By Tim Carmody
In 2016, I voted in my hometown, a Detroit suburb called Madison Heights. (It’s where the 1994 movie SFW was set; it’s mostly notable now for having the best southeast Asian food in the Midwest.) I’ve lived short stretches in Chicago and New York, but always voted for president in Michigan or Pennsylvania, part of the firewall. When the firewall fell down, I walked around in a daze, unsure of where I was, newly suspicious of everyone I saw. On Twitter, I wrote “America might have said it, but they never meant it; they never meant one word of it,” then deleted it, angry that I’d let polling data soothe me into believing our country was less sexist and bigoted than I knew it could be, or that its sexism and bigotry could be set aside for a moment.
This is all to say, I know this. I know how it feels. Most of the feelings of loss and betrayal Kevin Baker wrote about in “The America We Lost When Trump Won” for the New York Times the day after the inaugural, I felt too, all too keenly.
Today I was angry for a different reason, and about a different Kevin Baker essay, this time in the New Republic. “BLUEXIT: A Modest Proposal For Separating Blue States From Red” is written out of an anger I can understand, but from a view of the United States I just don’t get.
You can guess what it says. Blue states — understood permanently as states whose delegates went to Clinton in 2016 — should “virtually secede,” taking their ball (cities,schools, and industries, and the federal revenue that goes with them) and find a new home together, leaving red states (won by Trump in 2016) in their misery, poverty, and ignorance. Blue states are “self-supporters”; red states are “food stamp nation.”
Exceptions are made for blue cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland: “They will become stops on our new information superhighways, or on our superfast rail networks, or self-driving highways. Our cool new trains and cars will glide past you all the faster, now that we don’t have to stop in between.” Detroit, however, is on its own. “How can we save Detroit? Hey, she’s your baby now.” And: “I would love nothing better than to see Detroit, one of our greatest cities, restored to its former glory. But such hopes and dreams mean little now… This, sadly, is not a time for connecting or reaching out. It is a time for retrenchment and rebuilding.”
Much of this is clever, and all of this is bullshit.
It doesn’t matter if Baker’s “modest proposal” is supposed to be over-the-top or tongue-in-cheek. How he talks about places like Detroit gives it all away. I’ve spent my entire life listening to people talking about Detroit’s “former glories” and how much they’d like to “save” the city, while doing everything they could to wash their hands of it entirely. We have heard this all before.
This talk almost always involves reducing the entire region to the auto industry (without the Big Three bailout, Baker says, Michigan and Ohio would have been “reduced to large, smoking holes in the ground”). It usually is nostalgic for white-led populist movements from 19th-century agrarianism to FDR’s New Deal. It never mentions that most of black America lives in the red states, especially if you throw in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. (Drop a few clusters in New York, New Jersey, and California and those numbers look worse.)
Too many people in so-called blue states don’t understand the political complexities of their own backyards. In New Jersey, the most densely populated state, 1.6 million people voted for Trump — more than the total votes in a mid-size purple state like Iowa. They weren’t all “rural counties full of angry right-wing voters.” America doesn’t work like that. It’d be easier if it did.
On the other side, almost four million people in Texas voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump only got 52.6 percent of the vote in America’s second largest state, which has been run by Republicans since Ann Richards and voted for Republican presidents every election since Carter. If the Democrats won Texas, white people in New England and the Pacific Northwest could vote Republican again, and it wouldn’t matter.
Texas’s 2016 numbers are awfully close to Ohio’s (52/43), one of the states whose cities Baker wants to save. Georgia’s (51/45) are better (if you’re a Democrat). North Carolina’s (51/47) and Florida’s (49/48) are better yet, despite every attempt to suppress Democrats’ votes. This country is demographically, politically, and economically on the move. This is why Republicans — and more broadly speaking, white America — are so desperate to lock in advantages now. They won’t get another chance.
As a Democrat looking at these numbers, it’s tempting to say “forget the Midwest, whose white voters backtracked and hedged their bets one too many times; the future of the party and the country are in the New South.” The second part is clearly true. But I’m not willing to concede the first part, for these reasons.
- It depends on a stereotype of the Midwest that simply isn’t true, particularly in the Rust Belt. Our cities and metropolitan areas are diverse economic engines, not because of the Big Three or old industry, but because of the hospitals and universities and entrepreneurs large and small that Baker’s essay would confine to the Acela Corridor and Silicon Valley. That’s why Michigan and Wisconsin are two of the twelve biggest net contributors to the pool of federal money.
- I live here! And we have problems that the GOP and Trumpism can’t fix. We’re getting politically outworked at the state level and neglected at the federal level. We have perennial and legacy infrastructure problems that keep getting ignored: kids who need school, roads that need fixing, water that needs to be clean and affordable to everybody. The state of Michigan, led by Republicans, poisoned an entire city. Michigan’s voters saw that, then voted for Trump, by the slimmest of margins. They don’t get forgiven for any of this, but they don’t get to walk away either. Neither does anywhere else.
- All of this is true of every state, red or blue, whether it has millions of voters or thousands. It doesn’t matter. We don’t walk away. We do not get to do that. No matter how many times Americans have tried, or how many times they’ve succeeded. It was a sin every time. Now the reckoning for all our sins has come due.
The best part of the New Testament is in chapter twelve of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Jesus in the Gospels is good too, I guess.) It has words every Christian has heard, and too many of them have forgotten. (If it bothers you that it’s in the Bible, just tell yourself it’s from the TV show Deadwood.)
“For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?…
“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour…
“That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.”
In America — whether in its cities, states, or the entire country, the rich and poor of every race, religion, and gender, gay, straight, and nonbinary, and yes, citizen and noncitizen — we are all one body. Our fates are locked together. The red states feed the people of the blue; the blue states shelter the people of the red. The world, with its many members, is all one body. When we hurt or misunderstand each other, we only hurt and misunderstand ourselves.
None of this should be comforting. But it’s what e pluribus unum means. It’s what Lincoln knew. It’s what Barack Obama meant in 2004 when he conjured a vision of a United States of America that was neither blue nor red, but something more intricate and complex, where audacious hope met work still to be done. And again in 2008, when he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
It will always be easier for people to dismiss King’s and Obama’s words as shrewd political rhetoric than to grapple with what is actually demanded from each of us if they were right.
Tim Carmody (@tcarmody on Twitter) is a freelance writer/editor and recovering academic. He’s written most often for Wired, The Verge, The Message, and Kottke.org.
Want more great journalism from Belt? Support our fundraising drive.