The Democrats’ New Favorite Dog Whistle: Invoking the “Heartland”

Pundits and 2020 hopefuls are using nebulous notions of the Midwest to launder their own prejudice.

Michael Arria August 1, 2019

The spin room after the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After the June 30 Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, NBC host Bri­an Williams asked for­mer Mis­souri Sen­a­tor Claire McCaskill how the envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates like Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren would be per­ceived in the Mid­west: What hap­pens when you walk into those com­mu­ni­ties and say, Great news. You’re all going to get green jobs. We’ll need the keys to your F‑150s because we’re going all electric?’”

It might be harder to detect dog whistles these days as President Trump seemingly goes on a new blatantly racist Twitter rant every week, but the intention of these remarks seems pretty clear.

The fram­ing of Wlliams’ ques­tion might have been ridicu­lous, but McCaskill’s reply was even more absurd. In her response, she invoked Demo­c­ra­t­ic 2020 hope­ful, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who had pushed back against the Green New Deal dur­ing the debate. It would not be good and I think [Ryan] is try­ing to express is a buck­et of cold water, which is real­i­ty about where Amer­i­ca is,” McCaskill said. Amer­i­ca is, gen­er­al­ly, not as far along the left line as Bernie and Eliz­a­beth. Free stuff from the gov­ern­ment does not play well in the Mid­west because they’re just con­vinced they’re nev­er get­ting the free stuff.”

That evening on Twit­ter, Jus­tice Democ­rats’ spokesper­son Waleed Shahid pushed back against McCaskill’s asser­tion, point­ing out that pro­gres­sives Reps. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) and Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) both rep­re­sent dis­tricts in the Mid­west. Shahid’s tweet prompt­ed New York Times deputy Wash­ing­ton edi­tor Jonathan Weis­man to jump into the con­ver­sa­tion the next morn­ing. Weis­man sug­gest­ed that Omar and Tlaib (two women of col­or) couldn’t accu­rate­ly be described as from the Mid­west.” He wrote, Say­ing @RashidaTlaib and @IlhanMN are from the Mid­west is like say­ing @RepLloydDogggett (D‑Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D‑Atlanta) is from the Deep South. C’mon.”

Weis­man ulti­mate­ly delet­ed this, although it’s prob­a­bly worth point­ing out that his 2016 tweet ques­tion­ing why some Democ­rats were back­ing a black, Mus­lim pro­gres­sive from Min­neapo­lis” to run the D.N.C. is still up. Ear­li­er this morn­ing I tried to make a point about region­al dif­fer­ences in pol­i­tics between urban and rur­al areas,” he tweet­ed lat­er July 31. I delet­ed the tweets because I real­ize I did not ade­quate­ly make my point.”

While Weisman’s sen­ti­ment under­stand­ably gen­er­at­ed a lot of crit­i­cism for its racism, his sig­nal­ing is not iso­lat­ed to the belt­way media. While the sec­ond Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate fea­tured a stage of cen­trists attack­ing fron­trun­ner Joe Biden, the first one fea­tured a stage of cen­trists try­ing to poke holes in the pop­u­lar poli­cies tout­ed by War­ren and Sanders. On July 30, can­di­dates con­sis­tent­ly sug­gest­ed that Trump can only be defeat­ed if Democ­rats recon­nect with the the neb­u­lous heart­land. Mon­tana Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock dis­missed Medicare for All as wish-list eco­nom­ics” and said we had to focus on the issues of every­day Amer­i­cans.” Min­neso­ta Sen­a­tor Amy Klobuchar tout­ed the fact she’s won in the Mid­west and said the coun­try need­ed a voice from the heart­lands” to tack­le cli­mate change. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan sug­gest­ed that uni­ver­sal health care cov­er­age would hurt our union friends” and used this ques­tion­able accu­sa­tion to draw a very direct dis­tinc­tion between the peo­ple who ben­e­fit from pro­gres­sive poli­cies and those who do not. Now, in this dis­cus­sion already tonight, we’ve talked about tak­ing pri­vate health insur­ance away from union mem­bers in the indus­tri­al Mid­west, we’ve talked about decrim­i­nal­iz­ing the bor­der, and we’ve talked about giv­ing free health­care to undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers when so many Amer­i­cans are strug­gling to pay for their health­care,” he said.

