Melinda Henneberger

Why are Democrats losing in the heartland? Here are some ideas

Sly James discusses Democratic Party priorities in Des Moines

"We spend too much time talking and not enough time doing." - Kansas City Mayor Sly James speaks to Melinda Henneberger at the Democratic Party's "Winning Back the Heartland" seminar Oct. 13.
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"We spend too much time talking and not enough time doing." - Kansas City Mayor Sly James speaks to Melinda Henneberger at the Democratic Party's "Winning Back the Heartland" seminar Oct. 13.

The Democrats who gathered here for a day of fairly anguished strategizing about what they’d have to do to win back rural voters did not speak kindly of their own national leadership or reputation or behavior.

Over and over, during a seminar called “Winning Back the Heartland,” they bemoaned the condescending way some of their fellow Democrats talk about their fellow Midwesterners, particularly those who live in small towns.

“We forgot how to talk to folks, and when we did, we often talked down,” said Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama and former Iowa governor, who won 67 of the state’s 99 counties during his last election in 2002, a state that’s now increasingly red.

Vilsack said he often hears Democrats assume that of course rural Americans serve in the military in disproportionate numbers because they want to get away. When the real reason, as he sees it, is that farmers know better than anyone that you can’t keep taking and taking from the land without giving something back to it, so they get in a way that others don’t how important and necessary a thing it is to give back to our country through service.

Pam Johnson, former president of the corn lobby, said, “I’ve been a woman without a president, without a party and without a functioning government,” fed up with both Donald Trump and the Democrats. Rural Americans “are my people, and we need to be more tolerant of differences.”

Maryland Rep. John Delaney said that when the biggest narcissist in history manages to do a better job of convincing an impressive number of Democrats and independents that he cares about them, “there’s a lesson there.”

Democratic pollster John Anzalone told the crowd that now, when he asks focus groups who Democrats stand for, instead of the longstanding answer “the middle class,” what he hears is “immigrants, refugees, gays and those who kneel.”

“This is more than white middle-aged men wanting to be the latest victims in America,” Anzalone said. “When you do these groups, you really get a sense of people, and they’re not racists, they’re not nativists. These aren’t mean people, folks.”

Yet when they worry about immigration, he said, too many Democrats think racism is the only possible explanation: “If they have these feelings, we treat them like idiots,” Anzalone said.

Entrepreneur Chad Troutwine, who grew up on a cattle ranch outside Kansas City, told the group that he splits his time between Kansas City and California, “and you can love both, but the divide has shifted” from North and South to coastal and not, “and as a Midwestern Democrat, I don’t always feel comfortable with that.”

When it’s the views on the coasts that set the agenda for Democrats the middle of the country and the middle of the political spectrum, well, that’s why the Midwest is becoming ever-redder.

The seminar was sponsored by a think tank called New Democracy, founded by Will Marshall, who was a co-founder of the centrist “Third Way” Democratic Leadership Council that launched Bill Clinton. But this effort is not so much a group for centrists, though there were some in attendance. Instead, it’s dedicated to the idea that the one-size-fits-all imposition of coastal values onto the Democratic Party has doomed it to a minority status that was only masked by Obama’s success.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James gave one of the best received talks here. “As a people,’’ he told the crowd, “we’re stuck in this endless ideological argument and don’t seem to be willing admit” that neither side is going to be won over by the other. Instead of staying locked in that trap, he said, we need to elect leaders with common sense and put people ahead of party, period.

It’s true that that’s easier for mayors than for members of Congress. But it’s not something you hear very often from Democrats on the coasts.

When it comes to congressional elections, Democrats have long failed to get voters to show up.

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