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?’”
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.