Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Voter Turn-off

My math skills aren't great. I read polling data for the punch-line, not the methodology. But I do know how to read yard signs and bumperstickers, and so let me offer my own "polling" analysis based on my extensive "research" in southwestern Ohio.

McSame may really be in trouble.

This part of Ohio is Republican country. From Cincinnati (arguably the most politically conservative big city in the United States) to the south end of Columbus, politics has been shaped by Southern-style religion and racial attitudes, and Northern-style de-industrialized economics. Lots of angry white voters for whom gay-bashing is what you do in between gun shows.

Take the small city of Lancaster, located about half-way between Columbus and Athens: Lancaster's most famous native son was one William Tecumseh Sherman. The city only got around to acknowledging this with a memorial in the year 2000. Most folks in Lancaster were rooting for the other side.

In 2000 and 2004 this region of Ohio was Bush country. You could see it driving around. The yard signs, the bumperstickers, the banners hung from silos and barns. People here supported the Republicans. I told people just before the 2004 election that I thought Ohio would go to Bush; I wasn't surprised when it did. You could feel it here.

This year, however, you see much less enthusiasm for McSame on people's front yards or on the back of their cars. There are more Obama signs up around these parts, but far fewer McSame signs than one might expect. As a symbol of the McSame campaign's lack of self-confidence, it sells a bumperstick so small - about four postage-stamps in area - that it can't really be read unless you are standing next to the car. Even the people who are voting McSame are somehow reluctant to advertise it.

Which doesn't mean McSame won't win this part of Ohio, or indeed the whole state. As far as I'm concerned H. L. Mencken remains the most astute analyst of the American electorate. But it does mean that some number of those Republican voters are deeply ambivalant about McSame; they will go to the polls holding their noses.

All elections ultimately come down to voter turn-out. My bumpersticker survey suggests that for the Obama campaign the key to winning in Ohio may be both to turn out its own voters and to undermine Republicans' faith in McSame to such an extent that they stay home. Voters in suburban Cincinnati, for example, are probably never going to be persuaded to vote for Obama (they didn't vote for Kerry or Gore either). But they might be persuaded to stay away entirely.

To judge from the tepid support McSame seems to be generating in my neck of Ohio, that task might be quite feasible.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Loyal readers of Rustbelt Intellectual, I'm still alive but maddeningly busy. It's the time of year when I have a zillion letters of recommendation, several tenure reviews, and lots of other obligations. Throw in two back-to-back conferences, a whole new lecture course to write, and a once-weekly day-and-a-half long trip to Beantown, where I'm teaching a course on urban planning, and my free time gone the way of the industrial economy of Detroit: dwindling fast.

But I do have to put in a few words from Boston. In the early 1970s, Boston ranked up there by every measure as one of the handful of most distressed cities in the United States, right along with Gary, Newark, St. Louis, and Detroit. Boston's manufacturing base had been declining since the 1920s. Its working-class white population was relatively immobile and very turf-conscious. The city was wracked with racial tumult over neighborhood change and especially busing. Its harbor was as polluted as Lake Erie and if it weren't replenished by the tide, it would have probably burned like the Cuyahoga River. To top that off, its housing stock was (and is) pretty lousy. Lots of cheaply built wood frame houses and the vernacular "triple-decker"--one family per floor don't make for a vital urban housing market.

Yet in just a few decades, Boston turned around. Its prominence as an educational center (Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Boston College, among others) positioned it well to take advantage of the new economy. The universities provided seed money for high tech and biotech industries that lifted it high (other Rustbelt cities rely heavily on meds and eds, but few have such a deep base in research and development). Its old neighborhoods, only partially plundered by urban renewal, appealed to historic preservationists and gentrifiers. And, while Boston was ravaged by racial tensions, it's a much whiter city than many of its northeastern and midwestern counterparts. That has ultimately made it more appealing for commercial investors and real estate developers. Together, all of these factors, along with good infrastructure (especially an excellent public transit system), gave Boston a base for revitalization.

There's one lesson for those who look with despair onto decaying Rustbelt cities. All are not without hope. The ups and downs of metropolitan America cannot be predicted with certainty. If you had asked any well-informed urbanist in 1970 whether Boston would be one of the most prosperous metros in the US in the early 21st century, he or she would have dismissed your question out-of-hand with a sneer.

Off to the airport (not one of the better airports in the US, especially for a city of Boston's importance). But I get to travel underground, through the massively expensive, corruption-riddled, and sometimes dangerous, but still truly fabulous tunnels of the "Big Dig," a reminder that even with unexpected twists and turns, big city construction projects can really work--and can really make a big difference in improving urban life.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Tomorrow night, should John McCain prove himself able to multi-task and the first presidential debate goes on, Sarah Palin will step once again onto the faux populist stage. Just ten blocks from my office, Palin will sidle up to the bar, have a beer and shot, and cheer on McSame with a rowdy crowd of handpicked Republican supporters. The campaign has chosen a symoblic watering hole: a woodpaneled place called the Irish Pub, where my people (or rather people pretending to be my people) can get a pint of Guinness on tap and pretend that they are back on the old sod of the Emerald Isle.

Alas, there's not much Irish about the Irish Pub other than the beer, a couple of Irish flags, and a bunch of Celtic tchotschkes. It's a corporate sort of place, one that caters to the after-work crowd in Center City Philly on weeknights and fills up with frat boys and Wharton students who, no doubt, will be drowning their sorrows now that Bear Stearns, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch won't be lavishing them with lucrative job offers.

The faux populism of watching the debate in a faux Irish pub would not be lost on the Irish people whom I knew best. Grandma and Grandpa S, who immigrated from Ireland to the United States in the early 1920s, became die-hard Democrats when they moved to the U.S. My grandfather, a city bus driver and lifelong union member, and my grandmother, who took care of her four children and various folks in the extended family, were the sort of commonsense, working-class people who supported political candidates for bread and butter reasons. They voted for politicians who promised to protect their jobs and economic security--not candidates who pretended to be like them while representing the interests of stock brokers and CEOs. Grandma and Grandpa S owed a lot to the party of FDR, especially their monthly Social Security and union pension checks. They kept their savings in a bank regulated by the FDIC. They could have cared less about capital gains tax reductions and corporate bailouts.

I'm hoping that enough voters, especially in Rustbelt swing states, share my grandparents' simple wisdom and resist the sham populism of McCain and Palin. Pretending to be one of the people makes for fine symbolic politics but, after eight years of government under the guy you could drink a beer with, it's time to move on. We don't need any more drinking buddies in the White House. This week's polls, the best for Obama/Biden in a while, suggest that the direction of the campaign might be changing. Still, we should expect the Republicans to cling to their blarney. John McCain will keep fulminating against the Wall Street honchos whose fortunes he protected from regulation for the last quarter century. Sarah Palin doesn't have much to pitch, other than herself as a small-town, anti-elitist of the God, Guns, and Guts variety, minus the bitterness but also minus the brains.

So tomorrow night, if the debate goes on, I'll be watching in my neighborhood watering hole, owned by the son of Irish immigrants and probably the most racially diverse bar in the city. And I'll hoist a pint in honor of my grandparents and the politics that their grandchildren's children deserve.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Small Town Blues

I'd like to tag-team with Tom's post from his visit to Newark, Ohio, home of the Newark Mounds, an ancient Native American site recently listed with the United Nations, and home of the Longaberger Basket headquarters which is itself a breathtaking architectural achievement and worthy of a visit all on its own. Let's take another visit to the small town.

