I grew up in the Midwest (Michigan), so I can say from experience that 99% of the depictions of Midwesterners as a bunch of backwards, racist ignoramuses are hooey. Then someone catches that 1% on video and I think,'Oh brother.'...
I grew up in the Midwest (Michigan), so I can say from experience that 99% of the depictions of Midwesterners as a bunch of backwards, racist ignoramuses are hooey. Then someone catches that 1% on video and I think,'Oh brother.' But as you watch this video of attendees at a Sarah Palin campaign rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio the key is not get angry or fearful, but to sit down and ask ourselves a very difficult question: What will it take to bring these folks back into the fabric of America life? It is a hard question to ask at moments like this, and even harder to answer.
Now, some people will say that this is a report from Al Jazeera TV, and so it should not be trusted. First off, that is nonsense. Second, even if one could attribute a political agenda to the reporting, it is difficult to deny what we see in the footage.
These are folks--ordinary folks--saying the most extraordinarily ignorant, racist, paranoid things. And they are saying them while walking in and out of a Sarah Palin event.
The video shows folks in Ohio who bring a startling level of bigotry and falsehoods about Barack Obama into a McCain campaign rally, and then walk out with all of those prejudices and lies having been confirmed.
At best, the Palin event affirms the dangerous misconceptions these folks have about a Presidential candidate. At worst it amplifies them and gives them coherence.
That dynamic alone is enough to make anyone sit back in their chair and scratch their heads. Here are people--lots of people--convinced that a Presidential candidate is a terrorist, seeks revenge against white people, and is an agent of evil in opposition to the Holy Spirit. And there appear to be enough of these folks to fill an entire campaign rally event. All this is apparent to the naked eye. What what about the thing we cannot see? What happens to these folks after the election?
Imagine for a second that Barack Obama wins the election. Suddenly, thousands of people in St. Clairsville, Ohio will be convinced that the country has been taken over by a person with ties to terrorism and who seeks revenge against white people. Can you imagine the fear that is going to rip through towns like St. Clairsville? These folks are going to have a collective nervous breakdown of historic proportions and it is going to be set within the context of a slowly deepening economic collapse that will, no doubt, make the financial crisis even worse than it already is in states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
I can understand the kind of fear and panic that will rip through these towns if Barack Obama wins the election, but only on an intellectual level. It is hard for me--impossible for me to really understand what these people are going to go through. But this much I can understand: that burst of fear is going to have a political effect like an earthquake.
These small towns in the Midwest who are most persuaded by the McCain-Palin violent rhetoric about Obama--these towns will devolve into a political arena rooted in fear of their own country. These are not a few disparate folks living in the woods with bottled water, cans of milk, and boxes of shotgun shells. These are the populations of entire towns, dotted across the country, in dozens of states. And they are set to become--lost.
This is the conversation we should be having. Anyone blaming the McCain-Palin campaign for stoking the prejudices of people in small towns should also be talking about how the McCain-Palin campaign is going to leave these same people drowning in a sea of propaganda-inspired fear on Nov. 5 if Barack Obama wins.
But we should also be talking about the complete absence of any success thus far by Democrats--liberals, progressives and otherwise--to reach out and bring these people back into the core conversation that defines American life. Fear that the President is a terrorist sleeper agent? This is not the concern that drives the country. It is a concern that cripples small town communities.
So what should the Democrats do? How should Democrats reach out to these communities that have been marinating in Republican propaganda for a decade?
For starters, Democrats need to start thinking about the extraordinary ground organization built by the Obama campaign as a force for repairing the fabric of American life, not just a method for winning an election. Democrats must be willing to look at the incredible coming together of people to help elect Barack Obama as an opportunity to help bring people back into American life--people whom the Republicans have used and discarded over subsequent elections.
Sure, watching other Americans say racist and ignorant things into a TV camera is heartbreaking, angering, even frightening. But for the first time in a long, long while, a political movement has the opportunity to face up to respond to those uncomfortable feelings with constructive action--to use those feelings as a point of departure for repairing the world around us.
Even while so many people work hard to win at the ballot box over the next few weeks, we should all think for a minute how we can build on what has been accomplished in this election to win in the larger arena--to reach out to those communities that have been split up by divisive GOP politics, and bring them back to the center of the conversation.
© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop