Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Donald Trump Phenomenon: An Accumulation of 50 Years Worth of Republican Party Cynicism

Like just about everybody else who follows politics, I would not have anticipated three months ago that Donald Trump would come to dominate the political discussion for the summer, surge way ahead in the polls amongst a very crowded field, and suck all the oxygen out of the room for most other candidates.  But that was primarily because I didn't know what kind of campaign he was gonna run.  Had I known three months ago what I know now, it wouldn't have been nearly as surprising.  Here we have one of the 100 richest men in America running a full-throated populist campaign railing against everything from illegal immigration to the Chinese eating our lunch in the global economy to America's political leaders being bought and paid for by, well, by guys like him.  And the fact that he talks about these issues with the trademark Trump swagger and brash self-confidence only makes him more appealing to the demographic he's going for....a demographic that the Republican Party co-opted more than two generations ago that has now come to represent a majority in their party while the establishment was napping.

Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty coined a term in 2005 that seemed on-point then and has only gotten more fitting in the decade since.....that Republicans are no longer "the party of the country club but are the party of Sam's Club".  In the 1950s, predicting voting patterns in America was pretty easy.  If you were a low-income worker in Texas or a poor farmer living in a shack with a dirt floor in Alabama, you were a Democrat.  And if you were a young professional on Long Island or a business manager in southern California, you were a Republican.  To a much greater degree than today, people voted their pocketbooks.  But then came the civil rights battle and other culture wars of the 1960s that dragged on into the 1970s and flipped America's voting coalitions on their head.  Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, with Reagan after him, successfully employed a "Southern strategy" that co-opted culturally conservative southern Democrats into the GOP tent.  By 1980, the new recruits along with the old-school money interests of the Republican Party combined to form a majority and conservatism was ascendant.

The quarter century that followed saw a shakeup amongst the "country club" crowd, however, as large chunks of their ranks drifted to the left on the same cultural issues that the GOP won over the "Sam's Cub" crowd with.  It would have been unthinkable in the 1970s that 30 years later, the steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania would be Republican while the upscale suburban donut encircling Philadelphia would be Democrat, but that's exactly what has happened in that very local example and across the country.  Cycle after cycle, the blue-collar whites that Republicans spent the 60s, 70s, and 80s co-opting into the Republican Party orbit based on a growing litany of cultural resentments became a larger and larger share of the party's base.  In 2012, every fourth-rate contender in the weakest Republican Presidential field in decades was given a serious hearing by the party's primary electorate--halfwits like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and nutjobs like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich all had their time in the sun--before primary voters finally realized they were unelectable and then held their nose and voted for establishment choice Mitt Romney only after all other options were exhausted.  That cycle foreshadowed the Trump surge we're seeing four years later, only Trump has far more media savvy and staying power than those clowns ever had, which is why he is dominating the field to the degree that he has.

It would seem as though 2016 is the year that the inmates have officially taken over the asylum in the Republican Party.  It seems hard for me to believe that a businessman like Trump agrees with his own overheated rhetoric on immigration and sticking it to China in the global economy, but he recognizes that that's where the center of gravity is now in the Republican Party.  For decades, the party has relied upon the foot soldiers in trailer parks and small impoverished towns throughout the South and the heartland for enough votes to win on election day, at which point the party graybeards would proceed with their real agenda of transferring wealth from that same peasantry to the top of the income pyramid, only stirring the pot of the culture war again before elections to make sure their soldiers will deliver for them yet again.  But with the combination of changing demographics in the country and the moneyed class discovering they can get the same special protections with Democrats without the cultural intolerance, the Republicans are finding that all they have left are angry white guys in the South and the heartland whose Republican identity is entirely defined by their cultural resentments.  And on the issues that matter most to establishment types like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, these voters really don't have a vested interest.

Enter Donald Trump, who is taking positions on bread and butter issues that likely have Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, including a higher minimum wage, protectionist tariffs, high taxes on the rich, and single-payer health care.  To your average Republican base voter earning $25,000 a year in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who favors Republicans based on issues like guns, abortion, immigration, and sticking it to "welfare cheats", none of Trump's left-populist economic posturing is particularly troubling.  After all, most of these guys are from families a generation or two removed from being New Deal and JFK Democrats based on the same left-populist economic posturing coming out of Trump.  They're just not "conservatives" in the Reagan tradition no matter how much historical rewriting has been done to lionize Reagan and his policy positions.  Mike Huckabee had success in 2008 running on a softer version of this platform as did Rick Santorum in 2012, but these guys never had the salesmanship or media platform that Trump now has to consolidate this white working class base.

Like everybody else, I figured early on that Trump would fade rather quickly, but that certainly hasn't happened.  I'm about 50-50 on whether it will at this point.  I think even among the flag-waving populist crowd, they may take a step back as the primary vote approaches and ask themselves if they really believe this guy is capable of winning a general election.  And chances are, his shtick will be wearing thin by then.  Some believe Trump's not even really running and is merely on a high-stakes ego trip, and will pull out of the race before the voting starts assuring everybody he "could have and would have won".  All those scenarios are plausible, and collectively perhaps more plausible than him winning the nomination.  In a way, Trump's rise has been a very useful reminder to those in elite circles in both parties and the media of the magnitude of the cultural tribal lines that already exist in this country that are poised to get much worse as the population continues to diversify.  The idea of him getting anywhere near the White House is terrifying at any number of levels, but if Trump's candidacy is nothing more than an "art project" exposing the fault lines in American political and cultural life today while simultaneously getting a well-deserved jab in at the perils of our corrupt campaign finance system, then Donald Trump will go down as the best thing that happened to American politics in 2015.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Tenney" is Officially History

A college roommate's wedding in July 2000 led me to the iconic road trip in west-central Minnesota where I first visited Tenney, at the time Minnesota's smallest incorporated town (population 4).  A massive grain elevator attached to a half dozen huge grain bins camouflages the town from state highway 55, but a curious passerby can't resist taking the left-hand turn to see the town behind the towering agriculture structure.  Particularly back in 2000, Tenney was a spooky site to behold, the decayed, vacant remains of a once more vibrant little town that at its peak had nearly 200 residents in 1910 and still had 19 people as recently as 1980. The remnants of the town's past remained intact, with nearly a dozen long-ago abandoned homes along with an old church and creamery stood there hauntingly, complete with many years of unattended weeds flapping in the wind.  And right in the middle of this post-apocalyptic vision were two trailers where the four residents of Tenney lived.  I couldn't imagine waking up every morning and being greeted by this hellscape, yet for many years these people did.

I had an immediate visceral attachment to the general west-central Minnesota area and have returned there most of the past 15 years for additional road trips.  I read in the past few years of Tenney's ongoing problems.  The city clerk had stolen city money several years ago, even though I can't seem to find any record of that online now.  And as the costs for operating the most basic functions of city government grew prohibitive, the remaining residents voted by a 2-1 margin to dissolve the town in 2011.  Fast forward to this past weekend and I drove through Tenney again, noticing that the sign for the town was now gone completely.  Turning left past the elevator to explore, only a handful of the abandoned homes remain with only one trailer in the middle of the town still around, and that was clearly empty.  The population of Tenney has officially declined to 0. 

