entirely distinct from the Great Lakes region, which is a mainly industrial region composed of states with a Great Lakes shoreline that is east of the Mississipi, west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River and south of Canada. The Great Lakes region is pretty much the Big Ten states, minus Iowa and PA -- Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. These are some of the bluest states in the nation; only Indiana is reliably red and Ohio generally votes with the winner, R or D.

We have some of the largest cities in the nation (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul) and are the most heavily industrialized and unionized section of the country. We have some of the finest universities (Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, Chicago, Minnesota), most of them fine public institutions. Do not confuse the Great Lakes region with the Midwest. It raises the dander of this Michigander.

As to coastal elitism, I really haven't experienced it from West Coasters -- they're a pretty laid back bunch. East Coasters, on the other hand . . . Many is the time on one of these sites when a fellow progressive has treated me and my brethren like some kind of Green Acres bumpkin because I'm from a "backwater midwestern" state -- even though metro Detroit has more people than most eastern cities. There is a certain elitism; why I cannot say, given that NYC is hardly some recreated Emerald City (although contrary to Mr. Baum's character, I still say that the Emerald City is better than Kansas, but I suppose that's my Great Lakes elitism).

Posted by: J Smith | Feb 27, 2006 10:07:30 AM

Err... fine J Smith, but you're using a completely different definition of "Midwest" than almost everyone else. To most most people, the midwest means Minnesota, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. The Great Lakes region is usually considered to be a subset of the Midwest.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midwest

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 27, 2006 5:40:03 PM

I'm in Kansas City. Growing up in New Mexico and going to school in San Diego and living in San Francisco for a while, I'm "back east." But then, everything east of the New Mexico/Texas border is "back east" to me, and always will be.

Just saying.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 28, 2006 3:52:05 AM

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