In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature by savagely ridiculing small town America. In novels like Main Street (set in the semi-fictional town of Gopher Prairie, MN) and Babbitt Lewis skewered the small town as a place of small people with small minds. A place where the lucky escaped and the unlucky were trapped.

When he wrote, the midwestern small town was at its apex, and to visit any of them today you can see the evidence of that prosperity and pride in what remains of the architecture - an imposing court house or city hall; a town square (usually with a Civil War memorial); a block or two of fine commercial buildings facing the square; elegant residential streets just off the square.

By the 1920s the midwestern small town had also fixed itself in the American imagination as the embodiment of what was quintessentially American; indeed, by the 1920s the midwest itself had fixed itself in the American imagination as the American "heartland." It managed to balance industry and agriculture, city and country, "native" and immigrant. And it prided itself on a certain kind of progressivism - the midwest, after all, produced the American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs (Indiana), Fightin' Bob LaFollette, governor of Wisconsin, the skyscraper (born in Chicago) and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nearly one hundred years later, the midwestern small town is an endangered species. To drive across Ohio, or Indiana, or Illinois is to come through dozens of these places that are shells of their former selves. The court house is still there; the commercial district is now 1/3 vacant; what remains tends to thrift shops and social service agencies; many of the houses are ill-maintained and several are empty altogether.

In some ways, what has happened to the small town is exactly what has happened to the big rust belt cities, only in microcosm. The town's one big employer - maybe a grain elevator or a small manufacturing operation - closes and leaves; a bypass around the town gets built in the name of traffic efficiency and "progress"; then a shopping center, complete with a big box store opens at one end, the "downtown" is drained of its economic life; people move out to the "suburbs" near the bypass - often a small subdevelopment or trailer park; and voila! mini urban decay.

Historian Richard Davies has written a lovely little book about this called Main Street Blues - a history of Camden, Ohio, the town where he grew up. As it happens, it was also the home of Sherwood Anderson, the first American novelist to write about the dark side of American small-town life.

Because the small town as a living entity is disappearing, we cling to its symbolism even more tenaciously. This is what the McSame campaign is tapping into - a yearning on the part of many people who live in anonymous apartment complexes (of the sort where my daughter and I went door-to-door last weekend) or equally anonymous housing developments whose major advantage is easy access to an on-ramp. Demographically speaking, a small fraction of Americans actually live in small towns; a much larger percentage wish they did.

A final thought for now about the small town. Last year the Times published some numbers about Iraq war casualties. I don't remember them precisely, but the upshot of the piece was that a hugely disproportionate number of casualties come for towns of 10,000 and smaller. If Vietnam was fought disproportionately by African Americans from the city, then this is a small-town war. That alone is a sad commentary on the opportuntities facing 18yr olds graduating from under-funded high schools in small towns today.

But perhaps that also explains why there has been so little public outcry about it. We love the idea of the small town, but we don't really want to live there, facing a choice between the night shift at Wal-Mart and the army. The war is being fought by people from those places we invoke as part of our national mythology but whose reality we have otherwise largely forgotten. Places we barely notice as we zip by on the bypass.

UPDATE: For those architect wannabes, I've added a photo of the Longaberger HQ above. Tom S.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Markets Schmarkets

I write this post over the drone of chainsaws and big chipper machines which have been steadily at work since Monday. As I mentioned previously, Ohio was slammed by the tail-end of Hurricane Ike (how bitterly ironic: here I am 600 miles from an ocean and yet still being slammed by hurricanes!). The result was a major disaster. By anyone's best guess, over 1 million Ohioans lost power. Some were dark for only a day or two; over 100,000 are still without power today. Schools were closed, in some places water emergencies were declared; food was in short supply in others.

And as far as I can tell, most of the country didn't hear about this. And that's fair enough - bigger stories to report. How often do world financial markets meltdown almost completely, after all??!!

So let me put these two things together in a crassly political way: You didn't hear much about our troubles, and at the same time, we didn't hear much about the market meltdown. Some local Ohio papers in small and mid-markets couldn't even publish on Monday or Tues; they didn't get around to putting the market news on the front page until Friday. And that's fair enough too, given all the chaos in Dayton, Columbus and points in between.

But as a result, the biggest crisis of this election cycle happened without Ohio noticing it much. By the time the sawdust settles, so too will this particular phase of our economic crisis. The story will be spun that the Fed intervened, Bush called for a bailout to rescue the market, and all will now be right with the world. Until the next bank needs a bailout, which may or may not happen by November. Even had the story not had to compete with the weather, news of Wall Street's collapse was liable to feel very remote to voters in Ohio. As it is, the worst week in recent American financial history will hardly register I suspect.

In other words, McSame and the Republicans dodged a major bullet in Ohio. Rather than focusing on the failure of Republican economics, and on McSame's staunch resistance to regulating the financial sector, Ohioans had to focus on their spoiling food and their neighbors who needed help. Rather than putting this economic disaster front and center, the Ohio media put local news on center stage.

If this election really is like 1992 when it was the economy, stupid, then the Obama campaign had a real opportunity blown away by Ike's 75mph winds.

Friday, September 19, 2008


An oft-repeated theme in this year's election is the virtue of small-town Americans. One of oldest themes in American political and cultural history, the notion that small towns are repositories of all that is good, true, moral, and American continues to resonate. Echoing Richard Nixon's pitch to small-town voters in his "silent majority" campaign (Nixon himself was a product of little Whittier, California), John McCain and Sarah Palin have touted "small town values" on the campaign trail. As Palin stated in her acceptance speech: "'We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.' I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America ... who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars." (Note to reader: big cities = lazy, consumers not producers, shirkers not workers, naysayers not patriots).

I thought of Palin's speech this morning as I spent an hour walking the streets of Newark, Ohio, the county seat of Licking County, a town of about 47,000 people that has seen better days. Founded in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Newark's architecture reflects its late nineteenth and early twentieth century prosperity. Among the town's real treasures, The Home Building Association, a jewel box of bank (now vacant) built by the great architect Louis Sullivan in 1914.

The Louis Sullivan building is one reminder of how the Republican tribunes of small-town glory have it wrong. They emphasize the virtues of small rather than the virtues of town. The Home Building Association building reflects the cosmopolitan aspirations of small-town America, the attempt to be something greater than itself. Nearly a century ago, Newarkers were proud to imagine themselves as a city.

But life in small-town America today is less. There is an anomie in many of the small towns I have visited in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. These are places that have lost population and jobs, whose downtowns have been gutted by the expansion of Walmarts and suburban shopping centers, and where politics can be narrow and nasty. (The stories of Palin's reign in Wasilla give the lie to the images of small town politics as uplifting). One of the synomyms for small is petty. And there is a pettiness, a parochial localism, in small towns that gets lost in our romantic evocations of Elm Street.

Newark is one of those towns that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Like many Rustbelt towns, its economy is dependent on manufacturing, but it has been hit badly in recent years. Licking County is not one of Ohio's worst-off areas: its current unemployment rate is 6.6 percent. But you can see the effects of the downturn in the shabby houses along the once-grand Hudson Street just a short walk from downtown. It's the sort of place where the Democrats should find a ready audience among folks burned by declining incomes, the stagnant housing market, rising gas prices, and insecurity.