The town's era had passed and given how ugly it's been for so long, it's hard to feel too much sadness for it ultimately being put to sleep.  Sadder to me is the likelihood that there will be many more Tenney stories in western Minnesota in the decades to come, with dozens of dying little towns that have been in freefall for my entire life and show no signs of a reversal of fortune.  The boom and bust cycle is the nature of the human settlement pattern but it seems quite wasteful to me that dozens of perfectly functional rural communities with a good housing stock and functional city infrastructures are being left to rot as settlement consolidates on the periphery of already overcrowded metro areas, requiring the creation of new pavement, housing, and infrastructure to serve the people who vacated the small towns.  In time I believe soaring energy costs will make our current settlement trends unsustainable and force people back to smaller communities, but at least for now energy prices are plummeting which means expansionist exurban settlement will press forward.  While the low gas prices this summer are nice, I can't help but feel it will give us the false sense of security that will lead us to dig our hole even deeper with exurban sprawl that will ultimately prove unsustainable when the demand for energy inevitably exceeds supply again.  But even if my long-held theory that higher energy prices will shift settlement patterns in the generation to come, it's a safe bet that the transition will come too late to save Tenney.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Election 2000: The Most Realigning Election Of My Lifetime

I remember back to July 2000, almost exactly 15 years ago and before the era when the results of new political polls were readily available on election websites moments after their release online.  I was looking through my hometown Minnesota newspaper and seeing a story on a series of polls from every state between respective party nominees Al Gore and George Bush before their party's conventions.  Bush was out to an early lead both nationally and in the individual states, but the performances of two states really stand out to me looking back.  Back in July 2000, Bush had a 17-point lead in Oregon and Gore had a 4-point lead in Louisiana.  Now these may very well have been junk polls with terrible methodologies, but if we saw polls like this today, we would immediately discount them as laughable outliers.  But in the summer of 2000, these results seemed within the realm of the possible.  For all intents and purposes, it could be argued that 35 states were credibly part of the Election 2000 "battleground" four months before the election, all places where either Gore or Bush could have won in November.  The public was disengaged and open to persuasion in a way that had defined most prior Presidential elections in the generation that preceded it.  Any outcome seemed viable moving forward, but I doubt many could have predicted the formation of the long-term realignment with rigid geographic fault lines that have defined American political life ever since.

The fluid electorate of 2000 continued on through the conventions with wild swings from Bush to Gore that kept the race unpredictable.  The debates started approximately a month before the election and only then did we start to see battle lines forming and a steady diet of state polling that was beginning to show the formation of the divide of what we would come to know as "red states" and "blue states".  In some cases, it wasn't a huge surprise to see certain states realign as blue or red as they'd been trending that way in the previous couple of elections, but there were a few genuine surprises in the degree to which some states (and regions within states) abruptly drifted into the opposing party's coalition.  And while there always felt like there was a degree of permanence to the fault lines that emerged in 2000, there was enough ambiguity that going into Election 2004, political prognosticators (and myself) had missed the realignment that had occurred in some states deemed part of the 2004 battleground in the early stages of that cycle.  

The 2000 election wasn't the beginning and the end of the realignment obviously.  Several states were behind the curve still in 2000 and didn't change until subsequent election cycles.  However, there were signs in most of those states in the 2000 cycle that political change was right around the corner.  Below I will profile each region of the country and look at their politics through a pre-2000 lens and a post-2000 lens.

The Northeast--In 2015, everybody who analyzes politics looks at the Northeast as the most Democratic part of the country, a region where Democratic Presidential candidates are likely to shut out the opposition with New Hampshire being the only swing state (and one that's been trending left for a generation) with an outside chance of a GOP win in Pennsylvania.  But going into the 2000 election cycle, it was not clear without a reasonable doubt that the northeast was gonna be Gore country.  Maine was right there along with New Hampshire as part of the 2000 battleground until the very end of the campaign, ultimately coming within a few hundred votes of giving Bush one of their electoral votes.

And while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were never really considered battlegrounds in the late stages of the 2000 campaign, they had been Republican-leaning battlegrounds only two cycles earlier where Clinton prevailed over Bush-41 narrowly and had definitely not yet solidified in early 2000 as the uncontested "blue states" that they've been ever since.  Vermont was pretty widely accepted as a blue state in 2000, yet Gore only won it by 10 definitely wasn't the "bluest state in the nation" then as it is now.

The center of gravity of the Republican Party shifted more Southern and more conservative in the new millennium so it's not hard to see why the northeast used to a more moderate and secular Republican Party realigned towards Democrats but that certainly wasn't obvious in July 2000 when Bush's national margins and those state polls suggested the real possibility of Gore only reassembling the Dukakis states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the northeast.  I definitely wouldn't have predicted he'd miss a clean sweep of the region only because Nader's support likely denied him the four electoral votes of New Hampshire.  It would have been interesting to see what Gore's margins in the northeast would have been if he had not selected northeasterner Joe Lieberman as a running mate, which I think helped him in New England generally and in particular in running up the score with millions of Jewish voters in the Northeast.  The lack of Lieberman on the ticket and the politics of 9/11 were brief hiccups on the Democratic trendline in the region in 2004, but Kerry swept the region and Obama has done so with rising PVI margins in the two elections since.  Perhaps another realignment will be in the works some day to reverse the region's blue trend, but it's very hard to imagine in the foreseeable future.

The Mid-Atlantic South--Two states that were behind the curve of the 2000 realignment were Virginia and North Carolina, both of which have seen their politics change since that election.  At least in Virginia's case, however, there were signs in the 2000 election that change was afoot and the state would not be defined as conventionally "Southern" for much longer, with George W. Bush underperforming Bob Dole in the fastest-growing region of the state, the D.C. suburbs and exurbs of northern Virginia.  The state was not a battleground in 2004 beyond the very early imaginations of the Kerry campaign but the trendline of sinking GOP margins continued in NOVA and Virginia's transformation happened at lightning speed thereafter.  Any election analyst worth his or her salt could tell by the 2000 results that Virginia was poised to become a purple or blue-leaning state, but I doubt many would have predicted it would happen so fast that Virginia would match the national PVI outcome only two cycles later!

North Carolina is another story.  There was nothing one could glean from the 2000 results that suggested the state would be a battleground at all in the foreseeable future.  There may have been the faintest hint in 2004 as Bush did no better in NC than he did in 2000 while the country went three points redder in 2004, but that could be dismissed on the grounds of Kerry's running mate being the native son and possibly helping Kerry on the margins at home.  If I had been given 15 guesses (or maybe even 20!) in 2000 on which nine Bush states would flip Democratic by 2008, I'm pretty sure North Carolina would not have been one of my guesses.  The state's demographic shift has been that sudden and transformational, even though it appears that purple state coalition is far more fragile than Democrats may have liked to believe back in 2008.  Still, I said at the outset there were a handful of states that the 2000 realignment missed entirely, and North Carolina was one of them.

The Deep South--In my opening paragraph, I cited Gore's four-point lead in Louisiana four months before the 2000 election.  Crazy as that sounds now, it was not surprising at the time given that Bill Clinton won Louisiana by 12 points in 1996!  But in the final stages of the 2000 campaign, it was becoming clear that George W. Bush was winning over Southerners and compiling a pretty solid regional base.  While everybody assumed Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina would be solid Bush states, there was speculation in the summer of 2000 that Georgia would be part of the battleground, possibly more so than Florida, and early polls showed Bush leading in Georgia, but by a smaller margin than he was nationally.  The Deep South had not yet realigned as a solid block of crimson red at that point. 

Since then, the South has become only more inhospitable, and while an African American becoming the face of the national Democratic Party had something to do with that, I suspect it was inevitable anyway that conservative Southern whites would further disconnect from Democrats.  There was a hiccup in this momentum beneath the Presidential level in 2006 and 2008, however, as Democrats were winning surprise victories in deep red Southern Congressional districts at the height of "Bush fatigue", but that seems light years ago compared to where the Deep South is now and it's much harder to see it happening again anytime soon, certainly at the Presidential level.  Changing demographics in Georgia resemble what we were seeing in Virginia in 2000 and could very abruptly alter that state's identity, but it still seems a cycle or two away and is definitely the only spot on the map in the Deep South where Democrats have any hope of being competitive anytime soon.

Florida--The Sunshine State deserves a geographic category all its own.  The first sign that change was afoot in the formerly Republican stronghold of Florida came in 1996 when Bill Clinton won the state by a healthy six points.  Yet it was still rather baffling four years later when the 2000 cycle began to fully take form and Florida was showing up as a key battleground, with most polls showing Gore narrowly ahead, even as Gore was having to fight for victories in traditionally blue states like Oregon and Wisconsin.  In retrospect, it was an electoral masterstroke for Gore to select Lieberman as his running mate, allowing him to heighten enthusiasm among Jewish seniors and run up the score in the Gold Coast counties.  It almost worked, and probably would have if not for the "butterfly ballot" kerfuffle.

