In a piece published today in the Atlantic, author Molly Ball describes an effort by the moderate Democratic group Third Way to find out what went wrong in 2016. As Ball points out, Hillary Clinton was in many ways the ideal Third Way candidate, someone more moderate than socialist Bernie Sanders and yet still comfortably on the left. How could such a person lose to an inexperienced businessman and TV star? Third Way sent researchers to various parts of Middle America to find out.
What the researchers, including San Francisco-based Nancy Hale, discovered was that people in Wisconsin and other fly-over states are just as partisan and willing to blame the other camp as people living on the coasts. Some of those people certainly sound like conservatives, like the Wisconsin farmer who said, “You’ve got all these parasites making a living off the bureaucracy, like leeches pulling you down, bleeding you dry.” Hale and the other researchers seem to have been prepared for that, but were shocked at the partisanship coming from those who identify with the left:
The last focus group, a bunch of back-to-the-land organic farmers and artisanal small-businesspeople, was over, and the researchers had retreated to their car to debrief. There was a long pause after Hale turned off the tape recorder on which they were recording their impressions.
“I had a very hard time with that meeting,” she finally said. “The longer the meeting went on, the more it started to feel to me like just another community that had isolated itself, and it was right and everybody else wasn’t, you know?” The hippies should have been her kind of people, but the attitudes they’d expressed had offended her sense of the way America ought to be. She had come seeking mutual understanding, only to find that some people were not the least bit interested in meeting in the middle.
The researchers were not there to talk about politics per se, only about overall concerns and beliefs but as Molly Ball points out, people kept bringing up politics anyway:
At the Labor Temple Lounge in Eau Claire, nine gruff, tough-looking union men sat around a table. One had the acronym of his guild, the Laborers International Union of North America, tattooed on a bulging bicep. The men pinned the blame for most of their problems squarely on Republicans, from Trump to Governor Scott Walker. School funding, the minimum wage, college debt, income inequality, gerrymandering, health care, union rights: It was all, in their view, the GOP’s fault. A member of the bricklayers’ union lamented Walker’s cuts to public services: “If we can’t help each other,” he said, “what are we, a pack of wolves—we eat the weakest one? It’s shameful.”…
Debriefing after this particular group, the Third Way listeners said they found the union men demoralizing. “I feel like they can’t see their way out,” Hale said.
“They were very negative,” Paul Neaville, another researcher, concurred.
They were so fixated on blaming Republicans, Hale fretted. “It was very us-and-them.”
After hearing this kind of disdain from people on both sides of the aisle, Hale describes feeling disappointed that America isn’t living up to her expectations, at least not when it comes to partisan warfare. “There’s an, I don’t know, blue-sky part of me that was like, ‘I’m going to go traveling around the country and see that we’re more about commonalities than differences, that we’re more about our desire to be together than to be separate.’ And I’m not saying that isn’t true. I’m just saying every once in a while it gets kicked in the ass,” Hale said.
Little if any of that disappointment wound up in the report issued after the trip was over. Third Way seems to have reasoned its way into leaving most of that out. But Ball herself writes, “I heard all the optimism they did, but I also heard its opposite: that one side was right and that the other was the enemy; that other Americans, not just the government, were to blame for the country’s problems.” It seems there are a lot of partisan gorillas in the mist out in Middle America these days.