But Licking County is a solidly Republican place: its voters pulled the lever by large margins for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. As I walked past the Newark Republican Party headquarters this morning, the McCain/Palin signs dimmed my morning cheer. Their campaign represents the worst of small-town politics: narrowly-defined local interest and the sanctimony of the small. And it doesn't offer much to small-town residents other than a boost of self-esteem that the candidates "know them" and "are one of them." And it doesn't offer much for the Newarks of America, big or small, that are the places left behind in the global economy. It's time to think big.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Nation of Snark

The poll numbers, for what they are worth, seem to have settled back to pre-convention levels after the tumultuous two weeks caused by Gov. Moosehead's arrival on the political scene. The conventional wisdom says that the post-convention bounce for Team McSame has worn off, as has the Palin flavor-of-the-week phenomenon.

But that analysis, right though it may be, begs a rather obvious question: how on earth did McSame get a "bounce," given what a laughably dreary convention the GOP threw; and why didn't Obama get anything like the same buzz, given how spectacular the Democratic convention was by the standards of such things?

One explanation, it seems to me, is that we are now living in the Nation of Snark.

Though it has only entered my vocabulary recently, the term "snarky" is about 100 years old. It originated in British slang to describe someone who was irritable, carping, testy, nasty. Snark is what happens when bitterness and anger go out to have a good time. In other words, the Republican Party, and John McSame, is its true and rightful heir.

While Obama has been busy trying to appeal the better angels of our nature, McSame has been appealing to the snarky percentage of the electorate. These are the people for whom the cheap shot is more important the point well-made; for whom ethical behavior is defined by contestants on Big Brother; and for whom the sports analogy applies to politics: win at all costs.

The astonishing (at least to my eyes) reaction Gov. Moosehead got was not really because people agreed with her on issues (or even knew what her position was on issues) but because she wore vulgar t-shirts, laughed at a cancer survivor on the radio, and generally displayed a frat-boy attitude. What was clear from the moment of her debut was that she was just as snarky as the rest of us. We loved her, if only briefly, for that.

And it was clear that she is just as snarky as McSame - contemptuous, smirking, full of bile. Indeed her selection smacks of nothing so much as a ploy taken straight from an episode of Survivor.

In his speech in Denver Obama exhorted that we are a better nation than this. That was arugably one of the best lines of American political oratory to have been uttered in a generation. The problem with it may be that it isn't true. If McSame and the Moosehead win this election, it will demonstrate that we are no longer a nation that believes in aspiration, but a nation of snarks instead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Houston, WE have a problem!

It's been quite a few days: the markets melting down world-wide; Troopergate up there in Alaska (hasn't Palin convinced us all that what happens in Alaska really, really should stay in Alaska?); McSame getting his manhood handed to him by the only real journalists left in America, the ladies on The View.

But you wouldn't know much about any of this out here in the heartland. We got slammed by the remnants of Hurricane Ike. Winds of 75mph for several hours straight. Power out for about 2.5 days for yours truly; longer for some neighbors. And it really was a wild several days. No cell phones, no internet, no electricity, water conservation measures. Over 500,000 people out here in Ohio affected. Kinda fun in its own way.

And I understand from friends and family around the country that this story didn't really make the national news. Houston grabbed all the weather headlines, apparently. I wouldn't know, of course.

So we're up and running again - more to post soon, just as soon as I clear that last branch out of the power lines.


Listening to Barack Obama, John McCain, and Sarah Palin respond to the current economic crisis and make their pitch to working-class voters, I was struck by the fundamental difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans are the party of identity politics. The Democrats are, for the most part, not.

For years, the left and liberals have faced the charges of being mired in a divisive identity politics. Republicans mocked the narratives of oppression offered by advocates of groups that, indeed, were the victims of long histories of oppression, especially racial and ethnic minorities and women (whiners, complainers, dividers). Democrats, beginning with the DLC and Clinton and continuing through the current campaign, have attempted to distance themselves from what observers called "interest group" politics, jettisoning particularism for universalism.

But since the Nixon years, the Republicans have been the party of an identity politics that dare not speak its name, that is white identity politics. And this year's campaign "Country First" is the latest pander to those identity politics, a carefully crafted play to the deep-rooted argument that "they" (Democrats, the party's diverse base, and this year's standard bearer, Barack Obama) are not "us" (or should I be cleverly postmodern and say they are not "U.S."?

Yesterday's stump speeches by Obama in Nevada and McCain/Palin in Ohio make transparent the Republican Party's identity politics. Obama, who is still strangely facing charges that his economic plans lack the specifics needed to attract working people, was very specific in his indictment of the failed philosophy of the Republican Party. McCain and Palin, on the other hand, gestured toward the aggrieved identity of white workers who are the supposed victims of elitist condescension. The telling moment was when Sarah Palin talked about herself and working-class Americans as "us" and then proceeded to trot out the old, tired line about Obama dissing bitter small-town whites for clinging to their guns and religion. For his part, McCain tossed out the lie that Obama will raise "your" taxes (failing to note that in this case, the possessive "your" refers to the 2.5 percent of wealthy Americans whose taxes will be raised, not the other 97.5 percent of ordinary Americans who will receive tax relief under Obama's plan).

The Republicans are playing to voters' identity. The Democrats are campaigning on their economic interests. The outcome of this year's election will ride on whether or not a segment of the working and middle-class electorate in economically-devastated states will support a ticket whose candidates pretend to be the cultural allies of the people or a ticket whose candidates are challenging (at least in part) the failed economic policies that should be the real source of bitterness at the grassroots.

Speaking of economically-devastated swing states, I'm off to Ohio for three days, so sorry for no links this morning and for what might be some thin posting tomorrow and Friday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Oh, Mom why did you name me Tom? From now on, please call me Beretta Hockey Palin. Why the new moniker? Check out this site for bit of levity in this otherwise grim, grim week of economic news brought to you by the Republican Party and its allies.


For the last forty years, at least, the Republican Party has appealed to its base by making the disingenuous claim that its leaders are outsiders, disrespected, and marginalized in the political process. You see, Republicans are martyrs, sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by the liberals who still dominate our media, our universities, and our political establishment, who still somehow maintain their imperial power despite four decades of withering Republican challenges. Although the GOP has built a formidable infrastructure of lobbyists, think tanks, politicized churches, and grassroots party operations, they are still position themselves as a counterestablishment. The theme has been so oft-repeated that it has become a truth, part of the taken-for-granted of national politics: Republicans are the victims of a biased liberal media, they are the victims of raving leftist professors on campuses and sneering, condescending elitists.

The latest version of Republican martyr comes in the form of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Poor Governor Palin, so poised in face of an onslaught of difficult qustions about her record, so brave and unstinting in the face of criticism that she has serially lied about her position on the "Bridge to Nowhere." Poor Palin who has looked across the Bering Straits to Russia and yet gets lambasted for her lack of foreign policy experience. Poor Palin, the victim of bully Barack who put lipstick on her porcine visage. And above all, holy Saint Sarah, she who opposes reproductive freedom, sex education, equal pay for equal work, increasing the minimum wage, and tough anti-sex discrimination laws, is the victim of sexism.

