Neal Milner: Watch That Swinging Door, Liberals, Lest It Hit You On The Way Out

Liberals want to explain away the views of people in places like Door County, Wisconsin. They do so at their peril.

A short time after Donald Trump was elected president, the political scientist Katherine Cramer, who had just published a wonderful book about rural and small-town Wisconsin, had this warning: “The last thing many people want to do in the near future,” she said, “is listen more closely to Trump voters in the heartland of America. But it is clear that our failure to do so has left us blindsided.”

Judging by their reactions to a recent Washington Post story about politics in rural Wisconsin Door County, when it comes to liberals and presidential elections, warning ignored.

It feels way too much like 2016 all over again.

Liberals are doing many of the same old things that misled them in the past by dismissing and diminishing the words of ordinary people and substituting their own “sophisticated” explanations instead because theirs is, well, right.

But this is not about being right, really.

It’s really about, oh, maybe close to half of America thinking liberals are wrong or not thinking about these things at all.

It’s the intelligent high-knowledge liberal flyers versus the “low information” little people who don’t really know what’s going on and are being deceived.

Another interpretation is that many liberals are deceiving themselves.

Lay your right hand down palms up. Door County, Wisconsin is the thumb. It’s a small-town and rural place (population slightly over 30,000), the kind of place that the media often ignores or misunderstands.

Here’s the key. It’s one of only nine counties in the U.S. that have voted in favor of the winning presidential candidate in every election since 2000.

Voters line up for midterm 2022 elections at Honolulu Hale.Voters line up for midterm 2022 elections at Honolulu Hale.
The 2024 presidential election promises to be close, and places like Door County, Wisconsin could make the difference.

The article brings to life what many surveys show: that voters are depressed by politics right now. They don’t much like either Trump or Biden (for different reasons.) They wish they could escape from politics, make it all go away, because politics feels so depressing, discouraging and intrusive.

Most important of all, the reporters let the people they interviewed speak for themselves — their words, their own interpretations. So, most of it is plainspoken and specific, ordinary language.

If you don’t like the message, blame the messenger. That’s what some of the article’s commentator-critics do. “Why does the Post continue to choose low information voters?” one critic asks. “Try interviewing people who know the facts and understand that we are sliding toward fascism with Trump. You are doing a great disservice to this country with articles like this.”

Disservice? Really? Doing what that commentator wants would probably create a story closer to what liberals believe. But considering what we know about voter psychology and more significantly what we know about Trump support, a story cleansed of “low information voters,” which by the way here sounds like a stigmatizing term, would simply reinforce liberal beliefs, and deceive them about the strengths of those who believe something else.

Simple reminders: (1) Voters don’t have to take a civics test to vote. (2) Calling someone stupid for having different political beliefs is not going to make that person change her mind.

Another dismissal is about race. “I visited Door County,” a reader commented. “It’s beautiful up there. The people are nice. But it’s as white as Wonder Bread. I’m not sure what’s revealed by interviewing people in places like this.”

What’s revealed is how people in a rare, swing county interpret politics. The article is about how people in a swing county think.

The more complex version of this criticism doesn’t ask for a rewrite but rather a reinterpretation. If you read the piece closely, this argument goes, you can see all the bad things that Republicans have done to make people think the way Door County folks do.

Useful under some circumstances but not relevant here because the outside reader is connecting the dots in ways that people in Door County don’t think about.

These liberal responses to the Door County article reinforce a fantasy world.

That broader story is one that I would likely agree with, but not the point here. It’s not about what Republicans do. It’s about how certain voters think.

The broader analysis might add a layer to what the Door County people themselves say, but it does not replace their views or diminish their importance. It’s pundit-splaining.

These liberal responses to the Door County article reinforce a fantasy world. It exaggerates the liberal critics’ rationality and at the same time decreases their understanding. In other words, the critics are in a bubble.

That’s perfectly understandable. We are all in our own bubbles. The people we trust, the sources of information we accept and reject, and the values we believe in — they all constitute our own bubbles of trust and information.

That sustains us and at the same time limits us because there are times people, in this case liberals, have to bust out of the bubble in order to get the world they want. Like now.

Cramer in her 2016 book “The Politics of Resentment,” which remains the best book about rural Trump voters, says: “The conclusion that people vote the way they do because they are stupid is itself pretty shallow.

“It overlooks that much of political understanding is not about facts; it is about how we see those facts.”

Keep that in mind when you wonder why so many voters don’t seem impressed by Biden’s economic policies.

In a close election like 2024 is likely to be, changing relatively few minds can make the difference. But even that is tremendously hard. It’s much easier and very tempting to write the whole thing off, as in “we are screwed. Who can do anything about those crazy Trump supporters?”

I feel your pain, and I feel your polarization. But maybe looking at Door and the rest of those few swing counties offers some encouragement to us sophisticated big city liberals about how minds and election results change.



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