But Florida by no means realigned towards Democrats.  In fact, 2000 was the state's best year for Democrats proportionate to the rest of the country.  The state's PVI was the same as the country's in 2000 but, despite Obama's narrow 2008 and 2012 victories, has been a couple or more points to the right of the country in the cycles since.  The rightward trendline of seniors, particularly non-Jewish seniors, in recent cycles has been the biggest impediment to Florida moving leftward, but is countered by positive demographic trends elsewhere.  Cuban-Americans, once the GOP's reliable base in Florida, continue to trend towards Democrats while Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area have dramatically shifted that region's politics leftward.  These cross-currents have likely shaped Florida to be one of if not the biggest swing state in Presidential cycles in the foreseeable future.

Appalachia and the Southern Border States--If the northeast is the region of the country where the Republicans have seen the biggest collapse in Presidential cycles, Appalachia and the the border states have produced the biggest collapse for Democrats.  In some cases, this collapse was predictable heading into 2000 while other cases it was not.  Bill Clinton only barely held on to Kentucky and Tennessee in 1996 and it wasn't a huge surprise that either flipped red four years later.  While Gore took a lot of flack for losing his home state in 2000, his presence as his party's standard-bearer is probably the only thing that kept Bush from scoring a double-digit blowout in Tennessee similar to that of Kentucky.  Missouri is another state that showed signs of moving towards Republicans in 1996 as Clinton's margin against Dole was quite a bit weaker than that of Bush-41 four years earlier.  Still, Clinton's six-point margin in Missouri in 1996 was stronger than his margins in Kentucky or Tennessee and seemed like it should position the state to be competitive for Gore.  Indeed, it was a battleground state till the end but one that Bush won by nearly four points, the start of a realignment that has put the former bellwether state of Missouri squarely into the GOP column and a little bit further to the right of the country with each passing cycle.

The states in this region where Gore's fortunes were less predictable heading into 2000, and even 2004, are Arkansas and West Virginia.  Obviously, Arkansas being Clinton's home state was worth a lot in 1992 and 1996 as he dominated by more than 15 points both cycles and made it hard to judge where the center of gravity would be in the 2000 cycle.  Arkansas was a battleground till the end but most late polls in 2000 showed Bush opening up a lead, a lead that ultimately stuck with a five-point statewide win.  West Virginia was deep blue in 1992 and 1996 even without a home state assist from the Democratic nominee.  Gore was a uniquely bad candidate for West Virginia given his environmentalism and previous assertions about the coal industry, but it still was a bit of a surprise that the state slipped away to the degree that it had, where state polling showed a clear lead for Bush in the weeks before the election, ultimately shifting from a 17-point Clinton win in 1996 to a six-point Bush win in 2000. 

But something about the results in these two states suggested Bush's win may have been more of a fluke than a realignment.  At least early on in the 2004 cycle, both states were part of the Presidential battleground.  Apparently bad polling showed Kerry and Bush statistically tied in Arkansas the weekend before the election!  And typically savvy election prognosticator Larry Sabato's early summer map in 2004 suggested West Virginia was perhaps the biggest swing state of all, to the point of him tilting it very narrowly Kerry's direction based on apparent displeasure among coal miners towards the Bush administration over lax safety regulation at the time.  In the end, the 2000 results in these states merely represented the first phase of a more permanent and resounding realignment positioning both states as among the brightest red in the country, especially in Presidential elections.  Bush won West Virginia by double digits in 2004 and came very close to doing the same in Arkansas, and those margins have gotten much better for Republicans in the Obama era.

There are regions within Midwestern and northeastern states generally considered parts of greater Appalachia that are worth mentioning here for experiencing the same trendlines.  The counties north of the Ohio River in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio leaned Democrat for quite some time but were especially strong for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.  But like the areas south of the Ohio River, this area began to realign towards Republicans in 2000 as well and has continued to do so to the point that home state Senator Barack Obama twice lost a huge swath of southern Illinois counties that Clinton won twice while Obama lost most southern Indiana and Ohio counties even as he was winning both states in 2008.  The same is true in western Pennsylvania, also part of Greater Appalachia, and an area long part of any winning coalition Democrats could expect out of the Keystone State.  The first signs of weakness emerged there in 1996 as Bob Dole decisively outperformed Bush-41's numbers in southwest Pennsylvania.  The trend continued in 2000 with Gore barely hanging on in a number of counties that went 2-to-1 for Michael Dukakis 12 years earlier, and the bottom has fell out in the cycles since with every county outside of Allegheny in southwest Pennsylvania having decisively realigned to Republicans.

Going into 2004, one of my biggest miscalculations was expecting the trends in northern Appalachia, particularly Ohio and Pennsylvania, were gonna be reversed.  I remember posting on political websites in the summer of 2004 that I expected some of Kerry's primary gains in Ohio would come in the belt of Appalachian counties stretching from Steubenville to Portsmouth which had suffered staggering job losses during Bush's first term.  I was pretty shellshocked come election night when Kerry actually lost ground to Gore in this area, in some cases decisively.  I was similarly surprised that Kerry lost even more ground to Gore in working-class southwest Pennsylvania.  Bush probably had a secret weapon in this area, however, that didn't get much ink at the time but may well have positioned him for winning over hearts and minds in western Pennsylvania, and that was the 2001 steel tariffs.  They were widely panned as bad policy and a tactical failure, but I could easily imagine a bunch of embattled and culturally conservative steelworkers thinking Bush did something for them that Clinton never did.  It never helped Bush or any Republican nominee since win Pennsylvania, but only because suburban Philadelphia has shifted so Democratic that it's offset steep Republican gains in the southwest part of the state, and in 2004, it got Bush to within two points of victory in PA.

The Midwest--Democrats have experienced generally positive trendlines in the Midwest since 2000, but the trendlines have been unambiguously strong in the region typically considered the Industrial Midwest versus much more ambiguous trendlines in the Upper Midwest.  Due primarily to demographic changes and a leftward shift in Greater Chicago, Illinois has been the biggest Midwestern success story for Democrats, going from a borderline swing state in 2000 to a Democratic stronghold in Presidential elections today.  Michigan and Ohio have been realigning in a Democratic direction since 2000.  Michigan was right up there with Pennsylvania and Florida as the nation's key swing states in 2000, but Gore prevailed comfortably and the state's PVI has been shifting leftward ever since. While Michigan still seems like the kind of state conceivably vulnerable in a Republican wave year in a way that Illinois probably is not, it's not likely to be put in a category of battleground states the way it was in 2000 anytime soon.

As for Ohio, it seems crazy to think back to 2000 when nobody really even looked at it as a swing state.  It was considered a foregone conclusion that Bush would win it decisively and Gore put few resources in the state.  In the end it may have been a mistake as Bush prevailed by only four points in the state, less than what most polls showed.   As with so many other results from the 2000 election, the dynamic had changed moving forward and in 2004 Ohio was ground zero in the electoral battleground.  While Bush still won the state, the PVI shifted leftward and set the stage for two narrow Obama victories in Ohio in 2008 and 2012.  Looking at the demographics I have concerns about Ohio trending back to the GOP, but as yet there's no evidence of that at the Presidential level.  Even Indiana, the heart of the Republican Party in the Midwest for decades, is to the left of where it was in 2000 proportional to the country, to the point of Obama's surprise (and flukish) victory there in 2008.

Moving onto the trio of states that make up the Upper Midwest, Democrats have had mostly favorable electoral results, but the realignment of 2000 did not portend any discernible trendlines there.  Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all saw dramatic movement towards Republicans in 2000, even though Gore won all three of them by the skin of his teeth.  While Nader strength in Minnesota and Wisconsin could account for some of rising Republican fortunes, it felt like there was more going on and that the region may well be realigning towards Republicans.  All three states were at the epicenter of the battleground in 2004 and the results were again ambiguous.  While Iowa flipped to a narrow Bush win after a narrow Gore win four years earlier, Kerry held on to Minnesota and Wisconsin and actually did better than Gore in all three states proportionate to the whole country.  I was surprised by Bush's strength in the Upper Midwest that cycle, expecting the dovish Upper Midwest to more soundly rebuke Bush's Iraq War adventurism, but just like the steel tariffs in Pennsylvania, I think Bush did well for himself with another move early in his administration....siding with the ethanol industry that forced coastal critics to abide by the mandate.  Doing so kicked the farm economy into unprecedented prosperity that likely won Bush votes he otherwise wouldn't have won in the rural areas of all three states.  The Obama years have been kind to Democrats in the Upper Midwest, producing decisive victories and likely catapulting Minnesota out of "battleground state" status in coming cycles.  Still, the area remains one of the more unpredictable regions on the political map.

