Many of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates are obsessed with winning the Midwest—and in particular the storied white working-class voter, without whom, the conventional logic goes, they have no chance of taking back the White House. This logic is partly to explain for the front-runner status of Joe Biden, whose central campaign promise is that he can win over blue-collar white voters, as well as the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who regularly emphasizes his Midwestern credentials.
But on Sunday, speaking before a crowd gathered by the NAACP in Detroit, Senator Kamala Harris correctly noted that the Midwest has a sizable population of black voters and voters of color, and argued that winning the heartland will require appealing to these voters as well.
“There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest?’” Harris said, according to BuzzFeed. “But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out.”
“It leaves out people in this room, who helped build cities like Detroit,” Harris added.
Harris is entirely right in pointing out that when Democrats talk about winning over voters in the Midwest, they have a particular voter in mind—and it’s not the black or Latinx voters in the Heartland. As Eli Day, a journalist from Detroit, wrote in Vox in 2018, “‘[T]he industrial Midwest’ conjures up storybook images of stout factories, plains unfolding into the horizon, and small, all-white industrial towns filled with people who just wish we could get back to the basics of family, church, and the dignity of hard work. These scenes rarely include black and brown people. That’s no accident.”
It’s no accident, and it’s a mistake to focus only on the white working-class. As Tamara Winfrey-Harris, a writer from Indianapolis, wrote in the New York Times in 2018, “[M]any of the arguments about Mr. Trump’s appeal to Midwesterners make sense only if you pretend black people don’t exist in the middle of the country.” Yet black voters in the Midwest (and throughout the country) overwhelmingly rejected Trump in 2016; many, especially working-class young voters of color, also sat out the election last time around. All of this points to a need to find ways to appeal to these voters, whom, as Charles Blow recently pointed out, “can make the difference in the general election, particularly in the Midwest.”
For all of the fretting about winning over white working-class voters in the Midwest—and certainly a coalition of working-class voters is an important part of building a long-term progressive coalition—very little attention is paid by the current frontrunners to the people the Democrats also need to win states like Michigan and Wisconsin—voters of color, especially black voters. And to do that requires not only including them in conversations about the Midwest, but coming up with policy proposals that directly speak to their needs, as Harris suggested on Sunday. The current conversation, Harris said, “[T]oo often suggests certain voters will only vote for certain candidates regardless of whether their ideas will lift up all our families.”
She continued: “It’s short sighted. It’s wrong. And voters deserve better.”