Elites can’t keep writ­ing off adrift Trump vot­ers

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY MICHAEL GECAN

Af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, my view was that the vot­ers had re­jected not just Hil­lary Clin­ton but also the mod­ern Demo­cratic Party — a party topheavy with celebrity can­di­dates and dom­i­nated by Wall Streeters, Sil­i­con Val­ley stars and aca­demic and pro­fes­sional elites.

Now on Tues­day, in Vir­ginia, New Jer­sey, Wash­ing­ton state and Maine, vot­ers re­jected not only Don­ald Trump but also the chaotic and un­pro­duc­tive po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that he em­bod­ies and pro­motes — a cul­ture top- heavy with fam­ily mem­bers, Wall Streeters, busi­ness ti­tans and gen­er­als.

Some on the left al­ready are tout­ing the re­sults of Tues­day’s elec­tions as ev­i­dence of the im­pact of “the re­sis­tance” and run­ning as far and fast as they can from the les­sons of 2016. Those on the right, mean­while, are un­set­tled, but bid­ing their time, know­ing that the East and West coasts are not their bread and but­ter and hop­ing that the Democrats re­peat the mis­takes of the past.

The big­gest mis­take Democrats could make is to ig­nore the half of Amer­ica that lives in the vast mid­dle of the coun­try — the states de­scribed by jour­nal­ist Richard C. Long­worth a decade ago in his book “Caught in the Mid­dle.” I’m from one of those states, Illi­nois, have worked ex­ten­sively in Wis­con­sin, and dur­ing the past year made sev­eral trips to south­ern Ohio.

I went to Portsmouth, Iron­ton, Chilli­cothe and other Ohio towns, meet­ing lead­ers and res­i­dents and try­ing to fig­ure out whether the kind of non­par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing that my col­leagues and I do in mostly met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas and fre­quently in African- Amer­i­can and His­panic com­mu­ni­ties would work there.

One Sun­day morn­ing, at a cof­fee hour af­ter an Epis­co­pal Church ser­vice, an el­derly parish­ioner ap­proached me and said, with skep­ti­cism, “When I heard some­one was go­ing to visit from New York, I said, ‘ Oh, boy, here comes an­other lib­eral who’s go­ing to tell us what to think and do.” She paused. “But you don’t talk like a lib­eral.”

“No, ma’am, I grew up in Cook County,” I said. “So I have no re­gard for ei­ther party.”

“Then you might do all right down here,” she de­cided.

On my next trip, I vis­ited an IT pro­fes­sional who had lost his son to heroin and who now led a church made up of nearly 200 re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts.

He asked me this ques­tion: “You are a busy man, aren’t you?” I an­swered that I guessed so, but why was he ask­ing.

“Well, then you are not com­ing back here,” he said. “Be­cause this is nowhere. And busy peo­ple don’t come back to nowhere.”

Forty years of job and pop­u­la­tion loss, along with 20 years of opi­oid and heroin plagues, have taken all kinds of ter­ri­ble tolls, in­clud­ing on the spirit of the peo­ple who have seen their com­mu­ni­ties crum­ble.

What has struck me, at least so far, is that peo­ple are not deeply Repub­li­can or in­tensely tied to Trump. They even say so. But they also know that the Democrats have writ­ten them off. A long­time Ohio- born Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive told me that he and his as­so­ciates had writ­ten off that part of the state decades ago. The Dems could win statewide of­fices by con­cen­trat­ing on met­ro­pol­i­tan Cleve­land and a few other ar­eas in the north, so why bother?

What this means to me is that there is an op­por­tu­nity to re­con­nect and re- en­gage with these Amer­i­cans — not just for the Democrats, but for mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans, for some new party, for non­par­ti­san or­ga­niz­ers like me.

Re­con­nect­ing starts with lis­ten­ing to peo­ple, no mat­ter how dif­fer­ent their views on cer­tain mat­ters may seem, not sell­ing a pack­age of pro­grams or po­si­tions. Con­sider the vic­tory by a trans­gen­der can­di­date in sub­ur­ban Vir­ginia who, while fully pub­lic and proud of who she is, ran a cam­paign al­most en­tirely fo­cused on traf­fic congestion, which is what the lo­cal vot­ers cared the most about. It wasn’t about her. It was about them.

Re- en­gag­ing be­gins with prag­matic re­sponses to the is­sues and con­cerns those res­i­dents raise.

What I have heard, so far, is an in­tense de­sire to ad­dress the on­go­ing opi­oid plague. That means re­in­force­ment of qual­ity re­cov­ery pro­grams and the reg­u­la­tion of fly- by- night op­er­a­tions, a re­lent­less crack­down on the pill ped­dlers and heroin traf­fick­ers, and a regional ap­proach to the pub­lic health and law en­force­ment is­sues that af­fect Ohio and Ken­tucky and West Vir­ginia.

A sec­ond is­sue is the need for a new gen­er­a­tion of mean­ing­ful liv­ing­wage work. That would mean rapidly ac­cel­er­at­ing the re­con­struc­tion of the scores of locks and dams along the Ohio River, still a ma­jor and less ex­pen­sive trans­porta­tion al­ter­na­tive for com­modi­ties of all kinds.

The party or fac­tion that fo­cuses on these kinds of ques­tions in these kinds of com­mu­ni­ties and re­spects the peo­ple who live there can break the cy­cle of cyn­i­cal celebrity pol­i­tics and be­gin to build a ma­jor­ity that will last a gen­er­a­tion. In the process, it will start to reknit a so­cial fab­ric that to­day is ter­ri­bly frayed and re­unite the cit­i­zens in the mid­dle with the cit­i­zens on the coasts. Michael Gecan is co- direc­tor of the In­dus­trial Ar­eas Foun­da­tion, founded in Chicago by Saul Alin­sky in 1940, which has lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tional af­fil­i­ates in Illi­nois, Ohio, Wis­con­sin and 18 other states. He is also au­thor of ‘‘ Go­ing Pub­lic: An Or­ga­nizer’s Guide to Cit­i­zen Ac­tion.’’

Re­con­nect­ing starts with lis­ten­ing to peo­ple, not sell­ing a pack­age of pro­grams or po­si­tions.

| SUN- TIMES FILES

Cars and trucks are shipped down the Ohio River in 1947. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties can re­con­nect with Amer­i­cans in the mid­dle of the coun­try by bring­ing back jobs of this sort, writes Michael Gecan.

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