Here is the latest, by McCain corporate flack Carly Fiorina on the hilarious depiction of Palin by Tina Fey on SNL. "I think that continues the line of argument that is disrespectful in the extreme and yes, I would say, sexist, in the sense that just because Sarah Palin has different views than Hillary Clinton does not mean that she lacks substance." The only people who aren't sexist, it seems, are those who hail Palin's meager executive record as something of substance, who buy her dubious rhetoric of reform, who believe that cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations will solve our country's economic woes, who want to force incest victims to carry their babies to term, and who want teach our children that T-Rex dwelled with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden 4000 years ago.

Saint Sarah joins the litany of Republican martyrs, along with St. Barry (the patron saint of extremists), Sts. Carswell and Haynsworth (patron saints of the South and of mediocrity), St. Phyllis (the patron saint of subservient women), St. Bork (the patron saint of original intent), St. Rumsfeld (the patron saint of waterboarding), and St. Alberto (the patron saint of patronage). Oh ye victims of liberal torture, ye who suffered and died to keep the faith of our wingnut Fathers, welcome into your ranks the exalted St. Sarah who bravely suffers the slings and arrows of the Godless. Pray for us. Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Nate Silver has a smart piece in TNR about the election in Michigan, where the Democrats are showing a lead within the statistical margin of error. Silver gets the Wolverine State mostly right, not surprising, giving that his blog fivethirtyeight.com offers the smartest analysis of polls and political trends out there. But I might offer an even more pessimistic take on the state's deep, deep racial divisions. Silver, like most commentators on Detroit (who haven't read The Origins of the Urban Crisis) focuses on 1967 as the racial turning point. Metropolitan Detroit's racial tensions are, however, even deeper. He rather modestly suggests that "Michigan is not devoid of racial politics."

I visit Michigan several times a year, I speak there often, I'm a regular commentator in the local press, and I have lots of family in metro Detroit and up North. Silver understates the depth of racial animosity there in his argument that "racial tensions aren't as overt as they once were, but nevertheless, the de facto segregation between Detroit and the suburbs creates little interaction between the state's black and white communities, and the combination of Kilpatrick and the difficult economic situation may evoke some latent prejudice." I am afraid that the prejudice in Michigan is not at all latent. Even minor political battles, like one over Detroit's management of the zoo (a city property located in the suburbs) turned into major brouhahas that can scarcely be imagined in many other metropolitan areas, hinging around overtly racial charges of mismanagement.

Silver states that although he is "generally not a believer in the Bradley Effect, Michigan is one state where it might be worth keeping an eye out for." On this point I agree. Obama needs to pull up his numbers big in Michigan. If he maintains his three percent margin in the polls, it won't be pretty come November.

Buckeye Update

In a post from August, I drew a quick sketch of political dynamics in the great state of Ohio, where I reside much of the year. In it, I suggested keeping an eye on the 7th District race. The seat is open because 6 term incumbent David Hobson, the walking definition of a Bush Administration yes-man, was one of those many Republicans who jumped the ship after the 2006 elections. It has been such a safe Republican seat that Democrats have done little better than toss up sacrificial lambs - and sometimes not even that much.

Until this year.

Sharen Neuhardt, a well-respected Dayton attorney, is running a serious campaign against a Republican State Senator who has been term-limited out, who is himself a hard-right mediocrity and who has faithfully towed the Republican agenda in the State House. She's raised real money, put together a sharp staff, and been putting a lot of miles on her car.

The summer polling numbers generated even more excitement. She still has name recognition problems in certain areas of the thoroughly gerrymandered district, but was still running virtually neck and neck with her opponent. More than that, in this comfortably Republican district, Bush's negatives are running off the charts. The 7th district includes some of the poorest sections of Ohio, and some of the worst hit by the weak economy. People in the 7th are hurting and they're angry.

Well, apparently the folks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have also taken notice. Yesterday they put the Ohio 7th District on their "Red to Blue" list - a list of about 50 races that the DCCC feels have a real shot at going Democratic.

This is tremendously exciting news for the Neuhardt campaign and for those of us in the 7th. And let me add that if Neuhardt wins this seat, then Obama will have won Ohio big. The latest Quinnipiac poll has Obama ahead in Ohio by 5%. So those of you in places like New York, or Massachusetts, or California let me only say that Ohio is lovely in the fall -- come on out and introduce yourself to Sharen Neuhardt!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Sociologist Andrew Hacker is pessimistic about Obama's chances of election in November. His argument, which he spells out in an article in this week's New York Review of Books, has two parts: the first of which is more compelling than the second. To his credit, Hacker offers a detailed and persuasive analysis of the various electoral mechanisms that result in the disproportionate exclusion of blacks from the voting rolls, among them laws that require voters to show a government-approved photo identification (in most cases a drivers' license or a passport) and laws that forbid felons from voting (which exclude large numbers of black men, who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of those in jail or who have records).

Hacker's forte is statistics. And here, his article is most revealing. He discovers a fatal statistical flaw in the plaintiff's case in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana's photo ID requirement for voters. Indiana has 4.3 million voting age residents. Strangely, the plaintiff's attorney asserted that only 43,000 adults in that state did not have a driver's license. The implication of those data was that Indiana's law would affect only a tiny segment of the state's potential voters--and that there was no evidence that the ID requirement would disadvantage them. Actually the plaintiff's number was wrong. 673,926 Indiana residents don't have a license. That's almost 15 percent of the state's potential electorate. That's a big number--and because of poverty, urban residence, and high insurance rates, a large portion of those carless Indianans are black. Getting a license is, in many states, a hassle: in other words, there are barriers to getting a license that are likely barriers to full political participation. Obama probably won't win Indiana in any case (it's been one of the most solidly Republican states in the Rustbelt), but similar requirements in swing states like Wisconsin could be decisive.

Hacker also notes that the 2002 Help America Vote Act requires that states keep electronic registration records. But this system is plagued with problems. As a number-cruncher, Hacker is on firm ground here, for he knows the difficulties of electronic record keeping and database maintenance. Florida, for example, uses Social Security records to verify addresses on its state voter rolls, a technique that leads to many non-matches--the Social Security Administration is unable to link 28 percent of names because of name changes, marriage and the like.) Another serious problem is simple human error. The mistyping of just one digit or the transposition of one letter in a name can result in someone being dropped from the voter rolls. Interestingly, when it comes to felons, Florida's data management system is rather looser: it looks for 80 percent matches to names, meaning that people with similar or identical names to registered felons can be struck from the rolls and deprived a vote simply because of their parents' naming decisions. Wrongly disenfranchised voters can claw their way back into the electoral rolls, but the process is time-consuming and hassle-filled. The barriers to re-entry are high and it makes sense to surmise that many disenfranchised voters don't have the time or the skills to figure out the system.

