A Blue Ohio: Democrats and the Blue-Collar Blues

I have been a clinical psychologist in private practice for more than two decades in southwestern Ohio, a Republican stronghold in the state that broke Democrats’ hearts in 2004. Three years later, it appears that most of the “blue team” remembers Ohio only for voter fraud, but I remember how Democratic candidate John Kerry failed to emotionally connect with the blue-collar blues sufferers here–especially the younger men.

My office is a mile from the Ohio River. Across the river to the south is Kentucky, closer than Brooklyn is from Manhattan, and a short drive west takes me to Indiana. In this Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana area, union jobs that pay livable wages are vanishing, but the blue-collar group that’s not disappearing is the one that Howard Dean got himself in trouble for taking seriously: guys with a pickup truck and a Confederate flag.

I know one young man who drove a pickup truck with tires twice the normal size and had a Confederate flag hanging in his pole barn. He did a major favor for a friend of mine whom he came to like, and he was shocked when I told him what the impact of the flag would be on this person who is African-American. I told him that for many African-Americans the Confederate flag is as repugnant as a swastika is for myself and most Jews. He immediately got rid of his flag to avoid being offensive, apologized, and said, “For most of my friends, the flag is not about racism but about rebellion.” The rebellion can be unspecified, but mostly it is against the U.S. government. There is no safer phrase in his world than, “I love America, but I hate our government.”

For this young man and his friends, there is no shame in not voting. They don’t take seriously what the Democrats and the Republicans say about the issues, assuming “they are all liars who will say anything to get elected.” Some older blue-collar men in my part of the world know that historically the Democrats, more than the Republicans, have thrown them an occasional bone. But the younger generation knows that the farms their daddies once owned are now upscale subdivisions, and that the plants where their daddies once worked are now vacant because of, in part, Bill Clinton and the Democrats’ North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) triumph.

Over the years, I have counseled many blue-collar men after they have been laid off from factory jobs and begun to abuse alcohol, other drugs and/or their spouses. Today, I increasingly see younger men who have never held a job with a living wage. I recently talked to two such men in their mid-twenties, both unemployed and on parole for substance-abuse related offenses. Seeing no other options, they are intent on joining the military when their parole ends. Having nothing to do, they often drive around aimlessly, sometimes listening to right-wing radio. Both of these young men were Bush supporters in 2004, though neither actually voted.

One of these young men routinely repeats, “Michael Moore is a rich, liberal opportunist.” But he just as routinely expresses a deep hatred for CEOs with multi-million dollar salaries. He likes U.S. history, and when we discussed anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman’s plot to kill Carnegie Steel Chairman Henry Frick after Frick had reduced steel workers’ wages and attempted to break the union with scabs, the young man smiled with admiration. He maintained his affection even after I told him that Goldman and Berkman were more politically left of Moore than Moore is left of Bush. Upon leaning that Berkman botched the job and only wounded Frick and served 14 years in prison, the young man chuckled and said, “Sounds like some stupid crap that I would have gotten into.”

Many of these pickup-truck driving young men, at least in my experience, are increasingly depressed, bored, angry, and frightened. They use their fair share of psychiatric drugs as well as alcohol and pot to take the edge off of their pain. The “growth jobs” in Ohio and throughout most of America are cashiers, janitors, clerks, servers, and security guards. Meanwhile, the “growth diversions” to the pain and boredom of low-paying, meaningless work are (in addition to alcohol and psychotropic drugs) casinos, lotteries, and all-you-can-eat troughs.

Despite distractions and diversions, insecurity and anxiety remain powerful, and many of these young men are vitalized by someone absent of apparent doubts–someone blindly, passionately in love with America. The subtext of exactly why a politician is in love with America doesn’t appear to matter. In the case of George W. Bush, it could well have been, “Where else but America can a spoiled brat, substance-abusing, business failure whose own mother expected nothing of him get elected president?” Whatever Bush’s subtext, he was able to project far more of that “in love with America” feeling than Kerry. Film clips of Kerry leading the Vietnam Veterans Against the War showed Kerry’s words criticizing U.S. government policy. The pickup-truck community is certainly OK with criticizing the U.S. government, but Kerry’s pained eyes expressed unhappiness about America. While it may have been his most genuine personal moment, sadly, it did not play well. “I love America, but I hate our government” is what they want to see, hear, and feel.

These pickup-truck driving young men are also bored and want to be entertained. Unfortunately for the blue team, Kerry in his presidential run was one more bore. The first rule of entertainment is capturing attention, and the second rule is holding attention, often accomplished through surprise. It is difficult to take your eyes off of Bush’s arrogant swagger and smirk, and there’s drama whenever he is asked an unscripted question–there’s always the possibility of an incredibly nonsensical response. While most of these young men don’t like Bill Clinton, they agree that he is entertaining. How can you take your eyes off of an Elvis impersonator with a Jerry Springer-show sex life who was president of the United States? They admit to me that, in terms of taking their minds off of their troubles, Clinton’s antics were almost as good as Jeff Foxworthy and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.

These young men are also angry, and a politician must be able to make them feel good about their rage. Bush made them feel good not so much by whom he attacked but by the fact that he seems to enjoy attacking. Kerry blew his big opportunity to connect with their rage when he could not even get genuinely pissed off at the Swift-Boat hit men aimed at destroying him.

When it comes to voting for either the blue or red corporate teams, I routinely don’t. However, I did vote for Kerry. At the time, I justified my action by the calculation that a few less lives might be lost, both here and in Iraq, with the blue team’s brand of corporate feudalism. Now that Democrats can’t blame people like me for their 2004 defeat, perhaps they will confront themselves. That can go two ways: They can become more Machiavellian than the Republicans and select a demagogue who exploits blue-collar despair. Or they can select someone who connects with this despair and who also actually takes democracy seriously–but can that be done by any corporate team?

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). brucelevine.net