The Plains States--Prior to 2000, the Plains States were all strongly Republican but could be broken down into three categories.  The most predictable were Nebraska and Kansas, which were and mostly still are a sea of crimson red from corner to corner.  Kansas has changed less politically than almost any other stats going back to the 80s and 90s.  Nebraska, however, while still safely Republican, is no longer up there with Idaho and Utah as among the brightest red states in the country as it was in the 80s and 90s, and with Omaha trending blue, is not likely to return to that level of redness.  The only thing worth reporting since 2000 in either state is Obama's one electoral vote out of Nebraska in 2008 which doesn't say much other than Nebraska's proportional allocation of electoral votes is not something we'd ever want to see go national.

North and South Dakota are full of prairie populists and prior to 2000 had a decent array of counties that leaned blue.  But the prairie populists moved towards Bush in 2000 and have probably realigned there for the foreseeable future.  The combination of Obama's temperamental fit for the northern Plains and dovish views on the Iraq likely contributed to the Dakotas and neighboring Montana moving leftward PVI-wise in 2008 (despite McCain still decisively winning) but the states shifted back in 2012 to numbers closer to Bush's 2000 and 2004 numbers suggesting 2008 was the outlier.

Lastly, Oklahoma and Texas were Republican in the 80s and 90s but had residual Yellow Dog Democrat strongholds that kept the numbers from getting too lopsided.  Almost entirely at once in the 2000 cycle, those conservative counties shifted to Bush.  Given that Bush was the Governor of Texas, it wasn't surprising that he swept all the West Texas cotton counties that had been strong for Clinton four years earlier, but Bush's gains in eastern Oklahoma were more impressive and indicated a comprehensive realignment that was completed in the Obama years with dozens of counties dominated by Clinton in both states having become 2-1 or better GOP strongholds.  In Texas, there are cross currents in diversifying metro areas canceling out at least some of these gains.  In Oklahoma, there are none and it has become one of the most Republican states in the country in the last two cycles as a result.

The Rocky Mountain West--Most Western states moved towards Democrats since 2000.  The bright red strongholds of Idaho and Utah have only seen modest movement towards Democrats (Utah backslid in 2012 with Mormon nominee Mitt Romney) and of course both were already among the reddest states in the country, while coal-heavy Wyoming is the only Western state that has gotten progressively more Republican in the past generation.  Montana took a considerable right turn in 2000 but has moderated since then, coming within two points of going Obama in 2008 before drifting back rightward in 2012.

On the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, a state that very narrowly and somewhat surprisingly went for Al Gore in 2000.  Bush eked out a narrow victory four years later with his strong showing among Hispanics, but the state still drifted leftward PVI-wise and has continued to in the Obama years, almost to the point of being outside of the electoral battleground in all but the most lopsided cycles, as the growing Latino vote consolidates in the Democratic column.  Ethnic diversification has also swung Nevada quite considerably towards Democrats.  New Mexico was a swing state even 25 years ago but Nevada was at the time bright red.  Clinton got two consecutive assists from Ross Perot that helped him narrowly win the state twice, but most considered the state pretty solid for Bush in 2000.  Nevada did go Bush, but by less than four points and the trendline was clear that Nevada was drifting towards Democrats.  It took two more cycles but it happened abruptly in 2008 when Obama won the state by 13 points, winning re-election decisively four years later and putting in question whether Nevada will be part of the battleground in subsequent cycles as its demographics become less and less hospitable towards Republicans.

Most would argue that the 2000 realignment came one cycle too soon for Colorado.  In some ways that's true as the state was never part of the 2000 battleground and Bush won it decisively.  It came as a bit of a surprise four years later when polls began showing Kerry was competitive in the state, but a strong performance by Nader that likely came at Gore's expense seems to have masked some Democratic momentum in Colorado in 2000.  As with Virginia and Nevada, the realignment occurred very quickly by 2008 and moving forward Colorado looks like it will be a blue-tilting swing state.  One of the few states where the 2000 election failed to predict a realignment is Arizona.  After a decisive victory for Clinton in 1996 ended a long streak of Republican dominance in the state, Bush's modest five-point win in Arizona in 2000 suggested the state was about to follow the same trendline as Nevada and New Mexico.  But most likely as a consequence of its white senior population which has become much more Republican in the past 15 years, Arizona has backslid towards Republicans in subsequent cycles and shows no realistic signs of being competitive in Presidential elections at least for the next couple of cycles.

The West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii--As recently as November 2000, the entire West Coast was in play at the Presidential level, as crazy as that seems now when all three states are uncontested Democratic strongholds.  In reality, California was not in play in 2000 either, but a combination of some bad polling and a dumb multimillion-dollar ad buy from Karl Rove on Bush's behalf attempting to overwhelm Gore ended disastrously for the Bush team on election night when Gore won the state by 12 points, proving just how far gone California had become for Republicans and removing it from the Presidential battleground ever since.  California may have been a pipe dream for the GOP already in 2000, but Washington and Oregon were very much swing states that cycle.  In fact most polling indicated Bush had the advantage in Oregon right up until election day.  The tightness was partially but not entirely due to Nader, who polled strongest in the Pacific Northwest but underperformed on election night.  There was also pending Clinton administration lawsuit against Microsoft back in 2000 that created some question marks about Washington state and both states saw their PVI move rightward from the 1996 cycle compared to 1992, suggesting possible movement to the Republicans.  In the end, would-be Nader voters came home, helping Gore win Washington decisively and ekeing out a Gore victory in Oregon.  And there's been no turning back since with the PVI of both states moving at a rapid leftward clip to become some of the most inhospitable territory in the country for Republicans.

Alaska and Hawaii have both had more complicated trajectories.  A huge Nader performance in Alaska in 2000 made Bush's two-party performance seem more dominating while increasing racial diversification appears to be shifting the state towards Democrats generally, albeit slowly enough to where the state's bright red hue shows no serious signs of tipping anytime soon.  Hawaii saw a surprising burst of competitiveness late in the 2004 cycle, where Bush held Kerry to a single digit win, but favorite son Obama has dominated the last two cycles to the point where it's nearly impossible to discern where the real center of political gravity is.

The 2000 election felt quite realigning at the time, certainly more so than either of the Clinton-era elections that have preceded it, but the passage of a decade and a half has helped reinforce how consequential the 2000 cycle was.  I can't think of another election in the modern era that produced the same kind of impenetrable coalitions for such a sustained period.  FDR had an impressive coalition but it began to wither away when he ran for his third term and was gone completely by 1952.  Reagan's coalition was blown up three cycles later by Bill Clinton.  With only a handful of exceptions, the results of the 2000 election have locked in place the nation's geopolitical fault line for nearly a full generation, and that fault line is only getting stronger with each passing cycle.  Sadly I think the country is worse for it, even aside from the regional polarization.  Politicians now feel the need to make a play for fewer than 10 states every cycle and elections are not really national affairs the way they were up until the 2000 cycle.  History suggests the cycle will eventually end and new fault lines will emerge, creating a red state vs. blue state dynamic we would never recognize or even imagine today, but at least for the foreseeable future I suspect the America that was defined by the election map in the year 2000 will be sticking around awhile.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Top-15 Takeaways After Completing My Tour Of Iowa

Going back unofficially to the late 1980s and officially since 2006 when I moved here, I've been slow-walking my way through a 99-county tour of the state of Iowa.  While I don't find Iowa to be anywhere near as interesting generally as my home state of Minnesota and didn't have nearly the level of passion in visiting every nook and cranny of my adopted home state as I did my actual home state, it was a fun and educational adventure that produced a lot of memorable moments.  In honor of completing my tour, I thought I'd make a list of my top takeaways--some very general and some very specific--from touring the state and came up with a list of 15....

