The project of nation building has failed, and now is the time to fold—to turn our backs on liberalism’s lofty ideals. At least that’s what Kevin Baker, a self-proclaimed “Blue-State Patriot,” and a “novelist, historian, journalist, political commentator, [and] gadfly,” according to his Twitter bio, would like to convince us in a recent piece for the The New Republic. In it, he puts forth a bold, controversial, and I would say cowardly idea: “New Federalism,” or, said differently, blue states should secede from the United States. It is cowardly because it abandons liberal ideals out of laziness and expediency, and it lacks empathy. It reeks of privilege, too—the really disgusting kind permeating country clubs and prep schools, the haunts of old-conservative money, and, for better or worse, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the Ivy League.
Baker’s screed is formatted as a letter to “Red-State Trump Voters.” In it, he starts by noting economic relationships between so-called “Red-States” and “Blue-States,” arguing that “For more than 80 years now, we—the residents of what some people like to call Blue America, but which I prefer to think of as the United States of We Pay Our Own Damn Way—have shelled out far more in federal tax monies than we took in.” Bitter much? He continues: “All we want is our money, and you can keep yours, dollar for dollar.” Of course he sounds like a mouthpiece of The Heritage Foundation word for word, dollar for dollar, and at one point in the essay even sees the irony of this position. “You want to organize the nation around your cherished principle of states’ rights—the idea that pretty much everything except the U.S. military and paper currency and the national anthem should be decided at the local level? Fine.”
His justification for this position—we keep our money and you keep yours—isn’t that it is liberal, but instead meritocratic: Blue States have earned their way, and Red States have been “sucking the federal teat.” Literally agreeing with Trump, he writes: “Trump’s characterization of ‘American carnage’ in our urban centers aside, cities now generate the vast majority of America’s wealth—the cities, that is, where blue folks live. It’s true that Hillary Clinton carried just 487 counties in 2016. It’s also true that those 487 counties generate almost two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.” It doesn’t take a professional pundit to see hypocrisy here: America’s cities, our economic engines according to Baker, have a done spectacular job discarding their most marginalized and vulnerable residents. That isn’t very liberal at all.
From Clinton’s infamous crime bill snowballing mass incarceration to bank deregulation cracking the door for the housing crash that obliterated black wealth, Democratic policies have “generated” wealth for some and not others. In addition to the waves of gentrification and police killings in blue state cities across the country during the Obama years, we learned two weeks before Obama left office, from an Oxfam report, that eight people now control 50% percent of the global wealth. Eight people! It doesn’t require a college degree to understand that the wealth has trickled up, leaving everyone who isn’t rich—black, Latino and white; male, female, and trans; immigrant and citizen—despondent in blue states and red states alike.
Baker then sneers at Red States’ perceived ungratefulness, saying, “Future historians, if there are any, will be amazed to learn that just eight years after President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry—against the united and adamant opposition of the Republican Party—saved Michigan, Ohio, and maybe Pennsylvania from being reduced to large, smoking holes in the ground, all three of those once-blue holdouts voted to join Trump territory.” Adding, “Your incessant self-pity and sense of injury on behalf of white people, and white people only.”
To which I say: can white people not feel pain? In a confessional essay published in The LA Review of Books, Phillip Hagerman, a “lifelong Democrat” turned Trump voter from West Virginia writes that “it’s almost impossible to conceive how your white skin is a basis of privilege when you’re surrounded by addiction, crime, and poverty.” But alas, according to Baker, he, and people like him, should be more grateful. It should go without saying that race and class are inextricable as many racist policies have set non-whites back tremendously—both in terms of wealth and power; but also, it is undeniable that the policies of both major parties have been color-blind in their efforts to leave the poor and working class behind.
But no worries. Blue America, according Baker, has the solutions to all of our problems.
