Meeting Myself in Bucks County
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
In 1991, at age 17, I fled Bucks County, an overwhelmingly white, working-class region in southeast Pennsylvania where I grew up. I left because the life of the working class was brutal and I wanted no part of it. I cringed at the racism and xenophobia that seemed to rise out of the anxieties of precarious labor. I desperately hoped there was some alternative to coming home each day looking as battered as did so many grown-ups I would catch staring blankly into TV screens or half-empty glasses of beer.
My father was laid off twice in the 1980s, two recessions ago, first from his job at a mustard factory, which packed up and moved south, and later from a company that produced tractor-trailer doors and side-view mirrors. I've only seen him cry twice. The first time was during his brother's funeral; Uncle Jim was killed in a drunk-driving accident. The next time was when he and I had an argument about my skipping a night of work at my first dishwashing job. He demanded I go; I spit back that at least I had a job--cruel words from a 14-year-old with a Mohawk. Recently, the tip of one of his fingers was shorn clear off while working with a shrink-wrap machine with defective safety gear. He didn't push the issue with the employee compensation folks, though, for fear of creating problems.
My mom has worked in the same factory for more than thirty years. Along with about a hundred others, some immigrants from Southeast Asia, she makes small motors that can be used in dialysis machines, rotating advertising signs or those amusement park games where you maneuver a metal claw hoping to extricate a small fuzzy animal. I'm amazed this type of production still exists in the United States. So is she, especially since a holding company took over from the original family owners and, in turn, sold the firm to a tight-fisted corporation that's been cutting corners--and jobs.
Statistics tell us that Bucks County--one of those places Nixon's "Southern strategy" hit hard when, under Ronald Reagan, it moved north in the 1980s--has been undergoing a political sea change. The pressure of the Obama campaign and its well-organized "ground game," as well as the global economic meltdown and diminished support for the war in Iraq have all had their effect.
For the first time since the 1960s, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county. Since April the Democratic Party has outpaced Republicans in registering voters by a margin of almost two to one. In fact--and this should stun anyone--the total number of new voters who choose "Independent," "no affiliation," "the Green Party" or other even smaller third-party options surpassed Republican Party registration in those months. Think of that as just one more small indication of the utter bankruptcy of the Bush years and, of course, of the Grand Old Party.
With the upcoming election, this heavily white county, which tilted ever so slightly for Kerry in 2004, and went heavily for Hillary Clinton in the primary, may become a solidly blue area, coalescing--albeit somewhat reluctantly--behind an African-American Democrat.
Last weekend, with no small amount of trepidation, I returned to my old home in Bucks County, that former land of Reagan Democrats I had fled years before, curious to see for myself just what was driving this shift, and what it might mean beyond the November elections. Think of it as a modest journey to meet my younger self, and to see how both my home and I had grown in these last years. Of course, I was no less curious about whether the pervasive racism and class anxiety I remember so well from my teenage years was now bubbling over. The only thing I didn't expect was what I found--a political atmosphere as quiet and mild as the clear fall air.
A Hillary Voter
It was a crisp Saturday morning and I was in my mom's car. (As on many Saturdays, she was on her way to work before 5 am, and today had gotten a ride with a co-worker.) So here I was, driving through rural Republican northern Bucks County on my way to meet up with some Obama canvassers in Doylestown, the county seat.
This was, after all, one of the four counties that the wonk political website Politico has identified as key nationally to determining a presidential winner in 2008. According to the Wall Street Journal's Matthew Kaminski, it is also considered one of four "collar counties" ringing Philadelphia that will decide the coming election in Pennsylvania.
This world, my former world, whizzing by outside the window, has also, for months, been the fierce focus of countless pundits and reporters in a determined search for those white male working-class voters who supposedly gave Hillary the nod and were then endlessly said to be looking McCainwards (and later, their female counterparts, Palinwards) rather than vote for a black guy.
It was the sight of someone in a garish yellow chicken suit holding a "yard sale" sign that made me take the sudden U-turn. Pulling into a parking lot, I noticed a couple of early morning shoppers sifting through piles of tangled denim, corduroy and polyester clothes, while others were checking out a table of glassware.
Sharon Palmer, 61, was presiding over the sale, a benefit for a local homeless shelter. In many ways she is one of the anthro-political subjects from this part of the state that much of the media has focused on. White and middle-class, she was a Hillary supporter during the primary.
What does she think of the elections?
"Everyone's talking around the issues," she responds. "Looking at my hair, you can probably tell I was a Hillary supporter."
I nod knowingly--as if short, grey hair = Hillary were an obvious equation.
Is she supporting Obama?
"Yeah, but not enthusiastically. It's prejudice. Not because he's black, but because I wanted to see a woman in the White House."
Then why not support Palin? I ask.
"Sarah," she says, half-horrified, half-amused. "She's got no qualifications and no experience. She's a middle-aged cheerleader with her winks and 'Hey, ya'll.' "
A recent Newsweek poll found that Palmer's attitude is typical. Women who backed Hillary have now gone to Obama 86 percent to 7 percent, putting to rest Republican dreams of Palin's prospective charm among Democratic women. When it comes to Obama, though, Palmer shows little more than a resigned pragmatism toward what he might actually accomplish as president.
"The financial crisis is a whole separate ball of yarn. It's going to take a long time to sort that one out. But healthcare...," she begins, only to trail off. A moment later, she adds, "We're realty agents, independent contractors. We pay for our health insurance." It's a seeming non sequitur, or at least an unfinished thought, that somehow makes perfect sense.
"Fourteen hundred dollars a month for me and my husband." Obama. Case closed.
From the yard sale, I head toward Doylestown along Route 313. During my youth, sprawling farmlands lined this road. Now, mini-malls and McMansions pepper the landscape as if some vengeful God of chain stores and overpriced housing had conjured them up from the rustic soil. The patches of tall trees that remain bear the colors of the changing of seasons--amber, red, gold and yellow.