Tammy Duckworth Seems To Have Forgotten That Not All Midwesterners Are White

Duckworth said that while left politics are popular in the Bronx, they can’t win in the Midwest. She’s wrong in more ways than one.

Eli Day July 5, 2018

Sen. Duckworth said: "I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest." She's wrong. (Getty Images)

Last week, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez — a 28-year-old social­ist who ran on pro­gres­sive poli­cies such as Medicare for All, a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, the human right to hous­ing and abol­ish­ing ICE — defeat­ed Rep. Joe Crow­ley, one of the most pow­er­ful Democ­rats in Con­gress. Ocasio-Cortez’s vic­to­ry left much of the polit­i­cal world in awe with observers won­der­ing out loud what the upset means for the ongo­ing ide­o­log­i­cal con­test between the Democ­rats’ estab­lish­ment and pro­gres­sive wings.

People want a fairer distribution of the country's unmatched-in-all-of-world-history wealth and resources, and they want oppression vanquished wherever it appears.

Some, like House Minor­i­ty Leader Nan­cy Pelosi, have swat­ted the sug­ges­tion away as sil­ly, over­hyped non­sense. They made a choice in one dis­trict,” Pelosi told reporters. So let’s not get your­self car­ried away.”

Illi­nois Sen. Tam­my Duck­worth has toed the same line. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tap­per if the future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty runs through unflinch­ing­ly pro­gres­sive can­di­dates like Oca­sio-Cortez, Duck­worth quick­ly reject­ed the fore­cast: I think it’s the future of the par­ty in the Bronx, where she is.”

After giv­ing a quick shout-out to Ocasio-Cortez’s gifts as a can­di­date, Duck­worth quick­ly piv­ot­ed back to her warn­ing, argu­ing that while Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism might work in New York, tak­ing the mes­sage nation­al­ly would be a strate­gic error for Democ­rats. I think that you can’t win the White House with­out the Mid­west and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest…you need to be able to talk to the indus­tri­al Mid­west, you need to lis­ten to the peo­ple there.

Duck­worth is wrong on at least two fronts.

First, she is essen­tial­ly argu­ing that any can­di­date who takes the time to lis­ten to the opin­ions of peo­ple in the nation’s heart­land would eas­i­ly see the dis­as­ter wait­ing for them down the path of demo­c­ra­t­ic socialism.

At the heart of this argu­ment is the mis­tak­en belief that Amer­i­ca is, at its core, a polit­i­cal­ly mod­er­ate-con­ser­v­a­tive coun­try. But this is an old myth sup­port­ed by flim­sy and wide­ly mis­un­der­stood pub­lic opin­ion polling. Once you get past terms like con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al, and start talk­ing basic pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties, it turns out the coun­try is more on the side of Bernie Sanders than Mitt Romney.

As New York Mag­a­zines Eric Levitz high­lights, for instance, there is strong major­i­ty sup­port for pro­gres­sive poli­cies like Medicare-for-all and a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, includ­ing among those in fly­over coun­try.” The same goes for health­care over­all, with polls con­sis­tent­ly find­ing mas­sive pub­lic sup­port — includ­ing among a major­i­ty of Repub­li­cans — for more fed­er­al spend­ing on health­care and against cuts to Med­ic­aid. There’s more. Break­ing up the most colos­sal banks, the ones deemed too big to fail”? A bipar­ti­san major­i­ty of vot­ers say go for it. How about on cli­mate change? Accord­ing to a Reuters/​Ipsos poll, 72 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe the Unit­ed States should take aggres­sive action to slow glob­al warming.”

Because mis­in­for­ma­tion about the region, as well as Amer­i­cans’ polit­i­cal ten­den­cies, is so wide­spread, it’s easy to miss the fact that spe­cif­ic pro­gres­sive poli­cies — not words we’ve drained of all sub­stance — are, in fact, wide­ly pop­u­lar. And when can­di­dates make a plain­spo­ken case for them, they can win elec­tions all across the coun­try. Ocasio-Cortez’s sim­ple moral posi­tion that no per­son in Amer­i­ca should be too poor to live,” is a shin­ing example.