“We’ll turn Blue America into a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities,” he says. These are nice ideas—who doesn’t want tuition free college and a guaranteed income?—but let’s not forget where Democrats have stood on these issues. It was Clinton, not a Republican, who introduced “welfare to work,” not a guaranteed income, and it was Obama’s education department that wouldn’t offer blanket relief to students of Corinthian College, a chain of for-profit schools that went bankrupt leaving millions of people in debt without degrees, when it didn’t only have the power to do so, but the legal obligation to. Also, Bill Clinton was on the board of Laureate, the largest for-profit college chain in the world, earning—there’s that word again—$16.5 million off the backs of disproportionately poor people seeking a better life during his five year stint. I digress. The point here is that Baker is pining for policies that are the polar opposite of what the Democrats have actually done—they don’t exist (yet). Add insult to injury and the cost of college has skyrocketed as student debt has ballooned to over $1.4 trillion, leaving many hundreds of thousands not more educated, but more impoverished. Maybe if Democrats actually had fought (even a little bit) for universal, public education instead of suckling the teats of the hucksters and con-men of the for-profit-education-industrial-complex, perhaps Trump University would have never existed, and maybe its namesake wouldn’t be our president.
How have the racist, cruel, and heartless policies of the Democratic party been justified? One idea: meritocracy. Blue staters (read: elite) have earned their way into Harvard (it’s not like they have legacy admissions or anything), and those who aren’t invited to wine tastings in Napa Valley or The Hamptons should have just worked a little harder. Hey, if a black man with a funny sounding name (who went to private school and then, following in the footsteps of his father, Harvard) can be president, anyone can do it, right? Remember when Michelle Obama said at the DNC “when you go low, we go high”? Baker might counter with, “when you go low, we go lower” because the implicit subtext lurking, even screaming, just beneath the surface of Baker’s letter is that Blue Staters are smart, and Red Staters are dumb—and that’s their fault, they deserve their fate. Said differently, he is telling us that because he earns a living with that very big brain of his, he deserves to have his basic needs—food, housing, healthcare, safety—met, and people who don’t make a living telling (non-elite) people they’re dumb, or extracting their wealth, don’t.
Baker goes on to paint a telling picture of his idealized “Blue America”: “We’ll be reaching out around the globe to recruit the most talented, intelligent, and ambitious individuals we can find to come to our America. Actually, we already do this, thanks to institutions from Silicon Valley to the University of Chicago, MIT to Wall Street, Hollywood to Broadway.” And those institutions are crawling with a majority of rich white men (of course, there are exceptions), not as a result of where they were born, the connections they had through family, friends, and classmates, but because of merit, talent, ambition, and intelligence. That idea, Democrats, is just as dumb as Trump saying he’s going to “drain the swamp.” Again, maybe if Democrats had drained the swamp first instead of dumping countless barrels of oil—said differently, elites looking out for their own class interests—into it… we wouldn’t be where we are. Rick Perlstein aptly pointed out one example of how this type of thinking persists in The Baffler, “In 2012, after JPMorgan Chase lost $2 billion in a single boneheaded trade, President Obama defended CEO Jamie Dimon because he was ‘one of the smartest bankers we got.’”
“It will take decades of patient work and deep investment to rebuild the [Democratic] party and reassert its dominance in state legislatures,” Baker asserts. He is right to point out that “Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch brothers and ALEC and other right-wing pioneers spent years in the conservative wilderness before they were able to cement their control of the nation’s political apparatus.” Politics takes lots of work, and it can take years to become hegemonic. The Koch Brothers are very good at politics; I’d even say they’re masterful—surely not ethical—at getting what they want. Everyone has a theory about the results of this past year’s election, and there are so many countless, nuanced reasons why Trump is in the White House (or at Mar-a-lago playing presidential golf), we could list them all day. But one that doesn’t get a lot of airplay is worth noting here: where Clinton’s campaign ran on inevitability and some data-driven software that still didn’t win the election, and Trump’s on free media, disingenuous populism, hot air, and hatred, neither had much of a ground game or a political strategy—especially in the Rust Belt. In those states, Trump’s wins were tiny. Trump won PA by less than seventy-thousand votes. Guess who spent more than $15 million not trying to elect Trump, but to protect “vulnerable Republicans” from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio in the Senate? Charles Koch. Maybe you hate the Koch Brothers and everything they stand for? I do. But you have to hand it to them, after chipping away on the political margins for decades, you have to give them some credit, you could almost say they earned it.
