The Midwesterner: After the vote

By Richard C. Longworth

Some post-election thoughts:

The solid Midwest abides, mostly. Nobody expected Indiana to stay in the Democratic column, where it landed in the Obama landslide four years ago, or Missouri to swing Democratic. But the other six Upper Midwest states voted again Tuesday for Barack Obama and three of them — the swing states of Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin — helped put the president over the top.

The four Great Plains states — the two Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas — remained solidly Republican, as expected.

The election provided a graphic demonstration of the basic split, economic and political, between the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest. Take a map and draw a vertical line from the Canadian border down through Minnesota and Iowa, passing somewhere to the west of the Twin Cities and Des Moines. Most of the region to the east is industrial, urban, more unionised, and more likely to vote Democratic. Most of the region to the west is agricultural, rural, with a drier climate, more sparsely populated, more religious, and more likely to vote Republican. 

In this split, we're seeing the decline of the west. The votes were close but Iowa and Minnesota, like most of the other Upper Midwest states, voted Democratic. Only Indiana, perhaps the least Midwestern of the Midwestern states, bucked the trend.

The Tea Party may have played out its string in the Midwest. Michele Bachmann barely re-won her very conservative district in Minnesota. In Iowa, an attempt to unseat a judge who had voted to legalise same-sex marriage failed; three other judges in that decision had been ousted by a Tea Party-led campaign two years ago, but Justice David Wiggins, alerted by that vote, campaigned for retention and won handily.

In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay candidate elected to the Senate. In Illinois, voters turned three freshmen Republican representatives into one-term congressmen. Even though Indiana and Missouri went solidly for Mitt Romney, both defeated Tea Party-backed senatorial candidates who had disgraced themselves with comments on rape.

What does this mean? Despite some Tea Party successes in 2010, most of the Midwest seems infertile ground for extremists, especially social extremists. Voters in the old industrial states clearly voted their pocketbooks. In the 1980s, industrial workers in the region swung to the right, becoming Reagan Democrats: in the last two elections, their sons and daughters have stayed mostly Democratic.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that the Republican Party may be a terminally minority party nationally. The super PACs, funded by wealthy donors and overwhelmingly Republican, lost almost all the races they backed. Men in suits, running on pro-life and other conservative platforms, also lost. Rush Limbaugh and his brothers in bile also lost convincingly. To the degree that the GOP represented the wealthy, the conservative, and the bombastic, it lost and it's got a problem.

That is, it lost in races where the electorate was split and the race was close. In the Great Plains, rural areas, northwest Iowa, downstate Illinois, non-metro Ohio, in landslide areas where Republican dominance is solid and the Democratic Party barely exists — in these areas, Tea Party-aligned candidates won handily. Since there's so many of these districts, this branch of the Republican Party still controls the House of Representatives, which means the Tea Party still has a base and a platform.

Clearly, this dominance doesn't extend to state-wide contests, where urban Democrats balance rural Republicans. In the Midwest at least, Democrats are not only competitive but triumphant, which is why the Democrats, once again, control the Senate.

This not only means divided government. It means a divided Republican party, especially in the Midwest. At the state level, Republicans can win only if they field centrist candidates who are regarded as apostates by most of these states' most powerful elected Republicans.

The battle for the GOP's soul has just begun. 

The first battle may be over immigration. Across the nation, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. To the degree that the GOP is becoming the party of old white men, this demographic shift has to make Republican leaders ask if they're digging their own grave.

They're about to get the message. An immigration task force convened by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs will shortly publish a report on rational immigration law reform: the report is tilted toward the business community, a key GOP constituency. Other business groups see immigrants as workers, not as threats, and are pressing for reform. So are law enforcement officers and many churches, many of them powerful in Republican circles. If their party listens to them, it could drop its opposition to reform, including opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants. It would have to buck the Tea Party to do it, but as we saw this week, Tea Party clout in the Midwest may be waning.

The Midwestern map, even in the Upper Midwest states, remains mostly red, surrounding a few blue dots. If geography was all that counted, the Republicans would have swept the region. But the blue dots are cities, housing most of the people and most of the votes. In the Midwest as elsewhere, more and more people are moving into cities. In other words, Democratic citadels are gaining votes, Republican areas are losing them. Once again, the future looks grim for an unreformed Republican Party.

Those of us who stayed awake for the president's acceptance speech were treated to an inspiring flow of Obamian rhetoric, the sort of old-fashioned oratory that can make politics fun. But while it sounded great, it had about as much intellectual content as a Sousa march, an all-American trumpet blast that virtually ignored the real problems facing the nation and, hence, the real problems Obama was re-elected to solve.

Folks, we still have a debt, and a deficit, and a crumbling infrastructure, and broken schools, and a bloated defense budget, and a hollowed-out middle class, and greats chunks of the nation, especially here in the Midwest, that are post-industrial wastelands filled with yesterday's workers baffled by the demands of the global age. An article this week in the German magazine Der Spiegel spelled it out:

After a brilliant century and a terrible decade, the United States, in this important election year, has reached a point in its history when the obvious can no longer be denied: the reality of life in American so greatly contradicts the claim ... to be the "greatest nation on earth" that even the most ardent patriots must be overcome with doubt.

Not Obama. His acceptance speech promised the best schools, new technology, and "all the good jobs that follow," a "country that's safe and respected and admired around the globe," "the strongest military on earth, "a country that moves with confidence," that promises "freedom and dignity for every human being," filled with working-class children who grow up to be doctors or diplomats. In passing, he ticked off his to-do list — reducing the deficit, reforming the tax code, fixing the immigration system — as though these will be no trick at all, if we just want to do it.

Campaigns are times for incumbent presidents to point with pride, not view with alarm. But the campaign is over and the happy talk should end. This country has grave problems and immense challenges unacknowledged by most Americans because they go unmentioned by our leaders, including the President. It's time for some straight talk, some real specifics on what ails us and the sacrifices that any cure entails.

This election was Obama's last campaign. He's never going to run for office again. He can risk telling Americans the truth. The acceptance speech would have been a great place to start, and he let it pass.  

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner

13 November 2012