#15.  Lakes Are The Exception Not The Rule--Growing up in Minnesota, I'm used to a culture of lakes.  The average Minnesota county probably has two dozen of them, and while all of them are a big deal in their own way in terms of settlement patterns and tourism, it's quite a contrast with Iowa where a lake that would be deemed rather ordinary in size and depth in Minnesota is viewed as a state treasure in the Hawkeye state.  It's almost rather amazing how the prevalence of lakes shrinks dramatically pretty much exactly at the state line.  Northern Iowa is definitely the region of the state with the most lakes, but even there, the top tier of Iowa counties has at least 50% fewer lakes than the southern tier of Minnesota counties.

#14.  College Sports Overshadow Professional Sports--I learned this more living in Iowa than by simply road-tripping my way through the state, but it still bears mention.  Iowa is a state without any professional franchises, and while I had always heard murmurs about places in the country where college sports are of greater relevance than professional sports, it never really occurred to me till I get here that Iowa was among them.  The rivalry between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in particular generates passion every bit as electric among Iowans as a trip to the postseason would for home state fans of the Minnesota Vikings, Twins, or Timberwolves.  This college sports fascination trickles down outside the state as well, with Iowans seemingly more interested in college football and basketball even when the hometown boys aren't playing than they are with the NFL or NBA.

#13.  Country Music Rules--I've often heard it said by locals and long-distance visitors alike that country music dominates the radio dial in Iowa more than just about anywhere else.  I like the music so I'm fine with that, but have heard numerous stories from frustrated visitors who don't like country music that they were driving through Iowa and found themselves repeatedly scanning the dial looking for something other than country music and often were unsuccessful in doing so.  I'm less than sympathetic to this grievance given the dirt roads and cornfields surrounding them should make the culture pretty obvious and limit their expectations of hearing much jazz or light classical.  Curiously though, I've found that even walking through the most urban mall in Des Moines--and specifically past an alternative tattoos and piercings store--you still hear country music playing on the radio inside.

#12.  Amish And Maharishi Bring Vitality And Color To Small Communities--There's a surprisingly large number of Amish communities in rural Iowa.  Hundreds of Amish households are scattered throughout the state with a half dozen or so counties home to the majority of them, counties scattered from the northeast corner to the southern tier of counties.  Amish vendors and businesses can be found on remote country roads peddling their wares and providing choices to locals that otherwise wouldn't exist.  I'm not sure when most of these Amish settled in Iowa, but I'm guessing they bought up a lot of low-cost land during the 1980s farm crisis.  Either way, it appears to have been a good deal for rural Iowa.   A more concise local impact was felt by the settlement of the Maharishi in and around the small southeast Iowa city of Fairfield.  The Maharishi are a group resembling modern-day hippies with a very specific doctrine of enlightened thinking who established a college in Fairfield and have become a large percentage of the population in Jefferson County in recent years, increasing the area's population and keeping construction in the county vibrant putting together new Maharishi-friendly homes and businesses at a time when most of the area's neighboring counties have been in decline.  Aside from the impact on locals, it's a treat a visitor to encounter the curveballs that the Amish and Maharishi bring to an otherwise homogenous region.

#11. Waterloo Isn't As Bad As Advertised--Anybody loosely familiar with Iowa cities has probably heard a lot of bad things said about Waterloo.  Certainly there are parts of town that are dirty and that should be avoided by visitors, but if you explore beyond the north and northeast sides of town, it's not such a bad place.  I have a couple of good personal associations with the city that have boosted my impressions since the first time I was there in 2000, but even looking as objectively as possible, the totality of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area doesn't qualify it as the armpit of Iowa.  I can think of a half dozen other Iowa communities of stature that I would give a lower mark to overall.  It's rather unfortunate that a few neighborhoods on the north and east side of Waterloo--and in all honesty, probably some racial stereotyping--have been allowed to define the city.

#10.  The Dutch Define The State's Evangelical Reputation--Iowa is nationally renowned for its first-in-the-nation status in Presidential primaries and caucuses, and its critics frequently cite how unrepresentative the state is because it's so much whiter and so many more evangelicals than the rest of the country.  Certainly, Iowa would rate among the five whitest states in the country, but it's reputation as a hotbed for evangelical voters is inflated because of the overrepresentation of Dutch-Americans in the Republican caucus.  The Dutch are a fairly small percentage of the state's population and are mostly centralized in the state's northwest corner and a patch of towns in and around Pella east of Des Moines, but their relative wealth and monolithic allegiance to the most conservative reaches of the Republican Party make their footprint in Iowa seem larger than it is, as evidenced by the fact that despite being such an alleged hotbed of evangelical voters, Iowa has gone for the Democrat in six of the last seven Presidential elections.  Regardless of politics though, the Dutch towns are fun destinations for visitors.  Between the tulip festivals, the ethnic bakeries and meat markets, the attractive and tall blond gals, and the impressive architecture in their towns (in Pella every commercial building has to conform to Dutch building codes...even the McDonald's and Pizza Huts!) there's a lot to be admired when visiting Iowa Dutch country.

#9.  Dubuque Is One Of The Midwest's Most Unique Cities--River towns usually have more character than non-river towns generally, but the Mississippi River town of Dubuque in northeast Iowa is far and away the most memorable of Iowa's river towns.  For the most part, that's a good thing with the city's numerous college campus and even more numerous Catholic churches dotting the landscape atop the hill and in the valleys, and its numerous bridges and vantage points of the river and the bluffs surrounding it.  But what stood out the most for me in Dubuque is the neighborhood of Brooklyn/Baltimore-style row houses on the narrow streets just north of downtown that look like they're from a city in New England rather than Iowa.  Some of these streets are kind of dingy as you might expect given the age of the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Iowa, but it gives the city real character.  Dubuque has long been a bit run-down generally, but the city has made tremendous efforts to rise above its history as a dirty meatpacking town and restore its historic downtown and sell it as a tourist destination, with above-average success. 

#8.  Meth Is A Major Problem--Iowa and neighboring Missouri have made a lot of headlines in the last 20 years about the surge in methamphetamine use, particularly in the state's rural areas.  It's hard to quantify the fallout from that epidemic just driving through the state, but when driving through counties and communities known to have the most prolific meth use, it isn't hard to identify the despair by the faces you see on the streets and the derelict properties lining the streets and farmsteads.  Southern Iowa has the longest and most tangible problem with meth use, and while it's often hard to discern where general issues of localized poverty end and the meth problem begins, it isn't hard to tell that something is very wrong in the culture of several of those communities just passing through or stopping for gas.

#7.  Northern Iowa=Minnesota South--Culturally, ethnically, and politically, you can drive 20 miles south of the Minnesota line into northern Iowa and not tell much difference.  As a general rule, northern Iowans are of Scandinavian stock with a little Irish, German, and Dutch thrown in.  They think similarly, vote similarly, farm similarly, and worship similarly to their counterparts in southern Minnesota.  Growing up in southern Minnesota and going to college in northern Iowa, I took for granted that pretty much all of Iowa was an extension of Minnesota....a land full of Norwegian Lutherans who leaned center-left politically and all cheered for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings.  Moving to Des Moines and exploring the rest of Iowa on my road trips shattered that caricature.  I'm not sure where the dividing line is where "real Iowa" begins, but Highway 20 connected Waterloo to Fort Dodge is probably as good of a nexus point as anywhere.

#6.  Southern Iowa=Missouri North--You don't have to go far south of Des Moines before you notice a twang in people's voices, more people wearing bib overalls with their lower lips swollen with tobacco dip, and cars up on blocks in considerably larger numbers than anyplace else in Iowa.  The running joke among Iowans is that we should give our southern two tiers of counties to Missouri and it would raise the average IQ of both states.   This would seem cruel if southern Iowans didn't so openly embrace their "redneck and proud" profile.  There's a certain country charm to visiting the area, especially its more remote rural areas, but between the poverty, the meth, and the culture connection to the Show Me State, I would never want to live in southern Iowa.

