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What are Arkansas voters like? Liberals ought to ask
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MEET THE NEIGHBORS! What are Arkansas voters like? Liberals ought to ask: // link // print // previous // next //

Don’t ask, don’t tell/Moldova edition: We’re often struck by the things that don’t get explained in news reports. So it was in today’s New York Times as we read about Nadejda Damian, a Moldovan college student who’s losing money because of the Gulf oil disaster.

Damian is in Alabama on her summer break, working as a condominium cleaner. Thanks to the oil mess, she stands to lose money. John Leland explains the situation—but leaves one question unanswered:

LELAND (6/23/10): When the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, Nadejda Damian had just arrived in Alabama from Moldova, the former Soviet Republic, to spend the summer cleaning beachfront condominiums. But with the spill, there are fewer tourists, which means fewer condominiums to clean—which, for Ms. Damian, 21, means a summer of losing money instead of amassing a nice sum to take home.

Unable to find a second job, she predicts that after taxes, her income this summer will fall $1,000 short of her expenses. “I thought I would have money for a car, or to go to the discothèque,” she said. “Now, when I go back to school, I will have to work in the evenings.”

At the end of Leland’s report, Damian says she would have taken $3000 home if not for the oil disaster. Here’s what Leland never explains: Why can’t Damian get her money from BP’s escrow fund?

BP has pledged $20 billion, a fact which was widely reported last week. Damian seems to be out $4000. Why can’t she get her dough from BP?

Leland fails to say.

A bit of background: Moldova is one of the unhappiest nations on earth, according to Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss. According to Weiner, the unhappy former Soviet state is even saddled with its own break-away republic.

Now, Moldova has a college student who’s out several grand—and it’s plagued by a Times reporter who won’t even say why.

MEET THE NEIGHBORS (permalink): On Monday morning, Paul Krugman wrote a bone-simple column about our fiscal situation. (We should spend now/save later, Krugman said, offering a virtual primer of Keynesian theory.) At the end of this post, quite understandably, Digby voiced a tiny tad of semi-frustration:

DIGBY (6/21/10): Krugman’s NYT column on the deficit is also a must read. Why he should have to argue something as elementary as the idea that high unemployment is exploding the deficit and failing to deal with that through stimulus rather than magical thinking will only make matters worse is beyond me. But he does. Once again, we're down the rabbit hole.

It’s true—correctly or otherwise, Krugman was arguing a very elementary point. That said, we had a slightly different reaction to his remedial presentation. Our reaction? Our public conversation is so relentlessly hapless that we were encouraged to see Krugman dumbing things down.

This brings us to Gene Lyons’ recent piece in Salon about the voters of Arkansas.

Lyons, a New Jersey native, has lived in Arkansas for decades. (His familiarity with Arkansas politics helped him write Fools for scandal: How the media invented Whitewater, in 1996. For our money, it’s the most important political book of the Clinton-Gore era.) In his recent column, Lyons considered the recent challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln from state attorney general Bill Halter. (Narrowly, Lincoln won renomination). Lyons offers fightin’ words about the challenge; we’ll suggest that you ignore these words. Focus instead on the things he said about the voters of Arkansas—about the reasons why “the race was viewed very differently inside than outside Arkansas.”

According to Lyons, progressives saw this race one way—but Arkansans tended to see it another. His portrait of the state’s electorate pretty much explains why:

LYONS (6/16/10): Now that the dust and feathers have settled, here’s my view: If anybody’s acting like Republicans, it’s progressives determined to purge ideologically impure Democrats from Southern and Midwestern farm states whose views largely reflect their constituents' extremely mixed feelings about the party’s agenda. A more self-defeating strategy would be hard to imagine. Nobody’s questioning anybody’s rights, only their political judgment.

Why did the White House back Blanche Lincoln? Probably because while she opposed the "public option" in President Obama’s healthcare bill, when push came to shove, she gave him a politically courageous 60th Senate vote putting the bill over the top. Courageous because "Obamacare" remains widely misunderstood and wildly unpopular in a state where the president earned 39 percent of the vote in 2008.

With that vote, Lincoln put her career on the line. Obama would have been an ingrate had he not supported her during the primary. That’s probably also why Blanche's winning margin came almost entirely from Arkansas’ most reliably liberal precincts in Little Rock and Fayetteville. Women in particular appeared to think that they owed her too. Many Halter votes came from rural Democrats apt to lean Republican in November.