Huffing and puffing, Baker writes, “To fall to this place, with this hollow man assuming the leadership of the world’s greatest republic, may be in itself a refutation of the greater liberal hope that sustained human progress is possible and will prevail.” In the same essay, called “Outsmarted,” Perlstein rails against “the cult of the cognitive elite.” He writes about the signs members of this so-called cult were holding at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally To Restore Sanity” in Washington D.C.: “‘ANYONE FOR SCRABBLE LATER?’ and ‘USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE’ and ‘I SEE SMART PEOPLE.’” He then added, “That was the very weekend when the Tea Partying objects of [rally goers’] scorn were out knocking on doors to get out the vote for the following Tuesday’s election. Thereupon, the Democratic Party lost control of Congress. I see stupid people.”
After a laundry list spanning decades of local progressive victories—school integration, suffrage, regulations on workplace safety, a ban on monopolies, and countless more—Baker laments: “It is a tragedy that so much of the work that so many men and women toiled at for so long to make this a better country, and a better world, has been thrown away, leaving us all in such needless peril.” Why throw it away? Perhaps doing politics—organizing people based on shared interests—is just too hard for Baker and his ilk? They must be tired from working so hard to climb their way to wealth and status in society. At least the people who don’t have connections to, say, an easy job at Facebook or the State Department, do have one tool at their disposal: politics. Take the small group of for-profit students who started a debt strike and won millions in relief from the DOE or the coalition of black and Latino voters organizing with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) in Houston who elected progressive, black mayor, Sylvester Turner, in 2015. These and other efforts—like the Fight for $15 wins in New York and Seattle—demonstrate that ordinary people can win in spite of great odds by making exactly the types of sacrifices that Baker suggests have “been thrown away” for nothing.
But maybe we should just throw in the towel and give up? Acclaimed Columbia Law professor, author, New York Times columnist, and technology theorist, Tim Wu, echoing Baker’s “new federalism” talking points on Twitter, thinks so.
I pressed him on Twitter essentially asking if federalism was moral, and he responded “My point, however, is actually about self-determination. If Red States are voting to make themselves poor, there you go.” He then added, “Stated otherwise, trying to save red states from themselves—i.e., ‘nation-building’ may be a hopeless project.” His next Tweet was literally about “looking at property” in Upstate N.Y.. I guess some “can ride ride the road to poverty and ruin” while our enlightened, tolerant, blue staters exercise their “self-determination” to buy weekend homes. But don’t worry, these guys aren’t Republicans, they said so themselves.
Baker keeps going by decrying this archetypical Trump voter, to whom his letter is addressed, for “Your penchant for flushing any and every inconvenient truth down the memory hole of your favorite media complex.” A mere few paragraphs later he expresses his own desire to not engage or acknowledge hard truths when he writes “What’s the matter with Kansas? Who cares!” Here, of course, he is invoking Tom Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? The book, subtitled How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, argues that while both Democrats and Republicans marched to the right economically, conservatives did appeal to the working people that Democrats left behind by offering them (disingenuous) culture wars. Here’s Frank:
“Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers—when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings—when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work—you could be damned sure about what would follow.
Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower..
The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and—more important—the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.”
Frank’s (excellent) new book is called Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? It is not about Kansas, but instead how the Democratic party scrapped working people to favor elites. But who cares, right? Hagerman, the lifelong Democrat turned Trump supporter elaborates even further, speaking right to Frank’s thesis.
“My home in Southern Appalachia has remained among the poorest places in the United States, despite many promises from Washington to fix it. We are still ridiculed as ‘hillbillies’ and worse. So it should be no surprise to anyone that whenever a candidate pops up and gives our area even the tiniest ray of hope, that person is going to get a fair hearing from us. And when Donald Trump came to West Virginia and promised to bring back mining jobs and prosperity, folks here were ready to take a gamble on that kind of change.