The second part of Hacker's article, a consideration of the relationship of race to white voting behavior, walks into more controversial territory. There is a raging debate among political scientists as to whether the vaunted Bradley or Dinkins effect still exists (that white voters are much more likely to choose a white candidate over a black candidate than they indicate in surveys) and if there is a Bradley effect, how big it is. Hacker seems unaware of that debate. He is, without doubt, right that a significant segment of white voters, especially those who make their decisions at the last minute, will instinctively gravitate toward the white candidate. And he is right that whites regularly mislead survey researchers and pollsters about the role of race in their decision-making. The real question here, and it's not one that Hacker can answer is how much white racial voting will matter. I'm a pessimist and lean toward Hacker's argument, drawing from my historical research and from spending time with whites, but neither are quantitatively systematic. In any case, even if I have a hunch that Hacker is right, he does not persuade me here. I'll leave that to what will surely be a growth industry in political science after November 4.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The Republican Party was born of dirty tricks. It won the 2000 election on dirty tricks. And it may win again on dirty tricks. Breaking news: the Michigan and Ohio Republican parties are plotting to deprive foreclosed homeowners of their votes.

You heard me right: they are going to try to disenfranchise the very people who are the victims of the mortgage and home financing crisis. The GOP's target: voters in blue-collar Rustbelt places, including Macomb County (to the north and east of Detroit) and Genessee County, Michigan (home to Flint) and Franklin County, Ohio (metro Columbus). Foreclosure rates in these places are among the highest in the country. Altogether 62,000 homes have been foreclosed in Michigan this year, as of July.

The Michigan Messenger broke the story this morning. Read it all. “We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses, [Macomb County] Republican party chairman James Carabelli told The Messenger in a telephone interview. "He said the local party wanted to make sure that proper electoral procedures were followed." In Michigan, party officials can monitor polling places and challenge the eligibility of voters.

Victims of the home mortgage crisis in Michigan are disproportionately black: the state of Michigan estimates that altogether sixty percent of subprime loans in Michigan went to African Americans. Going after foreclosure victims is a thinly veiled effort to deprive blacks of their votes to lessen Barack Obama's chances of victory.

I'm afraid this is not the first or the last we'll hear of such shenanigans. Republicans are looking to win the election by any means necessary. Mass disenfranchisement of economically-insecure, mostly minority voters is a great start.

A friend of mine who is a longtime civil rights activist calls this "a story of truly insidious political tactics." He is too kind. So let's call the Republican tactics for what they are: political racism.


I am a feminist, I live in Philadelphia, I write for popular periodicals. I am Camille Paglia.


Wannabe Rustbelt Intellectual, Paglia, has penned a rambling, incoherent column in today's Salon (h/t to Kathy G--it's great to have you back) holding up Sarah Palin as the model feminist and charging, bizarrely, that Barack Obama is making himself too black for middle America. Of Obama, Paglia confesses: "I have become increasingly uneasy about Obama's efforts to sound folksy and approachable by reflexively using inner-city African-American tones and locutions, which as a native of Hawaii he acquired relatively late in his development and which are painfully wrong for the target audience of rural working-class whites that he has been trying to reach." Huh?

Paglia writes that "in terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment." Except one inconvenient fact. Palin and the McCain campaign have been playing the victim card at every turn. Paglia buys right into this, arguing that Palin has been subject to "witch-trial hysteria" over the last few weeks. Hyperbole aside, Camille, this is a political campaign. Should the Democrats bow in worship of the gun-toting, economic conservative, book-banning, faux-reformer vice presidential candidate of the opposing party? Overall, Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been exceedingly polite to Palin out of deference to the double-standard that has infected the election since Palin debuted: namely that it's OK for the pitbull with lipstick to bark and bite, but not OK for her opponents to fight back.

Tough questions about Palin's qualifications? Unfair, because she's a woman. Concerns about her executive experience? Sexist: she wouldn't get these questions if she were a man. Obama uses the phrase "you can put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig" in a discussion of McCain in a speech. Cries of sexism and outrage by the McSame camp. This coming from the campaign of the sexist who called his wife a c-nt, cracked a vile joke about Chelsea Clinton as the bastard child of Janet Reno, and has never seen a pro-woman public policy that he likes. The sham victimology that the GOP is using to shield Palin from the hard-hitting criticism that every political candidate should face is nothing short of appalling.

Palin-loving Paglia goes on to burnish her middle-American credentials in one of the most risible passages in her article. "One reason I live in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia and have never moved to New York or Washington is that, as a cultural analyst, I want to remain in touch with the mainstream of American life. I frequent fast-food restaurants, shop at the mall, and periodically visit Wal-Mart (its bird-seed section is nonpareil)." Paglia's leafy suburb (which I won't name to protect her privacy) is lush and pretty rich. It has a great school district. You can live the very good life there. I'm sure that the lawyers, doctors and college professors who live in her sweet little slice of suburbia are true middle Americans.

When Paglia goes to her local mall, she's not rubbing shoulders with the blue-collar swing voters of Northeast Philadelphia whom Biden, Obama, Palin, and McCain are courting, unless she happens to enter through the stockroom or spends a few minutes after hours schmoozing with the janitorial staff. The residents of her quiet corner of the world aren't, for the most part, struggling to make ends meet. They haven't been ravaged by eight years of Republican policy: they have been favored by it. Most of the working-class voters with whom Paglia disingenuously identifies don't have time to linger in the bird-seed section of Walmart, they work there. That the arch Paglia is now the voice of authentic working-class America is just plain bizarre.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Just when I begin worrying about Obama's willingness to start pulling the punches against the mendacious McCain/Palin campaign, he has. At last. Someone had to call the duo on their spurious embrace of reform politics. And call them on their lies. For those of you who haven't see the ad yet, it's above. I am still waiting for the campaign to take Steve's advice and launch ads hammering the theme of "old and tired ideas." But this is a starting point.

After nearly two weeks on stage and in her bunker, where she's getting briefed on foreign policy by Joe Lieberman, Palin is finally subjecting herself to an interview. Unfortunately, she's up against the vapid Charlie Gibson. If he pursues questions of the trivial variety that he threw out at the last Obama/Clinton debate, then Palin will come out with even more of that shiny, new glow. I hope, rather than dwelling on her colorful Alaskan heritage, that he tests her knowledge of the politics of Pakistan, Georgia, and Darfur. Will she be able to handle questions about America's troubled relationship with its allies in Western Europe? I don't think so, but I also don't think that Charlie is likely to push the point. I'll be watching anyway. And praying.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a great piece this morning in which Ed Rendell sticks it to Palin by chastising her for selling the surplus Alaska plane on Ebay. Great story Sarah, but as it turns out Pennsylvania made a better financial decision by spending a mere $700 by advertising its surplus plane on two aeronautical web sites, rather than paying Ebay's 2.5% commission. Stick it to 'em, Ed. You need to redeem yourself from your rather lackluster support for the Obama campaign to date.

Many of Rendell's constituents are Catholic (though he is not). Why politicians like Rendell and Hillary Clinton have won the hearts of Pennsylvania Catholics and why Barack Obama has not is the subject of one of the smartest posts that I have read on Catholic politics to date, by Tim Meagher at HNN.

More later, but today is the first day of classes for me and I'm swamped.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Immigration, race, economics, white identity politics: these are the issues that are shaping the trajectory of national politics in 2008. As the S family made its way through the 2008 Tour de Rustbelt, I could not help but reflect on the intersection of these issues. They rose at every bend in the road.

