Dispatch From Deep Red New York
What I learned talking to my rural neighbors
It’s the first Thursday after the first Monday in November, which means it’s time for a very special post-election edition of Down the Pipes. Most of these posts sit behind a paywall, some (like this one) will be made public after publication. Tell your friends and get down here, your support is so appreciated!
We’re still standing! Democracy prevails, Trump’s election-deniers were widely rebuked, and my faith in our electorate is not completely destroyed! Thank you all for voting, it was important and you showed up.
Well, most of you showed up. Here in upstate New York, it was a different story.
I live in a district that I often call “blood red” when describing the political leanings of the surrounding area. While the number of registered voters is fairly close on both sides of the aisle, decades of Republican rule in a Democratic state have left this area underfunded, underappreciated, and utterly forgotten. In New York, the vast majority of power in Albany concentrates its efforts on “downstate,” the densely populated area that starts on Long Island, runs through the city, and stops in Westchester. Here in the Catskills and Southern Tier, Democrat is a four letter word, and we’ve been gerrymandered in such a way that Republicans are all but guaranteed to win here.
This past election cycle had some of the highest voter turnout and democratic engagement this area has seen in years. And yet, we flatly lost across the board, with some local races barely breaking 35% for dems. I say “we” because I spent a good chunk of the last six months working with the local democratic party to collect petition signatures, make campaign ads, organize candidate events, and even start the county’s first “text out the vote” campaign.
It sucks to work hard at something and lose so spectacularly, but I met a LOT of interesting neighbors while knocking on doors and texting strangers. It made me realize something that I first noticed over a decade ago when Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party were getting started up: The Left’s version of populism and The Right’s version populism is more similar than it’s different. People are feeling frustrated, broke, and helpless, forget the “left” and “right” designations we’ve been led to subscribe to. It’s why we heard a familiar refrain in 2016: “I would have voted for Bernie, but when he lost I voted for Trump.”
And so what we're seeing is that rise of the independent, progressive populist. Fetterman is a perfect example of this, and his victory in what was once considered a red, rural state should change how we think about running candidates all across the country, but especially in upstate New York. The idea that a centrist, right of center Democrat can peel off votes from “reasonable” Republicans has been proven false time and time again; what voters want is bold, anti-corporate action that helps local communities, not a Democrat who says they support guns or cops.
These voters take issue with the whole government machine ignoring them, and candidates who run as establishment candidates are frustrating both sides. Despite running on the red team, Trump gave Republicans and Democrats alike the middle finger, and for the first time these forgotten voters felt like someone was finally speaking to and fighting for them, not for his party.
When I was knocking on doors with one of our state assembly candidates, I had a 45 minute chat with a Republican Trump voter who swore up and down she wouldn't vote for “evil” Democrats “grooming her kids.” She was utterly brainwashed about what it is Dems stand for as a party, and at one point suggested that we were “asking to be shot knocking on these doors." She asked if we were armed, and when we said we weren’t, she told us with a dead straight stare: “You should be.” Terrifying, but enlightening.
Despite the rocky start, we told her to not think of us as Dems, but as neighbors. I asked how many Republican candidates knocked on her door to earn her vote, and she said it had never happened once. When I asked what issue would get her to vote for our candidates, she went into a long story about how all her family members have Lyme disease, but Medicaid doesn't cover any kind of meaningful treatment (and unlike Long Island which sprays relentlessly against ticks, our proximity to the watershed makes those mitigation efforts impossible).
She engaged with us for almost an hour and thanked us profusely for listening. She even said she'd vote for our candidate for the first time in her life as a Republican if we promised to do something about the ticks. In that moment she wasn’t a Trumpist or a Republican, she was a mother and a daughter who had a medical problem that nobody was doing anything about. At least Trump claimed he cared about people like that; the Democrats in power all these years (who have done nothing for her) clearly don’t.
Most of my neighbors are squarely working class or below the poverty line, struggling people with real issues that need solving here and now. They're perfect Democrats in a world where they aren't being fed endless lies about what we stand for and do, but their trusted news sources are going to be next to impossible for us to overcome if we come at them from under the traditional blue banner. We’d be infinitely better off running Bernie Independents up here than Schumer Democrats, in my opinion.
By focusing on bold economic proposals (dare I say, progressive policy) that solve local issues without the veneer of a national party narrative is, to me, a potential recipe for success worth trying out in races we currently view as long shots. A "what do we have to lose" approach that may feel counterintuitive to gaining power, but in a district where over a third of voters are unaffiliated and Trump won by double digits, running the same old same old just isn’t working.
I’ve always been a Bernie Bro, and until recently I was always registered as a non-partisan. Not because I’ve ever voted for a Republican in my life, but because I too am frustrated by a two party system that distills complex societal problems to a binary. My newer readers may not remember this, but now might be a good time to resurface one of my first posts about the oversimplification of our world into left/right, black/white:
I don’t think a third party is the answer, instead I think candidates up here need to run as people, not politicians. I think our pols need to do what I did the day I knocked on a neighbor’s door and almost got shot: Listen. Ask where it hurts. Develop solutions to those problems, & dismiss the "establishment” broadly as a system that has failed to deliver results, left, right, and especially center. The enemy isn’t the other side, it’s the status quo.
Populism gets a bad rap for a host of good reasons, but it’s the natural outcrop of people who have lost faith in their government providing for them. Republicans want to cut taxes on corporations, Democrats want to bail them out. One party is opportunistically harnessing that frustration to gin up anti-democratic sentiment and win elections on lies, the other party is simply sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the other side “snaps out of it.”
It may take a lifetime to turn Delaware County blue, but I think we could turn it gray in a single cycle. If we nominate candidates who simply care about their community and propose common sense solutions to make things better for everyone, we have a shot to win over the 40% non-partisans who sway towards Trump, we can re-energize our Democratic base who is tired of losing up here, and shit…we might just win over some populist Republicans who are so far right, they’re closer to the far left than they are to the center.
Just a thought.
Until next time!