I’m a lifelong Democrat, but this election brought on a huge shift in my political views. Most everyone around me are also Democrats by local custom, and also by a historic belief that government can still work as a force for good when it wants to. All the leaders in my county are registered Democrats. But almost all of us voted for the Republican Donald Trump because we don’t have much more to fear.
The Democratic Party has long prided itself for fighting for needs of the working men and women over the interests of the wealthy, but the message has gone flat. While so many progressives have been drunk with identity politics and trying to make every little educated interest group feel stroked and coddled, hardworking people struggling to put food on the table have lost faith in that old Democratic brand.”
The truth here is clear as a blue sky day, but the intelligentsia were too busy telling Trump voters to “ride the road to poverty and ruin” to see it—let alone acknowledge their humanity, desires and aspirations. They were busy blabbering about innovation, cities, start ups, smart cities, and cracking the glass ceiling—while the floor was caving in. Even if Trump doesn’t give a flying fuck about the people who voted for him—or anyone but himself—he knew to appeal to those the Democrats discarded; he saw their humanity, or at least said he did. In spite of countless Tweets raging with contempt for intelligence briefings and the like, he was smart enough to exploit them to put him in the White House—and any blowhard capitalist knows how to exploit workers for personal gain sure knows how to run a business, and a country, right? Perlstein pointed out that Trump said, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person.” You gotta hand it him, he may have inherited his wealth, cheated everyone in his wake, but he did work the crowds and did earn at least some of the votes that helped him win.
During the 2016 campaign when Trump wasn’t pitching his “build the wall” and other fascism-lite talking points, he was giving stump speeches emphasizing bringing back working people’s jobs and draining the swamp. These speeches were often at the same time Clinton was drinking from said swamp at fundraisers with wealthy donors. No doubt Trump drank from it too! But, if you flip the script you could say it wasn’t Trump voters “voting against their interests,” as Baker insists, but rather, it was, in fact, the Democratic party who ran an election against their own interests by not even vying for the votes that he won the election with. Even if the Democrats have “better” ideas—which they still have yet to earnestly roll out—it will take the work of political organizing to see them manifest. Because no matter how wrong Trump and his cronies are, the truth is that moral posturing and empty rhetoric about self-determination does not an election win.
I could keep going—Blue Staters seem to love their fake news and conspiracy theories just as much as any other demographic, for example—but I think I’ve gotten my point across.
At this point we have a choice to make. We can heed Baker’s proposal. “We give up. You win.” “Don’t organize. Pack.” “We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.” Maybe us blue staters will get high speed rail and a guaranteed income. But don’t be fooled, Baker’s vision is not liberal, the wealth will keep trickling up, pouring fuel on the fires of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, continuing to insulate the haves from the have nots more than they already are. The essay Baker wrote for The New Republic before he penned this one was called “The Myth of the Smug Liberal.” Maybe there are no smug liberals? He’s smart, he would know.
Perlstein was wise to point out, borrowing from F. Scott Fitzgerald, that there is a fundamental difference between being smart and being decent, and Blue Staters best understand it if they’re going to have a chance of winning in the future. Because if we have any chance of repairing the mess we’re in, it won’t be from doubling down on sanctimony and isolation, but exactly the type of nation building Baker and Wu express contempt for. If the Bernie Sanders campaign taught us one thing, it is that a Red State and Blue State coalition is not only popular, but people are hungry to join together to guarantee every “yuman” being universal rights, like health care and education. People across race, gender, and nationality want elites to get their grubby hands out of the world economy—no matter how “innovative” their ideas are. Building this coalition and doing politics is perhaps the only smart and decent thing to do. So, join a group. Do politics. Fight back. Or, throw your up hands and give up—if you have the privilege to “pack.”
Will Meyer is a babysitter, musician, and writer from Western Massachusetts. His band Bucket’s debut EP, “Bouquet,” will be released on Sad Cactus, March 31st. Follow him on Twitter.