This is part of LEO’s expanded commentary before the Nov. 5 election. For more, click here.
In past election seasons, I have knocked on doors of little pink houses belonging to prospective voters in small Indiana towns. I have been told, even by reliable Democratic voters, that they were voting Republican in an upcoming primary because the sheriff’s race is between five people running on the Republican ticket, and each person has their favorite neighbor, or buddy from high school, or neighbor’s buddy from high school, on the ballot. Or, maybe they have a vendetta against one (or more) of the five and want to make sure they cast a vote against them. In a way, within the confines of the damnable two-party system we’ve got, this is as it should be: vote for — or against — the devil you actually know.
By way of contrast, a friend running for town council in a comparably sized municipality with comparably pink houses reports that his canvassing efforts were met with constant questions not about sewer bills and potholes, but about abortion and immigration. Those voters did not care to know this devil; the knowledge that he was a devil was enough. I’m afraid that this is the direction we’re headed in.
In years past, there was not a lot of daylight between Republican and Democratic candidates at the state and municipal levels in Indiana and Kentucky; you often still can’t distinguish one from the other if they don’t tell you. It is not uncommon for a local politician to switch parties depending on who is likely to get more votes at the top of the ticket. So, to a degree, national-level politics have long influenced what goes on in small towns.
The degree has gradually increased over the last few decades, as federal wedge issues have been made the focal point of every political contest in America, from the Clarksville dogcatcher to the Rabbit Hash dogmayor. This shift has not happened by accident; the GOP was shrewd enough to localize national issues in order to dominate state legislatures and redraw the federal map, a strategy that has proved stunningly successful.
So, naturally, the buzzards that feed on fears of baby-killing doctors and advancing hordes of MS-13 are coming to roost more and more in our neck of the woods. Worse yet, the pervasive, intoxicating ooze of Trump’s peculiar brand of Sudafed-addled right-wing populism has made a mustard-colored shitstain, one that threatens to seep through the layers of the great waterlogged diaper of the Midwest, down into the least glamorous municipal elections.
State-level contests already reek of fecal paste, as smelt in the increasingly terrifying rhetoric of Matt Bevin, the soon-to-be-Secretary-of-Energy-or-whatever. He’s called teachers ignorant and selfish. He talks to Kentucky-born reporters from The Herald-Leader like they’re the “enemies of the people” who bedevil our poor president so. When Trump says something objectively vile, he can’t even bring himself to create distance from it, instead running to it with open arms, his gigantic, square, bobbling head pulsating with the ecstasy that comes with the permission to lay waste to societal norms.
Hoosiers are similarly afflicted, even at the municipal level. Charlestown Mayor Bob Hall, a Republican up for re-election this year, has been unrestrained in his apathy for the poor and has been very clear that he abhors “political correctness.” Political correctness isn’t exactly a contentious issue among Charlestown’s 8,000 residents, but Hall, who has been hard at work dismantling small, single-family homes citation by citation, wants everyone to know he’s against it. “Low-rent” districts, he says, “invite people who are not contributing to society.”
These aberrant stuffed shirts are the monstrosities you end up with when you tell people that they should be voting not on a candidate’s actions, not on their record, not on any genuine information, but on national issues — issues that have been used to distract voters who are too tired from working three jobs to notice that their pockets have been picked, their cars tossed, their houses ransacked. It is certainly true that shameless, behind-the-scenes lying, cheating, backstabbing and double-dealing is nothing particularly new in American politics (in any party). But brazen, public attacks on working-class families is something we haven’t seen much of until recently. The difference is subtle, but it matters. It is the difference between saying: “I can tell the difference between right and wrong according to the dictates of society” and “I am here to alter the dictates of society because the difference between right and wrong is whatever I say it is.” The latter is the essence of Trumpism; the notion that the character of the person doesn’t matter, because character doesn’t matter, because nothing matters except power, costs be damned. In previous years, that philosophy wouldn’t have played well at the local level; even if they had managed to get elected, these guys would have been tossed out on their heads the next go-round.
I’m not so sure.
To their credit, most Kentucky Republicans have refused to follow Bevin all the way into hell, and some have even endorsed his opponent. I predict he’ll lose, and I hope Hall will, too, but no one cares what I predict or hope. The real question is: Given that these are the devils we know, what does a Bevin victory or a Hall victory say about the degree to which people have adopted the national lens as the one through which all politics should be viewed? Dissembling, insulting teachers, bulldozing family homes or outright insane behavior — do these still matter to heartland voters on Election Day? Or, has our collective attention span been whittled away to the nubs of abortion and immigration, with no room for anything else?
If the former, then I think there’s real hope for our fragile republic and for the Midwest in particular. Nearly a hundred years ago, an editor of the Terre Haute Tribune said of iconic socialist Eugene Debs: “Ninety-five percent of the people [in Terre Haute] don’t like his ideas, but they worship the man.” For now, it is still acceptable — even desirable — to cast yourself as an independent voter in small-town Indiana. You vote not for the party but for the candidate you know; your friend, your neighbor, your friend’s neighbor, someone you went to elementary school with. You couldn’t imagine them doing anything too nefarious. As long as this is still true, there is a chance, however slim, that progressives who’ve laid roots in their communities can win municipal offices and state legislatures. In red states, the image of left-wing populists has needed rehabilitation at least since the McCarthy era, and mainstays of small towns are just the people to do it. Alas, it seems this cycle will be more about expelling the worst devils we know and meeting some new ones. Let’s hope we can at least do that. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.