opinion

'People Who Won’t Help Themselves'

Republicans Have Lost Touch With Blue America

The 15 percent of counties Clinton won account for 64 percent of our GDP. This is the America that invents, designs, and engineers; the one where there really is so much winning.

This was Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in regard to the needlessly endangered Children’s Health Insurance Plan, whose lapsed funding is causing some states to write letters to families warning them that their children’s health coverage might expire:

“We’re going to do CHIP, there’s no question about it in my mind. It has to be done the right way. But we—the reason CHIP is having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore. We just add more and more spending and more and more spending, and you can look at the rest of the bill for the more and more spending. I happen to think CHIP has done a terrific job for people who really needed the help. I have taken the position around here my whole Senate service. I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could. I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.” (My italics.)

I’m giving you more of the quote than most outlets have in perhaps an excess of fairness to Hatch, but he did help create the program with Ted Kennedy, so maybe he actually does want to extend it. But that last sentence—wowzers. And the audacity of insisting there’s no money for health care for working-class kids—right around the time he’s voting to cut taxes, once again, for millionaires.

So all that’s terrible. But even so, this isn’t a column about what a Scrooge Hatch is. This is about something else.

You know how the media are always carrying on about how Democrats are so woefully out of touch with red America? Of course you do. We hear it in one form or another every day from conservative bloviators, and the mainstream media pick it up because after three decades of such attacks it’s just automatically accepted conventional wisdom. And I acknowledge there’s some truth to it. But here’s the other side of the coin, which no one ever, ever, I mean ever talks about: Republicans are totally out of touch with blue America.

Here’s what I mean. When you first saw the Hatch comment, you probably thought he was talking, consciously or subconsciously, about black people. And maybe on some level he was. But I have an alternate theory. He was talking about some Utahans he knows.

I started thinking about all this earlier this year when I read Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s book, which I reviewed for The New York Review of Books. Sasse’s thesis is that we’re raising a nation of incompetent layabouts who can’t think or act for themselves. The book got gushing reviews, except from me, because a) it was seen as being a cut above the usual politician’s palaver, which it was, and b) its thesis seems to a lot of people at first blush inarguable, because every generation frets that the succeeding generation is soft and coddled and lacking in the vim and vigor that will be necessary to maintain the empire (back when, say, Robert Baden Powell was producing such tracts) or, today, the republic.

Sasse’s book has page after page of anecdotes about the shiftless youth of Nebraska. In the set piece that frames the book, some students at a small college decorated only the bottom third of a Christmas tree because none of them thought to try to procure a ladder. This made him shudder at the thought that these people would someday be running the country.

At some point while reading the book it hit me: He’s not describing the world I live in at all. In the world I inhabit, young people are killing themselves to get into Ivy League schools. They’re volunteering with the elderly and learning Mandarin and entering Math Olympics contests and otherwise pressuring themselves to the extent that half of them need meds by the time they’re 15. If the young people I’m around couldn’t find a ladder, they’d design and build one.

And then it further struck me: While Sasse does wave at this opposite problem for a page or so, it’s clearly not really on his radar screen. And it’s not on Hatch’s either, apparently. And the reason it isn’t on their radar screens is that they don’t really know these people.

There’s a problem in rural Utah and Nebraska, but it’s not really one of shiftlessness. It’s one of structural economics. These are places that have been carpet-bombed by the global economy. As I noted in the Review, if young people today in these places have less initiative than the young people of 30 years ago did, maybe it’s because they see less opportunity for themselves. It would be nice to see Sasse and Hatch thinking about that, but addressing that would require some public investment, and, as Hatch said, sorry, there’s just no money. Have to cut rich people’s taxes.

Meanwhile, the problem in blue America is precisely the opposite one. There’s too much striving, too much pressure, too much initiative. But as problems go, I’d rather have this one. This is the America that produces the vast majority of our innovators and thinkers and scientists and creative people. This is the America that creates most of the nation’s wealth. Hillary Clinton may have won only 15 percent of the country’s 3,100-odd counties, but the 472 counties she did win account for 64 percent of GDP. This is the America that invents and designs and engineers; the America where there already really is so much winning.

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Republicans don’t know this America. They don’t represent it, by and large. Oh, there are a few. Barbara Comstock in northern Virginia, say. Some snuck into those districts in 2010 and 2014, but they’ll mostly lose in 2018, and in presidential-election terms, these counties and districts go Democratic by 12 or 15 points or more (in the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam carried Comstock’s district by 13 points).

Republicans know the Americans they represent: rural people and (especially) uber-rich donors. They give rhetoric about religion and values to the rural folk and trillions of dollars to the rich. They don’t know about the awesome dynamism of blue America. Indeed they seek to punish it. To wit, those obscene provisions in the House version of the tax bill that would tax people out of pursuing graduate degrees, which constitute nothing but a petty jab at a class of people whose values they don’t like.

So it’s actually the Republicans who are out of touch—with the most productive people and elements in this society. Of course, they’ll never pay any political price for it, because we’re a bunch of elitists, you see, not like those “real” Americans. Well, take us out of the economy and see how real we are. These blue Americans make the economy work, and we want a government that will make it work for everyone—urban poor and rural people alike—and not the ones at the top the Republicans keep helping over and over.