Immigration has transformed many American cities, but the process has been very uneven. Dotted throughout the Great Plains are small towns, mostly those with meatpacking plants, that have been magnets for Latin American immigrants and, more recently, INS raids. For most of the last eighty years, Mexican American farm laborers have harvested cherries in northern Michigan, soybeans and sugar beets in the central part of the state, tomatoes and corn in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and other crops here and there. But for the most part, these workers are transient. But vast stretches of the Midwest are virtually free of immigrants. Detroit and Cleveland, for example, have tiny populations of Asians and Latin American newcomers (although Detroit's Mexicantown, the long-standing West Side settlement of Mexican immigrants, while small in population, is probably the city's most vital neighborhood shopping district). But in Detroit, immigrants tend to gravitate to suburban destinations: Detroit has one of the largest Arab-speaking populations outside the Middle East, most of them live in Dearborn or, if they are Chaldean (Christian Iraqi), they live in one of a handful of northern suburbs. Altogether they comprise a visible but relatively small segment of the population of the metropolitan area.

But there are a few places on the Tour de Rustbelt where the impact of immigration has been extraordinary. One is Chicago, a city which saw its population grow during the 1990s largely because of the influx of the foreign-born. Whole West Side business districts are pulsing with life because of the rapid growth of the Latino population there. But the Hispanic presence is visible even in the city's mostly white neighborhoods in the countless little taquerias and bodegas on busy streets. The Latin Americanization of Chicago is also visible in the faces of the restaurant workers (even in two Asian restaurants that we visited), in the service staff in downtown hotels and office buildings, and in the landscapers we saw on our one trip to the wealthy northern suburb of Highland Park. Chicago's Asian population is also substantial, even if the Windy City is no Los Angeles. We bought tiffins in the fabulous Indian/Pakistani shopping district on Devon Street (for you non-Chicagoans, it's pronounced duh-von). And we had probably the best Vietnamese meal I have ever eaten at a little storefront restaurant on Argyle Street, a small but longstanding southeast Asian enclave in the Uptown section of the city.

Immigration is the sign of a city's health. Quantifying the impact of immigration on urban economies is difficult: cities with vital economies (with certain exceptions) tend to be magnets for immigrants and immigration seems to build and on fuel economic expansion. It's clear that troubled cities like Detroit and Cleveland have little to offer to foreign-born newcomers and the demographic and economic impact of immigration, as a result, has been small there.

The influx of Latinos has also transformed one of the whitest, most conservative parts of Michigan: the area around Holland and Muskegon, two cities of modest size along the Lake Michigan coast about three hours from Chicago. This part of the state, home to Dutch Calvinists, is the stomping ground of the DeVos and Hoekstra families and other warhorses of the Republican party. It's a staunchly conservative place. But the influx of Hispanic immigrants has turned this white, blonde region into a much browner one.

But outside these places, the upper Midwest is an overwhelmingly white place. As we headed "up North," to the gorgeous northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula, home to the extraordinary and undervisited Great Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the countryside grew more beautiful, the towns more touristy and prosperous, and the landscape reminiscent of New England. I saw more Obama signs posted in the wealthy, lakeside communities of Leelanau Country than I did anywhere else on our trip except the city of Chicago.

Northern Michigan is white. Very, very white. For over a week, we saw no one but white people, a few Jamaican temporary workers on touristy Mackinac Island excepted. When we left the northwestern corner of the state, where wealthy executives, doctors, and lawyers from Chicago and Detroit have their summer houses, we quickly moved into the vast stretches of white, blue-collar northern Michigan. In the small towns and cottage communities, we saw nary an Obama sign, but quite a few McCain posters. It was traveling through these places, where fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and ATV-riding are the sports of preference, that gave me pause about the outcome of the upcoming presidential race. The upper reaches of Michigan are distant geographically and politically from Detroit, but the city is very much in the consciousness of residents there. It's big, it's bad, and it's black. And they are mostly glad to keep their distance.

The culmination of the Tour de Rustbelt was five days at my parent's house in an understatedly beautiful, really untouristed part of the state, the area along Lake Huron. There's not much to attract the out-of-state visitor there. The three nearest towns, Cheboygan, Rogers City, and Onaway offer little to tourists. Onaway, a place that saw its heyday during the lumber boom more than a century ago, is a particularly dreary little town with a poverty rate of over 25 percent. This is a part of Michigan that, because of its isolation and the relative affordability of its properties has long attracted blue-collar workers. Just a fifteen minute drive from my parents' house is Black Lake, the UAW summer camp (UAW president Walter Reuther and architect Oskar Stonorov were killed in a plane crash on their way back from Black Lake in 1970). Black Lake introduced many autoworkers to our little corner of up North and they and their friends, like my parents' near-neighbors, the retired Ford worker who just clad his cinder block cottage with vinyl siding and the retired Detroit cop who likes to fish and hunt, have given this corner of northern Michigan their own distinctive stamp. That said, the disaster of Bush-era economic policy is acutely felt here. My parents spend somewhere between $8 and $10 for gas, just to go grocery shopping or to go to church on Sunday. Everything is at least 20 miles away.

No place better captures the essence of white, blue-collar northern Michigan than favorite up North watering hole--one of the most characterful bars in all of America: the 211 in Black Lake. Its menu is simple, cheap, and really good: amazing pizza, fresh whitefish and perch, big hamburgers, and cold draft lager by the pitcher. The setting is even better: pine-paneled walls adorned with a variety of taxidermied animals and trophy fish. On the wall of the 211 is a board where union members scribble the numbers of their local and sometimes a slogan or two. It was there, at a bar where Sarah Palin would certainly feel at home, that I ate dinner the night that John McCain announced that she would be his VP candidate. The all-white crowd (I've never seen a person of color in the 211--I wonder where black UAW members go out for dinner) was buzzing: the young family next to us was talking about the novelty of a woman candidate, the two older couples (who were surely Republicans) sitting across from us waxed enthusiastic when the picture of Palin and her rifle appeared on the 211's big screen TV. There was not a lot of skepticism in that room.

Spending the week of the Democratic convention with my parents was a challenge. Whenever she got the chance, my mother switched the TV to Fox News, because it offered, in her words, the only "unbiased" coverage of the convention. My seven-year old son made a snide comment about George Bush (he's yucky) and got an upbraiding from his grandmother. CNN was too liberal for her. We finally compromised and watched the uninterrupted proceedings on C-Span. My dad, who hasn't voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, found Biden and Obama impressive speakers (and he's usually not so charitable), but in a moment of candor, he called the Democratic nominee "Osama." They were wowed by Sarah Palin.

There's something deeper and more troubling to me about the buzz about McCain and Palin that I sensed in my humble corner Up North. I fear that a thin veneer of political rationalization covers up a lot of racial resentment. Commentators are, for the most part, afraid to talk much about race in this election. And most white voters know well enough to dodge the issue, at least in polite company and with pollsters. After watching both conventions, it became clear to me that whatever you think about the policy positions of Obama and McCain that the oft-repeated Republican line that Obama is all talk and no policy is just plain wrong. McCain's speech to the GOP convention was a rhapsody to change but it was completely devoid of policy substance. Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, the notion that he is full of uplifting words but no ideas cannot be borne out by the evidence.