#5.  Iowa's Largest Cities Are Undistinguished But Have High Quality Of Life--You hear a lot of generally good-natured jokes on TV sitcoms and from media elites at the expense of Iowa, and particularly its largest cities, as being emblematic of Middle America bumpkins.  Those of us from flyover country have come to accept this cultural frame and generally brush it off, but having visited all of Iowa's biggest cities and having lived in its largest metro area for more than nine years, I'll concede that there's little to distinguish Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ames, and even Iowa City from cities and college towns elsewhere in the country.  From an outsider perspective, it's pretty easy to dismiss them as generic.  But hidden in that lack of distinction are fast-growing metro areas with strong, diverse economies with relatively low rates of poverty that seem to rate among the top-10 or top-20 cities in the country for quality of life almost every survey.  Let Hollywood and the Beltway keep yukking it up while we eat their lunch in terms of growth.

#4.  Iowa Has A Lot Of Old Industrial Towns--Outsiders would not necessarily consider Iowa as part of the "industrial Midwest" but the state has a surprising number of old-line manufacturing towns more reminiscent of what one may expect from Michigan or Ohio.  Iowa's manufacturing towns have a legacy in agriculture production, with giant meatpacking plants, tractor factories, and railroad hubs scattered about the state.  The state's southeast corner is most densely packed with gritty, declining blue-collar communities such as Ottumwa, Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, but the rest of the state has its share of smaller cities defined (often visually so to the semi-informed visitor) by their industrial past as well, including Mason City, Fort Dodge, Charles City, and Oelwein.  If Iowa's thriving major cities are an impressive look into the state's future, its blue collar towns are a depressing look at the pillars of its past that will never come back, and is denying thousands of its residents a middle-class living as a result.

#3.The Two-Sided Coin Of Modern Meatpacking And Immigration--While I mentioned Iowa's overwhelmingly white population earlier, there are numerous dots on the map all over the state with considerably more diversity.  In particular, the Mexican-American population has exploded in the last 25 years, and their settlement in unlikely rural communities in Iowa is the direct result of prolific jobs in the food processing industry.  This has been a controversial development in Iowa.  It's undeniable that the Latino population has revived a lot of moribund downtown business districts with new businesses, frequently catering to ethnic-themed businesses such as Mexican grocery stores.  But the surge in Hispanic workers at these food-processing plants originally came as a result of union-busting that dramatically cut wages in packing houses.  Long-time Iowans lost middle-class jobs before new immigrants came to town to take those jobs at considerably lower wages and benefits.  The transition happened a quarter century ago but its legacy continues as some of the communities with the earliest and more numerous immigrant settlements are approaching or have already become majority-minority, which is easy to see driving through scattered little towns in every corner of Iowa and observing the residential foot traffic.  Whatever one may think about the cultural effect about the migration, and people have strong opinions on that, it's hard to argue that the economic effect has been anything other than a huge net negative for rural Iowa.

#2.  The Town Square--I had always heard general references to the idyllic "town square" in folklore but hadn't really experienced it until I started thoroughly exploring Iowa.  Having visited 87 county seats in the state of Minnesota, only one has the traditional "town square" with the courthouse surrounded by a square of downtown businesses.  In Iowa, particularly the southern half of Iowa, almost all county seats have it.  And even in the poorest counties, those town squares are charming, well-maintained, and boasting a thriving Main Street business sector.  I'm actually a little envious for my home state that Iowa has had the success it has with this format.  And I wonder how many other places in the country feature the town square in their county seats.  Is it as prolific in the south, the border states, and the lower Midwest as it is in the southern half of Iowa?  I guess I'll have to do quite a bit more exploring in those directions to find out for sure.

#1. Agriculture's Boom Hasn't Trickled Down--One of the prevailing themes in America today is the diverging trendlines in income distribution, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, a phenomenon defined by an investor class devouring the overwhelming majority of growth in the country and paying microscopic tax rates on all of their dividend, even as good jobs go overseas and wages fail to keep up with inflation for workers.  Iowa may not fit the stereotypical template in the way our inequality is occurring, but it's still happening here at least on par if not ahead of the national average.  In the past quarter century, most sectors of American agriculture have been in a sustained boom period, with increased production efficiencies collaborating with historically high crop prices being the new normal.  Being in the heart of the heartland, a lot of rural Iowa counties went from having zero millionaires 25 years ago to dozens of them today, almost all farmers (or heads of agribusinesses posing as farmers).  How has this impacted the 90+% of the population of these counties that doesn't till the land?  Not all that well actually.  Factories in their towns have closed or moved to Mexico.  The food processing operations in the countryside usually employ immigrants at as low of wages as possible.  And most strikingly, the main streets of small farm towns across the state are lined with the Cadillacs and new trucks of farmers for morning coffee or lunch at the local cafe, but the business sectors of those streets are otherwise in considerably worse shape than they were a quarter-century ago when the farmers were far less rich, in many cases with most of the storefronts boarded up.  There's a reason why, despite having some of the best per capita economic growth in the country in the last 20 years, Iowa has also had amongst the slowest population growth in the country, and the trend shows no signs of changing.

I have visited all but one county in the state of South Dakota.  I've visited all but a handful in North Dakota.  I've been to the majority of counties in Wisconsin.  And I'm about to do some thorough exploring of Missouri and Illinois in the years ahead.  We'll see if I'm compelled to speculate on overarching themes in any of those states when the time comes, but my hunch is that I've already completed the tours of the two states the left the most diverse set of impressions on me.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Comparing Past Mays

Well it's been fun but it's time to wrap up my comparative analysis of past months with a look at the month of May.  I've always typically enjoyed May as a gateway to summer so there will be some solid options in that last batch of 30 years...

May 1984 vs. May 1994 vs. May 2004

Winner:  1994--Easy choice here as I had a spring in my step in 1994 for a variety of reasons.  The most memorable recurring themes from the month was my escalating immersion in country music during its peak creative period.  And the long-awaited "MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis" movie finally aired on ABC, sadly wasted on a weak Saturday time slot where it nonetheless did reasonably good numbers.  The movie disappointed a bit but I still enjoyed it.  I was on the precipice of my first major revisit of 1980s TV by month's end, one of a few reasons why I was poised to have my best summer of my high school years.

May 1985 vs. May 1995 vs. May 2005

Winner:  2005--Two good choices here as 1985 was the dawn of my baseball card collecting era and the month where I went to my first Minnesota Twins game.  But 2005 was better as I went back to the folks' place for an extended summer break, complete with unemployment, after getting the heave-ho from the newspaper in March.  It felt good to reconnect with my rural upbringing and to relax after three years of running nonstop with very little vacation time.  A top memory was heading up to the Minnesota Capitol with my dad to take in a day watching the Minnesota Legislature in action, foreshadowing the new job I would start months later with the Iowa Legislature.

May 1986 vs. May 1996 vs. May 2006

Winner:  2006--No dominant winner here but my first legislative session in Iowa ended early in May 2006 and I got my first taste of the laid-back interim period for the rest of the month, with the backdrop of exciting seasons of "Prison Break" and "24" on TV and the most engaging midterm election cycle of my life.

May 1987 vs. May 1997 vs. May 2007

Winner:  1997--It's very seldom I face three choices this great at the same time.  I had my first experience with a girl I was crushing on returning the favor in May 1987 as my third-grade classmate who just found out I liked her was flirting with me pretty hard in the final weeks of the school year in a way she never did the following school year.  In May 2007 I got to go on an unforgettable southern Iowa road trip with a girl I had really strong chemistry with, despite the road blocks ahead for her and I.  But the ladies of 1987 and 2007 ultimately lose out to the elated feeling of liberation I felt in May 1997 when I finished my dreadful freshman year of college and began to embark on the first-rate summer back home that followed, complete with a summer job I loved at the rural electric coop that I started the day after Memorial Day.  Hard to express the jubilation and sense of release I felt walking off campus that day in mid-May and knowing that, at least for the next three months, I'd be able to reconnect with my comfort zone.

May 1988 vs. May 1998 vs. May 2008

Winner:  1988--From three excellent choices to three mediocre-to-poor choices.  Pretty sad when the best option of the three is the month you were punished for forging your mom's signature to a fourth-grade report card and got "MacGyver" taken away for the rest of the school year!  The upside was in the absence of great TV I was able to reconnect with my baseball card collecting in what was arguably the peak year for the hobby.  One specific memory from May 1987 was going to a baseball card show with my dad and his friend in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and hitting every gas station on the drive home looking for wax boxes of Fleer sold at 45 cents a pack despite their scarcity inflating the places to more than double that most places.  We scored a couple of wax boxes too, both at Kwik Trip stores.

