Presidential Campaign

How coastal elites ignore the Big Red Middle?


I have spent my adult life in Detroit, Waco, and Minneapolis. Sometimes I have been able to wade into the political world of the East. Last month, I gave a talk at Harvard Law School with my longtime friend, U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. We had a debate over narcotics policy at noon, and then spoke to a class later in the day. There were about 25-30 students in that class. Because the dispute between Judge Sullivan and I had to do with regional differences, I asked how many of them were from the parts of our nation between the East and West coasts. There is a lot there: Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Memphis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul and 2,500 miles of smaller towns and rural areas. Three hands were raised.

That was not a scientific survey, but I was taken aback by the fact that no one else seemed very surprised. These bright, connected, fabulously advantaged opinion leaders didn’t think much of the fact that the diversity of their community did not take into account the Big Red Middle of our nation.

{mosads}There is some irony to the fact that it was Donald Trump, a lifelong resident of New York City, who made the Big Red Middle matter again. The whipsawed pundits and tearful Clintonites at the Javitz Center did not know what to make of the outcome, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Along with the enduring question of race, the divide between the coastal elites and the Big Red Middle is a deep source of our best literature, inspiring the stories of Faulkner, Hemingway, and others. Didn’t everyone read “The Great Gatsby,” an insight into the interplay between New York and the Big Red Middle?

Apparently not. Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin, the first Democrat to do so in a presidential election since 1984. Yet, she never once visited the state during the general election campaign. No doubt her advisors, ensconced in glass towers in DC and New York, told her it was simply hers, a freebie. It turns out that they could not see as far out over the country from their high perches as they thought.

In September, the Stanford Graduate School of Business announced that three students would have their tuition and fees waived with one requirement: That the students agree to live and work in the Midwest for at least two years. It’s an admirable initiative, but reflects the same problem I saw at Harvard: a striking lack of connection with the Big Red Middle.

In making this point, I can’t ignore the fact that the last six presidents plus Hillary Clinton lived significant parts of their lives in either Texas, Michigan, or Illinois (Clinton, Obama, and Reagan in Illinois, both Bushes in Texas, and Ford in Michigan). All of them, however, entered a political establishment firmly entrenched on the coasts, abetted by an intelligentsia that was and is much more about the Ivy League than the Big Ten.

Compounding this limited view has been a retrenchment of the national press geographically. We have three newspapers (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post) with a national scope and all three are located on the East Coast, as are the newsrooms for the major networks and media companies. At one time, many of these media giants invested significant resources in field offices in the Big Red Middle, but cutbacks hit them hard.

But what of those students at Harvard? Many of them want to be advocates for change. Some of them will try to do so from the tall glass buildings in New York and DC, but in November, 2016, that model seems a failure. Perhaps I should have told them, sincerely, to become television writers and producers, to change the culture in a way that gets into homes in the Big Red Middle. After all, Archie Bunker changed the world, and so did Will & Grace, a show that presented gay characters as real and whole and likeable.

Or, perhaps, they could go and live and work at the epicenter of the issues they care about. If you oppose the death penalty, move to Texas. If you care about poverty, relocate to West Virginia or Memphis. And if you want to impact politics, get yourself to the Big Red Middle and live among the people who turned our politics upside down on November 8.

Osler is a former federal prosecutor, who advocates for more humane sentencing and clemency policies. He is the author of “Jesus on Death Row” (Abingdon Press) critiqued the American death penalty through the lens of Jesus’ trial and “Prosecuting Jesus”(Westminster/John Knox, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @Oslerguy


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.





Tags California coast Donald Trump elites Harvard Hillary Clinton law school New York Stanford

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