Recently, I was standing in the check out line of a Whole Foods in Washington, D.C. While waiting, I did what most people do and perused the magazines that adorn the end of the register. What struck me was the selection of publications offered at this upscale, organic grocery chain. The Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic Monthly and some yoga magazine were on offer instead of the usual titles like Martha Stewart Living, People or Good Housekeeping that I see at home in Ohio. In that moment, supermarket magazines became symbolic of the tug of war between the “coastal elites” and “middle America.”
I happen to have one foot in both of these worlds as I split my time between Washington, D.C. and my home state of Ohio. I am a fifth generation Buckeye, but I have lived and studied all over the world. I have two masters' degrees and graduated from some of the nation’s leading academic institutions including Stanford and Georgetown. Maybe on paper, I am an “elite” but I think because my roots are in the Heartland I can see both perspectives. I subscribe to both Martha Stewart Living and The Atlantic Monthly (seriously).
When I’m in D.C. I often hear those around me dismiss Midwesterners as uneducated, provincial and resistant to both change and diversity. At home in Ohio, my friends lament that the “elite” media or friends and family that now live outside of the region look down upon them for choosing to live in a small town, not a big city. Main Street America feels the scorn that the coastal elites have for them.
It seems to me that what I would call “judgmental elitism” is a driving force in dividing our nation. For many, the 2016 election embodied this fissure. Trump vs. Clinton was a proxy war for Middle America vs. the coastal elite. Elitism, in its current form is less about money or even educational attainment.
President Trump is a billionaire who graduated from the Ivy League. For decades, he traveled between his many properties in a private jet. He lived on Fifth Avenue in New York. By all accounts, Trump checks all the boxes of an “elite.” But, many Main Street Americans do not correlate Trump with the “elite” because he does not insult them or their way of life, even if it is starkly different.
To me, the push and pull between elites and everyone else is not about siding with Trump over Democrats, Ohio over D.C., or the highly educated over the so-called anti-intellectual. Rather it should be a teachable moment to find a way for us all to recognize we come from different backgrounds and have different views. While Democrats won the House by a staggering 40 seats, most pickups were not in the Midwest.
I believe my fellow Democrats should not ignore the signs of division between the elites and everyone else. Main Street remains insulted by the elite’s dismissive and condescending attitude towards them. National Democrats have lost the trust of the people in regions like mine because they are perceived as being part of this condescending elite. If Dems want to win back the White House in 2020, we must remember the Electoral College road back to Pennsylvania Avenue runs right through Main Street USA.