May 1989 vs. May 1999 vs. May 2009

Winner:  1989--Going into May 1999 it seemed pretty likely that would be the slam-dunk winner of this trio as I was returning home from my junior year of college planning to return to my mail-carrying job from the summer before and reconnect with the coworker I had hit it off with the summer prior....until 10 minutes after I got home and realized both the job and the girl would be returning to my life and the bottom fell out of May 1999 very quickly.  By contrast, 1989 was a slow and steady month where I had one of my best academic performances (straight A's in fifth grade) and where we took a class trip to Valleyfair and "MacGyver" was wrapping up its best season so it was a pretty good time.

May 1990 vs. May 2000 vs. May 2010

Winner:  1990--As always, plenty to love in both 1990 and 2000, but as is the case more often than not, 1990 wins.  I was on the precipice of my favorite summer of all-time, the first where I wouldn't have to to spend the days at the babysitter's, the first when I had Nintendo, the first when I had "MacGyver" on videotape, the first when I fell in love with road-tripping, and the first where I had a sneak preview of the new fall TV season before Memorial Day.  Not sure I really knew at the time how much I was gonna love that summer but it was definitely a place and time where there was something in the air.

May 1991 vs. May 2001 vs. May 2011

Winner:  2001--None of these were great across the board but 1991 and 2011 both had ups and downs while 2001 was a more mundane but steady drumbeat towards better times, with the longest winter in Upper Midwest history finally yielding to warmer weather.  I was at peak road trip fever at this time, living at the folks' place and plotting out my adventures years in advance.

May 1992 vs. May 2002 vs. May 2012

Winner:  1992--The best part of the spring of 1992 was my semiregular visits to my grandma's place where I piecemealed a VHS collection of USA "MacGyver" reruns episode by episode after the series officially ended on ABC (with the "lost episode" airing this month).  The Democratic primary fight had passed by that point so my politics fascination had waned, but replacing that on my daily routine was listening to baseball games on the radio from the world champion Minnesota Twins.  Ending eighth grade and being about to embark on another boyhood summer also excited me.

May 1993 vs. May 2003 vs. May 2013

Winner:  2003--I got an unexpected treat in an otherwise lackluster period when "the new girl" at work, a 21-year-old blond who caught my eye right away, started dating me.  There were extenuating circumstances that kept me from letting my excitement build too high, but it was a needed ego boost and has little competition from its peers.

So that wraps up the month of May and my yearlong "contest" overall.  It was a fun experiment even if it occasionally got tedious mining some of the same territory that wasn't all that different from previous subsets of months.  I will say that 30 years from now I suspect it would be much harder to do this for the years 2014 to 2044 simply because as an adult approaching middle age I've fallen into a predictable routine where it's harder to distinguish month to month.  With that in mind, don't put it past me to dream up an alternative venue to categorize nostalgic months of the past again at some point in the future.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Comparing Past Aprils

Only two more months left of my semi-amusing experiment.  I usually welcome the month of April as it's the arrival of spring and have had some good ones over the years...

April 1984 vs. April 1994 vs. April 2004

Winner:  1994--Easy pick here.  For whatever reason I just had a spring in my step by this point in 1994 as things were looking a little bit brighter in a number of different realms, some of which I touched upon in my March 1994 review.  Between analyzing "MacGyver" with a couple of buddies every day in 10th grade study hall, eagerly anticipating the upcoming "MacGyver" movie scheduled to finally air in May, and stumbling into country radio at its peak creative period, there was just a lot going on to get excited about.

April 1985 vs. April 1995 vs. April 2005

Winner:  2005--At one level it was kind of scary to be out of a job following the previous month's termination from the newspaper where I had worked for three years, but more than anything else it was a relief to have that burdened lifted from me.  Since I was living in the boonies and wanted to focus my job search elsewhere and find something good, it was helpful to get unemployment from the newspaper that canned me, and frankly it was kind of nice forcing them to pay me a little "severance".  With all my extra free time during the day, it was fun watching some "Magnum, P.I." reruns on daytime TV and take my annual April road trip across the Minnesota River Valley on a weekday.  After nearly 156 weeks of nonstop stress at the newspaper, it just felt good to have some downtime more than anything else.

April 1986 vs. April 1996 vs. April 2006

Winner:  2006--Meh.  None of these three were great but I was enjoying my new life working for the state of Iowa in the final throes of my first legislative session, with great seasons of "Prison Break" and "24" lighting up my TV screen, and, at the end of the month, taking my first road trip of what would be an annual event exploring new territory in (mostly) Iowa and Missouri.  For this maiden voyage in late April, I took to the highways to explore a bunch of towns in southern Iowa and northern Missouri that my dad talked about during the years he worked on the railroad.  Despite being a rainy day, it was a good trip.  It was also, interestingly, the same day I activated my very first cell phone, late to the party to that as I am with most everything technological.

April 1987 vs. April 1997 vs. April 2007

Winner: 2007--A couple of tough choices here.  Back in 1987, my first schoolboy crush was confirmed as my cousin revealed my interest in my favorite third grade girl and she started behaving differently towards me--in a good way--for the rest of the year.  But April 2007 was the month I met Elise, arguably the ex-girlfriend I connected best with, as unlikely as that seemed the night I was introduced to her over the television by the girl I was dating at the time who I had no interest in.  My long hours working the legislative session the last week of the month slowed our momentum some as I missed a date with her, but we regained that momentum the following month.  Never was I more thrilled at the moment session ended than I was around midnight that Saturday night knowing how great the rest of spring and summer seemed poised to be.

April 1988 vs. April 1998 vs. April 2008

Winner:  1988--Ewww.....three rotten choices this time, and 1988 definitely wins by default.  The first two months of 1988 would have been an easy choice between my going-well elementary love affair and my ascendant Nickelodeon obsession, but I crashed into a wall one Wednesday evening in late April when I got in more trouble than I ever did as a boy with my parents for forging my mom's signature on a letter that was sent home to her from my fourth grade teacher and was leveled a punishment that lasted the rest of the school year in which--cue screams of terror--"MacGyver" was taken away from me!  The fact that this month was the best of the three should speak volumes of how terrible my 1998 and 2008 was, struggling through a miserable semester at college and working extra overtime at peak overtime season to make up for sidelined co-workers in those respective years.

April 1989 vs. April 1999 vs. April 2009

Winner:  1989--I only competed once at the regional Cub Scout Pinewood Derby in Albert Lea.  I won three years in a row at the local pack meetings in New Richland but never moved onto the regional derby facing off against over 100 other cars until April 1989....and I won!  On top of that, I was acing my studies with straight A's in fifth grade and was enjoying the peak creative period of "MacGyver" on TV.  Things were going much better for me in the spring of 1989 than the previous spring!

April 1990 vs. April 2000 vs. April 2010

Winner: 2000--Three pretty good choices here.  Even 2010 wasn't bad as I started seeing Courtney back then.  But far and away the best was April 2000, when I was in the final months of college with a group of enjoyable classes and the end in sight after a not-all-that-enjoyable four years of my life.  My best memory from April 2000 was my all-time favorite road trip to the Buffalo Ridge on a steamy upper-80s Saturday in late April.  My mom came with on that trip and made for good company, and the energy was just electric for whatever reason even though I had visited most of these places at least once before.  I've logged on around 200 road trips over the years and this one still ranks among my top-five best.

April 1991 vs. April 2001 vs. April 2011

Winner: 2011--All decent choices but my fateful meeting with Lizz in mid-April 2011 helps that month rise above its challengers (although by the time April 2001 came after the longest winter of my life, that was pretty awesome too).  By all conventional metrics, Lizz and I should not have connected and even though we only lasted a couple of months it was a pretty intense couple of months and I definitely look back fondly at those days when I kept wondering if this was really happening.

April 1992 vs. April 2002 vs. April 2012

Winner:  2002--Working at the newspaper was still new enough at this point that I hadn't yet grown to hate it, but just living on my own at my own place has an exciting allure at the time, particularly with growing prospects of a summer encounter with Dana and with my aggressive revisiting of the musical stylings of 80s country crooner Sylvia with a special tape that an obsessed fan graciously made for me.  To this day, when I recall those early weeks working at the newspaper, the music of Sylvia accompanies those memories.  A solid runner-up to 1992 when I finally got to see the last episode of "MacGyver" and was excitedly piecing together USA reruns of the show on videotape whenever I visited my grandma's place.

