If there is one lament that occurs during virtually every conversation I’ve had about politics, it’s “Why are ‘those people’ voting against their own interests?'” Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the misconception at the base of that complaint: Republicans and Democrats have very different notions of where voters’ interests reside.
One Democratic strategist who clearly does understand that difference is Indiana’s current Democratic Chair, Mike Schmuhl, who was recently profiled in a Washington Post article.
The article was focused on the difficulty of flipping deep-red states–a task Schmuhl described as more difficult than managing the Presidential campaign of an out gay small-town Indiana mayor. What Schmuhl–and far too few others–seems to recognize is the contested nature of the “interests” that impel voters.
Democrats define interests economically; Republicans see interests as cultural. The result is that partisans end up talking past each other.
Democrats cannot–and should not–abandon their emphasis on issues of economic security, but they need to recognize that for many voters–especially the older, White, rural voters who predominate in Indiana and decide statewide elections–economics are less important than the cultural “wedge” issues the GOP has so skillfully deployed.
Schmuhl is clearly aware of the challenge he faces.
Schmuhl sees two possible avenues for Democrats to start to make gains, although neither presents an easy path for success. The first is the possibility that Republicans will swing so far to the right, and so deeply into Donald Trump’s conspiracy politics, that there will be a voter backlash.
That hasn’t yet happened in Indiana or, for that matter, in other red states, where GOP legislatures have pushed the envelope with new laws on voting rights, education, abortion and other cultural issues. Schmuhl holds out hope that things could yet turn. “Republican domination is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You can go so far and so you kind of tip over.”
He pointed out that in Indiana this year, about two dozen incumbent Republican legislators, including some committee chairs, face such primary challenges, many from candidates with a Trumpian agenda. “I think that every day on their side, it’s really kind of divisions between the far-right kind of MAGA crowd and the establishment Republicans.”
Schmuhl also faces the challenge posed by skillful misinformation, otherwise called lies, promulgated by conservative media outlets, including but not limited to Fox News. He has received money from the Democratic National Committee to fund a war room position “for me to look at innovative ways to fight misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, all of that,” he said.
Media propaganda is especially pervasive–and persuasive–in rural areas populated predominantly by older, non-college-educated White Hoosiers who feel abandoned and resentful. Those folks are enticing targets for the wedge issues deployed by the GOP’s culture warriors. Whether they will continue to “go along”–whether they will accept and endorse the Party’s wholesale embrace of clearly crazy conspiracy theories and overtly racist policies is a question we cannot yet answer.
So far, those in rural precincts have been able to determine the outcome of statewide elections. They are why Indiana has sent two embarrassments to the U.S. Senate, both of whom shamefully mischaracterized her judicial record to justify voting against the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
From where I sit–I don’t know either of them personally–Indiana’s Senators would seem to represent the two remaining elements of a once-respectable political party. Todd Young displays a genuine interest in policy, and might–in other times–have been an effective Senator. He’s intelligent but spineless–clearly in thrall to the crazies who are the remaining Republican base, and unwilling to confront those in his party bent on the destruction of democratic norms.
Braun has no observable redeeming characteristics, and with his recent endorsement of “state’s rights”–i.e., effective repeal of the 14th Amendment–has demonstrated his unfitness for any political office.
As Mike Schmuhl clearly understands, the prospects for turning Indiana purple–let alone blue–depend on Democrats’ ability to convince rural voters that their cultural interests are best served by a party committed to economic and social fair play, and that “fair play” includes concern for their well-being.
That’s not a message that will resonate with voters whose resentments and disappointments have hardened into hatred of the “others” who they believe have “replaced” them. I am unwilling to believe that those folks are a majority, even in rural areas dominated by Fox News and hate radio.
But I guess we’ll see….