Even though apparently every Democrat was reading Nate Silver and knew exactly how the election would pan out, I witnessed a significant sense of relief last Wednesday, and then watched the euphoria build as political analysts unpacked the message President Obama’s victory sent: Republicans cannot continue to be the party of angry white men and the women who love them if they want to win a presidential election. GOP demographics and the electoral college setup are out of whack. That’s very good news for the Dems, because it means they have a coalition of voters that can continue to win if its elements stay happy, and that the Republicans need to change their tune from “Yankee Doodle” to something hipper, like “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” or more tactical, like “Mexico Lindo y Querido.”
Locally, Congressman cum Democratic operative Tom Perriello said Obama’s re-election signalled “the emergence of a powerful new middle class populism, propelled by an unlikely coalition of manufacturers in the Midwest, women, Latinos, and young people aspiring to economic security.” The thing about “populism” is that it’s an idea that has historically meant something more than a successful voting majority. It has to do with a feeling that the working class, in sticking together, empowers itself, recognizes its power, and begins to feel a sense of joy and uplift in exercising its power.
I’ve always liked the idea of populism in a Steinbeckian sense, and I think if it’s going to catch on anywhere, it will take on a regional flavor and be born in university towns like ours. Madison, Columbia, Iowa City, Missoula, Moscow, Athens, and Ann Arbor are the places where a racially diverse, educated professional class can share an identity with a rural voting bloc of hippies and farmers. One day, maybe our elections can be about how to get high-speed rail, underground fiber and power lines, more and better middle class jobs in the city, the best public education in the world, four weeks of vacation, and a local food economy that’s profitable and sustainable.
As this week’s cover story attests, the country has come a long way on its journey to guarantee the rights of all of its people, but the victorious Democrats are a long way from standing in a field together and even farther from developing regional platforms that empower their middle class constituents. Meanwhile, Clyde and Mike still can’t get married in Virginia.