It might be hard­er to detect dog whis­tles these days as Pres­i­dent Trump seem­ing­ly goes on a new bla­tant­ly racist Twit­ter rant every week, but the inten­tion of these remarks seems pret­ty clear. After McCaskill’s afore­men­tioned com­ments, Bernie Sanders’ nation­al press sec­re­tary, Bri­ah­na Joy Gray, tweet­ed, “‘Free stuff doesn’t play in the Mid­west’ sounds an awful lot like the racial dog whis­tles about hard work­ing whites’ vs hand­outs’ for POCs and I real­ly hope that’s not what’s hap­pen­ing here.”

Can­di­dates and pun­dits are using the vague con­cept of a Mid­west­ern­er” to laun­der their own prej­u­dices. These types of tropes are reg­u­lar­ly trot­ted out as a cud­gel to wield against pro­gres­sive ideas. The morn­ing of August 1, after the sec­ond debate, CNN polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Steve Cortes tweet­ed, If [Kamala Har­ris] is the even­tu­al nom­i­nee (I think she will be), she faces the daunt­ing task of sell­ing Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics to mid­dle Amer­i­ca.” This is an espe­cial­ly con­found­ing piece of analy­sis, as it was offered in response to Rep. Tul­si Gab­bard attack­ing Har­ris’ puni­tive crim­i­nal jus­tice record dur­ing the sec­ond debate, but it seems pret­ty clear that Cortes isn’t ref­er­enc­ing Mid­dle America’s urban areas.

Cortes was­n’t alone. Are Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren denizens of some lofty, lefty dream­land that would be unrec­og­niz­able and unap­peal­ing to swing vot­ers between the coasts?” New York Times colum­nist Frank Bruni won­dered on Twit­ter on July 31. That’s one of the biggest ques­tions hov­er­ing over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic contest.”

Of course, the premise of these posi­tions doesn’t exact­ly hold up under scruti­ny. Take Min­neso­ta as an exam­ple. While the vast major­i­ty of Min­neso­ta is still white, near­ly three-fourths of the state’s res­i­dents now live in urban areas. When Sanders ran against a can­di­date with pol­i­tics sim­i­lar to Klobuchar’s dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, he won Min­neso­ta with almost 62% of the vote. The elec­tions of Omar and Tlaib aren’t the only exam­ples of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics pre­vail­ing in the Mid­west recent­ly. Chica­go now has six Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists on its City Coun­cil, which means social­ists con­trol more than one-tenth of the city. It helps that we have Bernie run­ning and we have AOC pop­u­lar­iz­ing our ideas on a nation­al stage,” DSA co-chair Lucie Macías told the Chica­go Sun-Times after the city coun­cil elec­tion, It’s a great time to be a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist in Chica­go and the Unit­ed States.”

Claire McCaskill is cur­rent­ly on tele­vi­sion pro­vid­ing debate analy­sis (as opposed to sit­ting in the Sen­ate) because she lost a race to a young, inex­pe­ri­enced Repub­li­can. McCaskill ran a con­sis­tent­ly cen­trist cam­paign and end­ed up los­ing by just six points. That same year, vot­ers in Mis­souri over­whelm­ing­ly struck down the state’s right-to-work law and vot­ed to raise the state’s min­i­mum wage.

This isn’t to sug­gest that con­ser­v­a­tives vot­ers don’t exist or that some states don’t con­sis­tent­ly vote Repub­li­can. How­ev­er, the sug­ges­tion that Trump can only be tak­en down by a cen­trist who under­stands every­day Amer­i­cans” in the heart­land” is racial­ly cod­ed, unproven, and sus­pi­cious­ly self-serv­ing for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment. At a time when Trump is engag­ing in racist incite­ment against Rep. Ilhan Omar, these dog whis­tles from Democ­rats and media per­son­al­i­ties are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing. That can­di­dates are using the neb­u­lous white vot­er” as cov­er for their own reac­tionary pol­i­tics is some­thing to keep in mind while fol­low­ing the pres­i­den­tial race.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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