Simply and very broadly put, the race was viewed very differently inside than outside Arkansas. Pragmatism had a lot to do with it. For all the cultural conservatism of its largely rural and small town populace, the state hasn’t yet adopted Southern-style Republicanism. At present, Arkansas’ governor, both U.S. senators, and three of four congressmen are Democrats. Many would prefer keeping it that way.


Arkansas being Arkansas, personal issues also figured strongly in the result. As a retail politician, Blanche is seen as warm and charming, with a disarming smile. Halter’s neither; he’s widely mistrusted by most people in politics. Word got around.

For ourselves, we don’t have a problem with the strategy of challenging Lincoln in the primary. (Lyons questions the “political judgment” involved in the challenge.) The challenge didn’t produce a win (this time), but that’s neither here nor there. Instead, we suggest that you consider the things Lyons says about this state’s electorate:

According to Lyons, Arkansas is a “southern farm state.” Arkansas voters, including its Democrats, hold “extremely mixed feelings about the party’s agenda.” Obama received only 39 percent of the vote in the state in 2008, Lyons notes; his health care planremains widely misunderstood and wildly unpopular” in the state. Lyons refers to “the cultural conservatism of [Arkansas’] largely rural and small town populace.” He suggests that “personal issues” figure more strongly in Arkansas politics than might be the case somewhere else.

Lyons also makes an intriguing claim about Lincoln’s senate vote in favor of the Obama health plan. (Without Lincoln’s vote, the plan would have failed.) “With that vote, Lincoln put her career on the line,” Lyons says, referring to the unpopularity of the plan in Arkansas. Progressives often regarded Lincoln as a gruesome corporate lackey. Within the context of Arkansas politics, her vote may have been a profile in courage, Lyons seems to imply.

We can argue till the cows need milking about Lincoln and Halter. But few could doubt the general portrait Lyons paints of his state. And make no mistake: Given the groaning political logic of the modern senate, there is no way to assemble a Democratic super-majority without winning seats in such states. Indeed: Under current arrangements, senate math favors Republicans and conservatives, rather dramatically. At present, our small rural states tend to be conservative. But small-population, conservative states like Wyoming get the same two votes in the senate as giant blue states like New York.

(In Campaign 2000, George Bush narrowly lost the popular vote—but he won some 28 states. In that breakdown, you see the way senate math favors the GOP.)

Ignore Brother Lyons’ fightin’ words, and focus instead on his portrait. In that column, he is describing a pretty good chunk of the American electorate. The people he describes in this piece are your fellow citizens; like it or not, they’re your neighbors. They have the same one vote you have. By the tens of millions, they don’t share your politics—and they aren’t moving away.

We were glad to see Krugman dumb it down because our discussion is endlessly dumber-than-dumb. That’s even true on the upper ends of the spectrum—but it’s certainly true within our wider electorate. Is Obama’s health care plan “widely misunderstood” by Arkansas voters? Presumably yes—though liberal segments of the electorate are often misinformed too.

This country is full of voters who don’t see things the progressive way. How well have liberal elites tended to deal with this problem? In our view, extremely poorly. In the comments to Krugman’s column, you see the fruits of pseudo-conservative propaganda—deceptions and spins which have been aggressively churned over the course of the past fifty years. (Click here, see comments 20, 25, 28.) How well have liberals dealt with these systematic deceptions?

In our view, very poorly. Over the past few decades, we’ve been a lazy, rather incompetent lot. As conservatives have churned familiar propaganda points, we’ve done little to build familiar rebuttals. Nor do we spend much time asking ourselves about the view of those Arkansas voters—or about the views of voters in other states where liberals pretty much never win.

In yesterday’s column, Bob Herbert said that Obama should have proposed a “dramatic new energy policy” in his Oval Office address. Last week, Rachel Maddow took to the air, self-adoringly letting us know what she would have said had she given the speech. Her “fake address” was quite dramatic, in the manner Herbert suggested. It also seemed to ignore basic procedural facts.

Maddow gave a dramatic address, much as Herbert later suggested. But how do you think America’s voters would have reacted to such a drama? In our view, liberals have spent the past fifty years failing to ask this basic question. Progressive politics will never flourish as long as we maintain this stance.

Tomorrow: King and Blow and Cohen and Kay—why we need a progressive politics.