The Atlantic has a long and unintentionally amusing piece about the harrowing journey of a Bay Area political anthropologist into the heart of Cheesehead Dogpatch: the hills & hollers of southwestern Wisconsin.
Once a reliable Blue stronghold the rural district swung strongly Orange last November and helped put Cheeseland’s 10 electoral votes into Team Trump’s pocket.
The whole piece entitled On Safari in Trump’s America is linked here.
Some of the highlights:
It was the hippies who drove Nancy Hale over the edge. She had spent three days listening respectfully to the real people of Middle America, and finally she couldn’t take it any longer.
Hale, who is 65 and lives in San Francisco, is a career activist who got her start protesting nuclear plants and nuclear testing in the 1970s. In 2005, she was one of the founders of Third Way, a center-left think tank, and it was in that capacity that she and four colleagues had journeyed from both coasts to the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin, as part of a post-election listening tour. They had come on a well-meaning mission: to better understand their fellow Americans, whose political behavior in the last election had left them confused and distressed.
And, three days into their safari in flyover country, the researchers were hearing some things that disturbed them greatly—sentiments that threatened their beliefs to the very core.
After the electoral-college majority unexpectedly rejected Clinton and the Democrats, Third Way, in characteristic fashion, set out to research the problem and find a solution. Its data wonks got to work crunching demographic information. But its leaders were well aware that their statistics—everything the professional know-it-alls thought they knew—had failed to predict 2016. Data alone would not suffice.
And so Hale and her colleagues began a series of visits to targeted areas, including this one, Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District, which had voted Democratic for more than two decades—until it swung more than 15 points for Trump. I was allowed to ride along on the condition that I not identify any of the focus-group participants. I was hoping to use the trip as my own focus group of sorts: I wanted to get a sense of what 2017’s many delegations of liberal anthropologists were hearing from Trump Country.
I wondered if any of the tourists from the coasts would be open-minded enough to absorb a reality that might cut against their preconceptions.
Hale, a tall woman with a breathy voice and a mop of curly red hair, had come to Wisconsin fresh off a silent Zen meditation retreat in California. She had spent her career building organizations and training activists to work for social change. Instinctively warm and curious, she easily struck up conversations with strangers and often ended interactions with hugs. Hers was a politics of empathy, she told me. “Whether you’re talking about nonviolence or feminism, it’s really the same idea: Everybody matters,” she said.
When she heard views that challenged her sense of empathy—Muslims were bad, welfare recipients were leeches, women should not have careers outside the home—Hale reminded herself that she was there to listen, not to judge. “People have said stuff I was surprised to hear them say out loud,” Hale told me. “But we have to learn from that, too. Whatever they believe is true, because it’s true for them.”
Part of the point of the Wisconsin trip was to gather the evidence that would help them advance this agenda in intra-party debates. Understanding the mysterious ways of the elusive Trump voter had become the crucial currency of any political discussion.
In the end the wily Cheesehead hordes confounded the earnest anthropologists:
The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see
It really is worth reading the whole thing if for no other reason than to see just how badly Trump and The Deplorables continue to mess with The Establishment’s heads.