But the argument that Obama is out-of-touch, elite, and substance-free serves one big political purpose. It gives white folks, like my parents and my dinner companions at the 211 bar, a guilt-free way to express their unease with the Democratic standard bearer. A lot of America is really white. Swing states have many enclaves of folks who should, for economic reasons, be Democrats. But I fear that the politics of personality that have dominated the last few weeks are deep down a new version of the politics of racial division. I hope I am wrong.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Calling Obama-crats

I'm new to the world of blogging and I have little sense of who's out there reading these posts. So on the off chance that there is someone out there with the ear of the Obama campaign, I offer these modest strategy suggestions now that the conventions are done and things are kicking into high gear:

Talking points: After Senator McBush nominated Gov. Moosehead to be his running mate, the sad affair of Tom Eagleton in 1972 was resurrected. Apparently, Obama surrogates have been instructed to bring up Eagleton whenever possible. Not an effective strategy.

Only political junkies and Sunday morning talk show pundits remember Eagleton. No one else cares.

Instead, Obama's people need to characterize McBush's proposals - any and all of them - as "old and tired." More tax cuts for the rich? Old and tired. More oil drilling? Old and tired. Endless war in Iraq? Old and tired. Get it? Old and tired. Repeat after me, Old and tired. Not only does this highlight McBush's geriatric-ness - it has the added benefit of being entirely true.

Boston Harbor Redux: One of the most stunning moments of the 1988 campaign came when candidate George I blew into Boston Harbor and railed at how polluted it was. George I came right into Dukakis's backyard and pants-ed (sp?) him over the issue of the environment. So I suggest that this fall Obama find an emerging alternative energy company that has grown because of the Federal tax credits that are about to expire. Find one in Arizona. Photo-op in front of wind turbines or solar cells and ask why McBush has skipped 8 different votes to extend these energy credits, thus threatening jobs right in his own state.

The Doctor Is In: Not only is McBush old, tired and increasingly prone to forget that Iraq doesn't share a border with Pakistan, but he has been sick. It is considered impolite to raise that issue directly - though I'm not sure why, given McBush's fragile health is all that would stand between us and President Moosehead. And as a Senator, McBush enjoys the best health plan in the world. So, Obama needs to ask McBush when he last filed an insurance claim. Ask him when he last had to fight an insurance company over a denied claim. Ask him what his co-pays have been, what his deductible is, what his out-of-pockets costs have been. Ask him repeatedly.

The Rich Are Different: McBush can't remember how many houses he has. Pound that. But demand as well to know exactly how much his family is worth. According to Vanity Fair, Cindy McBush's outfit at the convention was worth roughly $300K. Ask him how much he has personally benefited from the Bush tax cuts and how much he will benefit from his own proposals. Too rich to understand most Americans; too out-of-touch to care; too old to remember when he did.

Obama folks, if you're out there, it is time to take the gloves off. Hope these ideas help.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Community organizing as a profession got chortles and guffaws at the GOP convention the other night, despite the fact that, in fundamental respects, it represents the sort of grassroots self-help efforts that Republicans have long claimed they support. It's a reminder of the hypocrisy of big-government Republicanism that bottom-up efforts to accomplish social change, which are often threatening to established political power, are the subject of such derision. So much for nostrums about reform and empowering the people.

It may be, however, that community organizing comes back like a lipstick-glossed pitbull to bite John McCain and Sarah Palin. While the Republicans have been prattling about change while essentially proferring up the same, tired policies (just listen to the few specific policy recommendations in McSame's speech last night: cut taxes, reduce the size of government, enact school choice), the energetic supporters of Barack Obama have been burning through their shoe-leather. Yesterday afternoon, as I sweated through the heat of Center City Philadelphia's late summer, I passed several young people who were working up even more of a sweat registering new voters. Such efforts matter in our swing state.

McCain and Palin have a good chance of getting elected this November, given my reading of the polls, the persistence of subtle and less-than-subtle race baiting by the GOP, and the media's gentle treatment of McCain (whose party disingenuously continues to claim it is the victim of left-wing media bias).

But these recent figures on voter registration give me hope:

Colorado: 13,352 Republicans, 66,516 Democrats, 23,437 Independents

Florida: 77,196 Republican, 209,422 Democrat, 26,100 Independents

Iowa: 7,515 Republicans, 69,301 Democrats, -62,922 Independents

Nevada: 1,230 Republicans, 51,457 Democrats, 7,550 Independents

North Carolina: 20,363 Republicans, 171,955 Democrats, 123,605 Unaffiliated

and, of course,
Pennsylvania: 289 Republicans, 98,137 Democrats, 15,907 Independents (no aff.& other)

A lot can happen between now and November, including a mobilization of the right-wing, evangelical base in the GOP, which has finally awakened. But after a grim week of watching the Republican convention, I'm feeling a little better.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


I have to admit that Sarah Palin gave an impressive performance last night when accepting the Republican nomination for the vice presidency. And that's not because I had low expectations (although after Rudy Giuliani's abysmally bad, ill-delivered, smirky talk, anything would have looked good). Rather it's because more so than any figure in the GOP, she seems to have captured the essence of Ronald Reagan.

In her speech, Palin compared herself to Harry S Truman. Bad comparison. And a bit creepy, considering how Truman ascended to the Oval Office. Others, including my fellow Rustbelt Intellectual Steve Conn, have compared her to Dan Quayle. But she was no deer in the headlights last night.

Palin can best be described as Reaganesque. She projected a sunny optimism, romantically evoked the "values" of small-town America, conveyed some of that aw shucks faux humility that made Reagan so charming, and positioned herself as a true, authentic Washington outsider.

But like Reagan, Palin put a cheerful face on a harsh right-wing agenda. Her mix of Christian conservatism, meddling family values politics (which ought to be softened by her own experience), anti-environmentalism, jingoism, and corporate coddling is a toxic brew which has brought us the mess that we're in. But like Reagan, she wraps them in the mantle of reform and common sense. In our system of personality-driven politics, this is no mean feat.

The Republican Party is devoid of new ideas. Palin offered nothing other than nostrums about change: the substance of her policy proposals (what few there were) sound like a reprise of the last eight years. Her criticism of Barack Obama was also devoid of detail. But if she can survive the rigors of the election, whether she is elected or not, she has a future in the Republican Party. And it scares me.

PS: My colleagues at the Edge of the American West have run a series of excellent posts on Palin and Alaska. And they are in a position to know.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


The S family travels through the Rustbelt came to a close, sadly, on Labor Day. But they gave me the chance to take the pulse of middle America this election year. A few highlights.

Our first stop was wonderful Cleveland, Ohio. I have long been a fan of the misnamed Mistake by the Lake and I think I won over my kids too, especially after the hearty $2.95 breakfast at the fabulous West Side Market. Surprisingly, I didn't see a lot of signs of political activity in this crucial battleground state. Perhaps that's because of the recent troubles in Cuyahoga County's Democratic Party. I am hoping that we passed through the city during a quiet stage of organizing and that canvassers are fanning out registering new voters by the thousands.

I wanted to stop in grim Gary and postindustrial Hammond, but my family was tired, so we took a spin up to the Chicago Skyway via Kline Boulevard, the nearly empty, wide highway that one of my Rustbelt intellectual friends, a native of northwest Indiana, calls the former driveway of the proletariat. Kline Boulevard passes the once-mighty steel complexes of Gary, places that provided tens of thousands of jobs just a generation ago, but now run with minuscule workforces. The S kids were bored but still impressed by the vision of the dark, satanic mills along the lake.

Up to Chicago, a city that has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis under Mayor Richard Daley. I visit there frequently, but usually in the winter. This summer, with exquisite weather, we explored the city and its various neighborhoods. Two observations: 1) the white, rich North Side of Chicago is whiter and richer than ever. I have never seen so many young couples with strollers on a weekday in city neighborhoods like Lincoln Square and Andersonville. It feels a bit like Leave it to Beaver revisited. 2) The South Side is just as bleak as ever, a few pockets like the gussied up Bronzeville excepted.

Mayor Richard Daley has decided, like most big city mayors these days, to turn the city's built environment into a monument to himself. The process of beautification and job creation (public works has long been the lifeblood of the Chicago machine) began in earnest when the Democrats chose Chicago for their 2004 convention. Miles of formerly desolate stretches of city streets have been turned into greenways, with landscaped islands and trees. The wide and rather grim Ashland Avenue is a good example. The best of the landscape enhancements, in my opinion, are the various efforts to calm traffic on the city's residential streets. Cities laid out on a grid provide countless temptations for speeding. But now, many side streets are quiet because of the strategic deployment of speed bumps and traffic islands. Hooray for taming the great menace to urban life, the car.

But the limitation's of Daley-ification are clearest on the South Side. One of the highlights of our trip was an evening out with blog idol Kathy G of The G Spot and her husband Mr. G Spot. Adopted Chicagoans, they offered us a tour of Hyde Park (including a drive-by of the Obama "mansion") before taking us deep into the South Side to the New Apartment Lounge for the regular Tuesday night gig by the incomparable jazz genius Von Freeman.

What's crystal clear is that urban prettification hasn't done much for the vacant-lot strewn and boarded up streetscapes of places where the city's rich and white seldom venture. One lowlight that turned into a highlight: the S family car had trouble, leading us to a car dealership in Marquette Park, one of the formerly white, blue-collar neighborhoods that became infamous in 1966 when Martin Luther King, Jr. led open housing protests there. Alas, Marquette Park was not integrated then, and it is not now. It's a typically grim Rustbelt cityscape of rundown houses with mostly shabby shops and stores, left behind by its bitter white residents and left behind by city officials today. It's a reminder that, for all of Chicago's celebrated yuppification, it's still a city of sharp divides between rich and working-class, black and white. Buffing up Lincoln Park has not trickled down to Marquette Park.

Stay tuned for more on the Tour of Rustbelt, including watching the Democratic convention with my Limbaugh-loving family, walking a half mile to pick up a signal on my cell phone, and drinking beer with UAW members and fisherman talking about Sarah Palin.

Danny Boy Where Are You Now?

I believe the word is: schadenfreude. The delight one takes in the suffering of others.

That's what I've been feeling for the last several days giggling at the antics of the Republican Party in Bizarro World. I simply couldn't have dreamed for a more disastrous convention than what is currently going on in Minneapolis. Given all the drama of the hurricane, we haven't even had time to pause over the utterly unprecedented fact that a sitting president and vice president are regarded as so toxic to their own party that they aren't even in attendance.

And then there Alaska's Governor NutJob. Suffice it to say that when news of a pregnant 17 year old daughter being railroaded into a shotgun wedding (shotguns provided to all guests by the NRA I assume?) to a self-identified "F&%*ing Redneck" is only one of the weird items to emerge, you know Jon Stewart is a very happy man. The jokes write themselves.

It brings me back to 1988 and Dan "Mr. Potato[e] Head" Quayle. At the time, George I's pick stunned the pundits. Quayle was (and remains) a nobody - a Senator from Indiana who had no visibility and who had achieved nothing. He was young, telegenic, and utterly empty-headed. (In retrospect, of course, George I was picking the closest thing he could find to his own feckless son, but that little bit of Bush Family Psycho-drama wasn't so obvious at the time). And Quayle was a social conservative of the bible-thumping kind. Remember the daring and courageous stand he took against Murphy Brown and The Simpsons?

And then, of course, I stopped giggling.

George I won in 1988, of course, Dan Quayle notwithstanding. Quayle might not have contributed much to that election (perhaps he turned out some of those right-wing religious fanatics) but he clearly didn't hurt. And for four years the man who on his best days was repeatedly described as "a deer caught in the headlights" was one proverbial heartbeat away from the Oval Office. (In truth, medical science has not demonstrated conclusively that George H W or any member of the Bush family actually possesses a heart, so perhaps the metaphor is not apt).

McBush's choice of Governor NutJob yields one of two conclusions. Either he really did do his homework on this woman, in which case we should be terrified about McBush's judgement; or he made this pick recklessly and impulsively, in which case we should be terrified about McCain's judgement.

Nonetheless, it isn't clear who's laughing along with me at what apparently passes for politics in Alaska. Certainly not the New York Times. On today's front page a headline announces "Wooing Conservatives Pays Off." This on the basis of a standing ovation Gov. NutJob got at a convention function.

In the end, Gov. NutJob won't decide this election unless her selection becomes a referendum on McBush's ineptitude. Making that connection may prove harder than it appears. I won't try to draw the analogy to 1988 too tightly. Quayle was merely a right-wing non-entity; Gov. NutJob is from some other planet of crazy. But voters certainly didn't punish George I for his laughable choice 20 years ago in 1988. So stop giggling.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I am taking a break from watching the depressing Republican National Convention. As comic relief, here is the funniest take ever on McBush's Obama as elitist meme. From The Onion via PostBourgie. I can't stop laughing.


Sarah Palin has unwittingly reignited the national conversation on teen motherhood, just as I thought that Juno and Jamie Lyn Spears had exhausted the topic. It's appropriate that at just the moment that the Republican party is engaging in its quadrennial celebration of nineteenth-century family values that Bristol and Levi have raised the issue again, and the stakes.

Much of the commentariat has focused on the question of how Sarah Palin will juggle the demands of five children, one with Downs syndrome, and a child with a child while she's serving as McCain's veep. Others have debated the merits of Bristol's choice (or, more likely, Sarah and Todd's choice) to carry her pregnancy to term and to marry the man who impregnated her. Will Sarah Palin find sympathy among the millions of voters who have had a child outside of marriage? Or will she be judged as a parent who put her ambition ahead of her childrearing (a question that, of course, no one would think of asking fisherman Todd or John McSame.)

But to me, there is something far more damning about the Palin family crisis. It is testimony to the utter failure of one of the key programs of the religious right and its enablers in the Republican Party--namely abstinence-only sex education. I will bet that Sarah and Todd Palin have not taught their children about condom use. Birth control? And God forbid, the day-after pill.

Here is the text of the Republican Party platform for 2008:

We renew our call for replacing “family planning”
programs for teens with increased funding for
abstinence education, which teaches abstinence until
marriage as the responsible and expected standard of
behavior. Abstinence from sexual activity is the only
protection that is 100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock
pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases,
including HIV/AIDS when transmitted sexually.
We oppose school-based clinics that provide
referrals, counseling, and related services for abortion
and contraception.

Well, a little family planning would have prevented Bristol's unexpected and politically-problematic pregnancy. It would have prevented a shotgun wedding of a seventeen-year old. Just saying no won't work. Take heed Sarah Palin, John McCain, and Republican Party. Take heed America. The story of the Palin family is a true American story, a story of the gaping chasm between an outdated and counterproductive Republican policy on sex and the reality that teenagers, even daughters of moose-gutting wingnuts, can't be talked or prayed or cajoled out of exploring their sexuality.