Forget the "heartland"

A Kerry volunteer says Dems aren't latte-drinking snobs -- and they don't need to "reach out" to red state reactionaries.

Published November 5, 2004 1:34AM (EST)

I have never been more ashamed for my country, or more afraid for it. I ran into a friend on the train the morning after the election, and she started talking about what a nightmare the whole thing had been, and I had to ask her to please stop because I didn't want to start crying again. It's like when there's a death in your family, and somehow even being comforted unravels you all the more.

After going to sleep around 2 in the morning, I kept waking up, thinking of one more horrible thing this election means. The courts. And not just the Supreme Court, God help us, but the federal circuit courts, like the one that decided on Election Day that it was just ducky for the Ohio GOP to send mobs -- mobs in suits, but still mobs -- into largely African-American polling places to "challenge" voters. Fortunately there were enough Democratic poll watchers assigned there to intimidate the intimidators -- but is that what it's come to?

So it's the courts. And jobs. And healthcare. And any chance that minimum-wage workers might see a raise after struggling through on the same lousy pay since the mid-1990s. And the sanctity of a woman's right to make her own healthcare choices. And any sense of feeling secure, of feeling like there are people in Washington working late into the night to keep us safe, the way Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke did when Clinton was president. As I lay there thinking, one more thing, and then another, kept coming to me, like a steady drip of reminders of things lost. It's like when your pocketbook is stolen, and you keep thinking of another thing that was in there. You knew your wallet was gone, and your keys, but then you remember the photos you just had developed were in there. Damn. And oh, Christ, the ring you were getting resized, the one your aunt had left you.

By the time I had gone to bed, the chorus of pundits had fixed on a single tune, as they always do, and remarkably quickly, too. (Do they watch one another's feeds in the green room?) They had dusted off the old theme that the Democrats need to "reach out" more to the "heartland." Reach out? How, exactly? Forget that these folks blindly ignored all objective reality -- and their own best economic and national-security interests -- and voted for Bush. Look what they did at the Senate level. In Kentucky, they refused to use even basic sanity as a litmus test, and reelected a guy with apparent late-stage dementia; in Oklahoma, they tapped a fellow who wants to execute doctors who perform abortions, who was sued for sterilizing a woman against her will, who pled guilty to Medicaid fraud, and who largely opposes federal subsidies, even for his own state; in Louisiana, they embraced a man who has made back-door deals with David Duke and who was revealed to have had a long-running affair with a prostitute; in South Carolina, they went with a guy who thinks all gay teachers should be fired; and in Alaska, they reelected a woman who was appointed by her father to the job after a spectacularly undistinguished career as an obscure state senator. And compared with the rest of the GOP Class of '04, she's the freaking prom queen. These are the stellar elected officials that the "heartland" has foisted on the rest of us.

"Reach out" to these voters? Yeah. Then boil your hand till it's sterilized.

So what are their issues, anyway? They're "cultural and moral values," we keep hearing. Well, they voted in a president who ran up the largest deficits in history, saddling our children and grandchildren with mountains of debt to pay for a tax cut that largely skewed to the wealthiest Americans; underfunded his own education initiative by $9 billion; threw more than a million more families into poverty; lost more jobs than any president since Hoover; saw 5 million Americans lose their healthcare on his watch; demoted the office of counterterrorism and ignored months' worth of dire warnings about an attack in the months running up to 9/11, and after 9/11, fought the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, fought the formation of the 9/11 Commission, and diverted hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops away from the war on terror to fight a war of choice in Iraq, where we've lost more than 1,000 young Americans. Those soldiers who are lucky enough to make it home face cuts in their benefits and combat pay, as well as veterans' hospital closures.

Oh, and on a personal note, Bush and Vice President Cheney have been convicted of drunken driving three times between them, and both evaded the draft while hawkishly supporting the Vietnam War; huge questions still remain about Bush's National Guard tenure, while Cheney's story -- five deferments -- is a bit neater and more straightforward. But they do oppose gay marriage, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. Ah -- now we're getting somewhere on what these "cultural and moral issues" are out in the "heartland." Bush and Cheney hate and fear the same people they do.

And how, exactly, are the Democrats supposed to counter this? Out-pander Karl Rove? Out-lie Dick Cheney? Out-fearmonger George Bush? Even if the Democrats were inclined to do all three -- and after this election, I'm betting they'd be willing to give it their best shot -- what are the odds, really, that they, or anybody, could succeed?

I'm not, by any means, saying that the Democrats made no mistakes in this race -- and some were huge. For one thing, the Swift Boat liars have been dogging Kerry since the Vietnam War was still underway -- John O'Neill was a protégé of Watergate felon Charles Colson -- and the Kerry campaign should have been ready to shoot down their smears from the moment they were launched. For another, they should have defined Kerry aggressively, with a huge media campaign, from the get-go -- the minute he nailed down the nomination in March -- and defined Bush on their terms at the same time. And they wasted way too much time on Florida, where the love is increasingly unrequited and the Bushes rule.

But to pretend that the Democrats are a bunch of effete, latte-drinking elitists who don't know how to connect with the "heartland" is not only hooey, but mindless, lazy, recycled hooey.

There is a name for the people the pundits describe -- and that name is "Nader voter." Democrats, by now, loathe these people even more than the folks in Idaho do. They're the overprivileged, Woodstock-era, insufferably smug liberals who think all the world's a poli-sci class and who'd rather be "right" than win. Especially since they're not the ones to feel the pain if the other guy wins. They cost Gore the White House in 2000, and the truly hardcore ones stuck to their "principles" even this year. They're repulsive. They're to be loathed and mocked to the skies. And they're not the people who were out there working day in and day out for John Kerry.

I spent the months leading up to the election calling people in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many of them -- some Democrats, some Republicans, some with no party affiliation -- were also canvassing or leafleting for Kerry. They were teachers who had to buy their own supplies for their classrooms, because Bush underfunded No Child Left Behind. They were steelworkers who liked John Kerry's support of their unions. They were students struggling with tuition that had gone up 40 percent in a single year, because Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy had starved the states and localities. They were mothers with teenage sons who worried about Iraq. They were furloughed firefighters whose stationhouses had been temporarily closed due to budget cuts.

On Election Day, I was canvassing in Abington, Pa., with a group of volunteers so humongous that they had to bus us to another location -- and then to another -- just to find enough work for us all. If you'd plucked any 10 of us out of the crowd, we probably wouldn't have had much in common except our support for Kerry and our hope for a better, stronger country. The first person I commiserated with in my office the morning after the election was Alfred, our maintenance manager from Poland. And we weren't crying into lattes.

To me, the heartland of this country is anywhere that people work their asses off to make their lives better for their families. They stay true to their better angels no matter how miserable things get or how much easier it would be to succumb to hate and irrational fear. They read, and listen, and look for the truth and stay informed about what's really going on, no matter how grim the news. They don't live in Fox News cocoons, they don't blast Rush Limbaugh from their pickups, and they don't vote blindly for the guys whose prejudices most neatly line up with their own. Their concerns are genuine, their values are consistent, their principles are rock-solid, and their hearts are true.

They may not go around saying, "God bless America," but these days, they're probably praying that He'll save America. Because God knows the people in the "heartland" won't.

By Janet Sullivan

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