On the sec­ond front, whether she means to or not, Duck­worth com­plete­ly van­ish­es peo­ple of col­or from the region’s sto­ry. By pit­ting the indus­tri­al Mid­west and the Bronx against one anoth­er, she imme­di­ate­ly set up a split screen of con­flict­ing images. The res­i­dents of Ocasio-Cortez’s dis­trict are large­ly peo­ple of col­or (though she also car­ried many of the district’s gen­tri­fy­ing areas). Mean­while, the indus­tri­al Mid­west con­jured in Duckworth’s sce­nario is the same one that so often swal­lows the region­al nar­ra­tive — one of rolling plains and neat­ly-pack­aged tales of small-towns that are some­how at once both inno­cent and cul­tur­al­ly back­ward. The peo­ple in those sto­ries, of course, tend to be white. That’s because, as Huff­Post senior reporter Zach Carter has point­ed out, you can’t believe the Bronx and the Mid­west to be entire­ly dif­fer­ent crea­tures with­out eras­ing the many Mid­west­ern cities where peo­ple of col­or, black peo­ple espe­cial­ly, form a major­i­ty — Detroit, Chica­go, Mil­wau­kee, St. Louis, Cleve­land, and on and on. But they are there. And they care deeply about the deci­sions that shape their lives.

As Sean McEl­wee has detailed at the Nation, black vot­ers are per­haps the country’s most eco­nom­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive, with majori­ties in favor of a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, social­ized med­i­cine, and min­i­mum wage increas­es. And across a vast body of polling data, black peo­ple con­sis­tent­ly show deep con­cern about their eco­nom­ic lives and the role racism plays in shap­ing them. Crim­i­nal jus­tice reform also sits atop the pri­or­i­ty list for over­whelm­ing majori­ties of black voters.

One doesn’t have to be a pro­fes­sion­al strate­gist to see how the per­sis­tence of those con­cerns, and the refusal to address them, can have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on elec­tions. Black vot­ers, for exam­ple, made up a piv­otal slice of the Oba­ma coali­tion in 2012. Yet a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of 2012 vot­ers who decid­ed to sit out in 2016 came from this same group. The drop off was espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant in, as you might’ve guessed, the Mid­west.

There is a strong argu­ment to be made that the fail­ure of Democ­rats to run on a more mus­cu­lar pro­gres­sive plat­form in 2016 lost them crit­i­cal votes, par­tic­u­lar­ly among black vot­ers, with­out whom the par­ty would be a fad­ing mem­o­ry. It seems obvi­ous that inspir­ing these folks to step back into the vot­ing booth ought to be a top pri­or­i­ty for Democ­rats. The poli­cies cham­pi­oned by demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists like Oca­sio-Cortez, with their sharp focus on elim­i­nat­ing exploita­tion and oppres­sion in soci­ety, would do more than any oth­er main­stream polit­i­cal plat­form to improve the lives of black people.

These mis­takes, about what poli­cies peo­ple believe would improve their mate­r­i­al lives, are easy to make. This is espe­cial­ly true in a coun­try that pays end­less lip ser­vice to democ­ra­cy, giv­ing off the impres­sion that peo­ple actu­al­ly have a mean­ing­ful say in the every­day deci­sions that impact their lives. Yet evi­dence sug­gests what most already knew in the pit of their stom­achs: that pub­lic opin­ion has almost no impact what­so­ev­er on pol­i­cy, with influ­ence over deci­sions titled heav­i­ly toward those with the deep­est pockets.

But even if hard­ly any­one is lis­ten­ing to the pub­lic, it’s impor­tant to get the basic details about their polit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties right: peo­ple want a fair­er dis­tri­b­u­tion of the coun­try’s unmatched-in-all-of-world-his­to­ry wealth and resources, and they want oppres­sion van­quished wher­ev­er it appears.

That includes in the poor­ly under­stood Midwest. 

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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