April 1993 vs. April 2003 vs. April 2013

Winner:  2013--Seems like this grouping always sucks and this year is no exception.  I got back together with Courtney this month which was a little exciting and helps this one rise above its miserable competition.  That's about all I have to say about it though.

One month left and my experiment is complete.  It's been fun and I look forward to revisiting May in another 30 days or so.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Mississippi America": Why Our Political Future Is Likely To Be As Polarized As The Magnolia State

The state of Mississippi is far and away the most racially polarized in the country, and it's been getting much worse in recent cycles.  Back in 2004, it would have seemed hard to top the Presidential race exit polls where George Bush got 85% of the state's white vote while John Kerry got 90% of the black vote....until 2012 when Mitt Romney got 89% of the white vote and Barack Obama got 96% of the black vote.  These diverging voting patterns along racial lines obviously got their start in the Civil Rights Era.  Prior to that, the relatively small number of southern blacks who voted (lots of barriers to voting in the pre-Civil Rights Era Deep South) were more likely to be Republicans, although not nearly as lopsidedly as they are Democratic now.  Meanwhile, whites were overwhelmingly Democratic, even though their allegiance to the Democratic Party began to wane some as the party liberalized. 

Fast forward to 1964 and the politics of the South in general and Mississippi in particular realigned very quickly.  I don't have a specific finger on the pulse of the state's culture then and now, but it's folly to think lingering racial animus wasn't a driving force in the polarization of voting habits then and now.  But it's also a fair bet that whatever racial polarization that continues to exist today is less overt than it was in the 1960s, and that the divide is now fueled by dog whistles and code words.  The "us versus them" driving Southern politics today is less likely to be "black vs. white" than "makers vs. takers", at least rhetorically, but it doesn't take a degree in psychology to discern who the sweet tea-swilling bubbas have in mind when they're raging about "freeloading parasites living off of my tax money!!!!" as inaccurate as the stereotype all too often is.

But what is most disturbing is recognizing that the template is in place for the rest of the country to follow the racial and ethnic political polarization of the Deep South, and in fact we're already likely in the early stages of that kind of political realignment, fueled by a subtle class-based resentment that is playing out largely along racial and ethnic lines.  Mitt Romney's "47%" comments were the most tangible dog whistles of the last couple of years representing the rupturing fault line, and from a cynical perspective of purely partisan political gamesmanship, it's brilliant.  Millions of voters who are part of that "47%" that Romney is so condescendingly sneering at is certain that Romney's talking about "those people", and rewards his attacks against their livelihood with their political support.  They just assume he's speaking to their cultural tribe. 

While there's nothing new about exploiting cultural resentment for votes (Nixon introduced it and Reagan perfected it in modern times),  it seems as though we're approaching critical mass as a society.  Barack Obama won as small of a proportion of white voters in 2012 as Walter Mondale did in 1984, yet because of the country's diversification that statistic represented a decisive four-point popular vote victory for Obama rather than a 20-point defeat for Mondale.  Still, the erosion of support from white voters was jarring, and continued to be jarring in the 2014 midterms when it sunk even lower, down to 35% among white males.  Yet the Democratic Party continues to be wildly overconfident about its long-term prospects based on fast-rising racial diversification.  While on the surface that would seem to portend a brighter future for the Democratic Party electorally, it doesn't seem to cross their mind that the white vote which has been drifting decisively to the Republican Party over the past generation may continue to consolidate in the GOP camp in larger and larger numbers, offsetting Democratic gains among nonwhite voters. 

It might be cynical to think this way, but I think the natural downside to a multicultural society is politics that stratifies along tribal lines, even when it doesn't make sense.  Mississippi may well prove to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to a racially diverse region, albeit perhaps slightly exaggerated based on the civil rights history.  But most concerning is that this brand of tribal politics is already proving itself spreading beyond the South.  The best example is in the state of Illinois, and particularly last fall's gubernatorial race.  Now the race was complicated some by an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it was still jarring the extent to which Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, running every bit as a crimson red conservative rather than a squishy moderate, managed to win 101 out of Illinois' 102 counties and pull out a decisive victory.  Rauner let it be known in no uncertain terms that crushing the livelihoods of union workers generally and state employees in particular was his top political priority if elected.....yet dozens of heavily unionized downstate counties full of voters who Rauner promised to ruin still voted for him.  Why?  Because Illinois elections are increasingly becoming a referendum on "Chicago". 

Indeed the only county Rauner didn't win was Cook County, home to Chicago and nearly half of the state's population, a pattern that has been showing up with increasing regularity in the last three cycles in Illinois.  Rauner's positions on issues scarcely mattered to downstate Illinois voters as it was simply understood that he was on "their side" of the cultural scrimmage railing against "Chicago".  Similarly, it doesn't matter what Haley Barbour's positions on the issues are in Mississippi....he'll still have the votes of 85+% of white voters because of an unspoken cultural alignment.  He's a member of their fraternity....protecting the "makers" from having everything stolen from them by the "takers".

Even in Iowa where I live, a long-standing center-left state that is recently showing troubling signs of realigning Republican, the Senate race highlighted a maiden voyage into tribal politics.  Republican candidate Joni Ernst is nothing more than a slightly less annoying version of Sarah Palin, yet her odious policy platform and nowhere-near-ready-for-primetime resume was ignored as she stitched a crafty campaign yarn selling herself as an "Iowa farm girl" and demagoguing her challenger as an "elitist lawyer".  And it worked like a charm, scoring her an eight-point victory that limited Democrat Bruce Braley to 14 of the state's 99 counties, most of them the urban centers.  Farm counties and small cities consolidated around Ernst with eyebrow-raising numbers in comparison to the baseline of those counties in other recent elections.  Was this a fluke or the new normal in Iowa politics?  Sadly, I'm more inclined to think the latter than the former.  And if the tribal lines are drawn nationally along racial and ethnic lines, 90% white Iowa will almost certainly drift to the red.

If one looks through the returns from recent election cycles they could compile some formulation of this same pattern in the majority of states, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.  More than anything else, I think these realignments simply foretell that the American electorate should always be expected to "revert to the mean".  The natural state of the country going back generations has been a fairly evenly divided electorate.  While there may be a few cycles in a row where one party dominates, the act of governing creates fault lines within the majority party's coalition that the opposition party can exploit and rebuild its own coalition.  With this in mind, the irony of the Democrats' smugness about growing its political base with a rising minority population is that the existing majority is starting to see the Democratic Party as defining itself by that minority population, and thus questioning its own placement in the party. 

It's hard to defend this philosophy on the merits, but it appears to be happening and begs the low can the Democrats go among white voters?  They're already below 40%.  Can they drop to 35%?  Or 30%?  Or even 25%?  I certainly think it's possible, particularly with the median ages between the races so divergent and ultimately transcending all racial lines.  In a pending era of budgetary scarcity, should we have any expectation that a nation of older whites trying to secure retiree entitlements will see eye to eye on anything with a majority-minority younger generation vying for public funds for education and for assistance to offset the quality of life that the low-wage, McJob economy of America's future fails to provide for them?  Such a scenario portends much deeper political polarization a generation into the future and the real possibility of Mississippi-style voting habits where the best indication of your voting tendencies can be deduced by the color of your skin.

Now this is by no means carved in stone.  American politics is very unpredictable and issues not even on anybody's radar today could trigger a complete political realignment 20 years from now and completely turn the red state/blue state configuration on its head.   But barring a radical change in the issues environment, the likelihood is that the Democratic Party will be made up almost entirely of nonwhites and a small cohort of white liberals from college towns and urban liberals while the Republican Party will be made up of......Middle American whites.  Tribal politics never make sense in terms of governance, but we're already in the early stages of an America where the Democratic Party is the party of Lloyd Blankfein and Al Sharpton and the Republican Party is the party of the Koch Brothers and William Jennings Bryan, and every indication we'll continue moving in that incoherent direction.