Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Politics on the Banks of the Wabash

Indiana is not good Democratic country. The physical sweep of the state, from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River and the borders of Kentucky, incorporates most of the basic elements of American political life. In the north, around the steel town of Gary, racial tension smolders miserably in some of the nation’s grimmest industrial deserts. The central belt, with the exception of Indianapolis, is small-town America, and the south is the beginning of the South. But the over-all mixture--which includes a splash of fierce local chauvinism--is significantly more conservative than the national whole. Since 1936, no one but Barry Goldwater has been enough to make Indiana go Democratic in a Presidential race.


Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama, 1969

I’ve done my civic duty and voted in the Indiana primary. Because I work in Illinois and won’t be home May 6, I voted early at the Superior Court Building last Thursday. My vote for Barack Obama may really count for something: if Obama can beat Hillary Clinton in the Hoosier State, he can show he’s competitive in the nation as a whole. According to NPR commentator Cokie Roberts, a win for Obama in Indiana will give him the nomination.

What the three British journalists wrote about Indiana in 1969 is still true. Gary is even grimmer than it was in 1968, the last time the Indiana Democratic primary mattered. That year, Robert Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy (the candidate I stumped for when I was a high school student in Iowa) and Governor Roger Branigan, a stand-in for Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

What’s changed is that the divide between northern Indiana and the rest of the state has widened. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels leased the Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium, and shifted much of that money from north to south. My own hometown of Elkhart, once home to Miles Laboratories (Alka-Seltzer, One-A-Day Vitamins, etc), Whitehall Laboratories (Advil), Selmer Musical Instruments, and other high-paying industries, has lost virtually all of it. Miles became Bayer, and Bayer eventually moved out. Selmer closed a few years ago. What’s left is mainly recreational vehicle manufacturers, which are nonunion and pay relatively low wages.

Southern Indiana is more prosperous, as Japanese auto manufacturers have built factories there, lured by the lack of unions. Indianapolis is also a success story, at least for now. Its lack of good public transportation (just buses, no rail), could seriously hurt it with the rising price of gasoline.

Once upon a Indiana was a swing state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Republincans could count on New England and the upper Midwest, and Democrats had the Solid South, any candidate who took the two swing states of New York and Indiana could win the White House. Because New York had a lot more people, it ususlly provided the presidential candidate, while Indiana became what Vice President Thomas Marshall called "The Mother of Vice Presidents." Actually, only five Hoosiers have made it to the vice presidency--Schuyler Colfax (Grant), Thomas Hendricks (Cleveland), Charles W. Fairbanks (Theodore Roosevelt), Marshall (Wilson), and J. Danforth Quayle (Bush I). Quayle was picked not because of his state, but for his youth and conservatism. Since 1936, politicians have taken Indiana for granted.

But Hoosiers are enjoying the attention we're receiving. It's been a long time since Democrats paid attention to a state that's not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964. So far, the contest hasn't been devastatingly negative, though that could change.

My son, who will be voting for the first time, supports Obama. My wife is for Clinton. She usually has better political sense than I do, and may very well be right that Hillary has a better chance of defeating John McCain in November than Barack--especially after the Reverend Jeremiah Wright went out of his way to sabotage the Obama campaign. I'll be watching for the results Tuesday night.

5 comments:

bart said...

thanks for the inside information here... i'm viewing the democratic primaries with an increasing feeling of dismay and alarm, as if the party is allowing itself to shoot itself in the foot with all this internal bickering and mudslinging...

the democrats will come out of this wounded, and the republicans will be laughing amongst themselves because they'll probably have a much better chance against a divided party next time...

i hope that some form of reconciliation can be put in motion as soon as possible, it's sorely needed...

keep well...

Charles Gramlich said...

I have a friend from Gary who speaks of it much as you do here.

steve said...

Bart--I share your concern. At one time I feared a 1968 scenario with Clinton taking the nomination while Obama won the caucuses and conventions, with the result that Obama's supporters would stay home in November. I'm a little more hopeful now. While McCain has gotten a pass from the media, he's also been out of the headlines.

Charles--Gary is in dire straits. U.S. Steel is manufacturing more steel than ever, but with a fraction of the workers. Gov. Daniels even tried to close the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office there at the same time he put through the law requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote. There are some bright spots--a fairly new baseball field for the Gary Railcats team, and a lakefront casino. The Miller neighborhood of east Gary is barely holding on to its middle-class status. But no renaissance is in sight.

Peter said...

I was so excited that I stayed up until 2:30 A.M. waiting for Gary's returns. Soooo close! But an excellent night, overall, especially since the Clintons uncharacteristically set their own bar too high (Bill's "game-changer" remark in North Carolina).

Calla said...

Well written article.