After parties in high school, wed sometimes end up at a 24-hour diner in a strip mall a couple of miles from my house. for a few bucks, youcould get the kind of burger shake shack has since made fashionable, a coke and fries or a cup of neon-yellow chicken soup. you could smoke inside. it was fantastic. off-duty cops would filter in. maybe second-shifters from the briggs & stratton engine plant. sundry weirdos of the sleepy midwestern night.
Its been nearly 20 years since ive been to that diner in suburban wisconsin. but it is exactly the kind of joint i could imagine a correspondent from one of the national dailies visiting to get a sense of real america whatever that means in the run-up to the presidential election on november 3. this trump diner story, and the medias obsession with the inevitably white, allegedly salt-of-the-earth types who populate those institutions, has become a running gag.
Every national newspaper and many foreign ones have run these stories. the worst of them go along these lines: joe sixpack, a furloughed foreman at a factory that makes american flags for coal miners, is seated in a booth at the heartland caf in rustoleum, ohio. hesupported donald trump in 2016 and continues to do so today. he could do without the tweets, but he likes that the president tells it like it is. so do his friends, each of whom is wearing a shirt with a name tag, a confederate flag and/or an eagle on it. the reporter would like you to know that these people are not racist but then immediately quotes one of them saying something pretty racist.
For some, these trump diner pieces are not just annoying but evidence of a deeply ingrained institutional bias that prioritises white voters over everyone else and erases from the working class the black, latino and asian people who make up over 40 per cent of it. they reveal exactly who the media considers regular americans. for those who rate themselves realists, these are the folks who decided the last election and therefore deserve our attention.
I now live in nigeria, but like many americans, i am obsessed with the election. and even as the national conversation has turned to race this summer, it has been impossible to avoid trump diners. earlier in september, there was a new york times piece from one in omaha, and a variation on the theme in the washington post focused on bagel shops not far from my childhood home, as unrest raged in kenosha 50 miles down the highway, sparked by the police shooting of jacob blake there.
At 17, id never have thought to solicit the opinions of the factory workers or weirdos or cops at the diner (not least because of the faint whiff of marijuana that clung to my clothes). but that is not why this genre bothers me. igrew up brown on the white side of the greater milwaukee area, one of the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country. thesediner pieces are not universally invalid. some are well done. and collectively they do portray parts of a midwest that i recognise from my lily-white hometown (97 per cent white during my childhood). but they often paint these places as representative of a part of the country that also includes majority-minority cities like milwaukee and chicago.
The chief lesson the media seem to have taken from 2016s surprise us election result was that we had missed it because we did not cover the countrys largest demographic group non-college whites enough. in the four years since, we have paid penance by overcorrecting.
This seems slightly absurd given that white people have never actually been absent from the national conversation. what are we supposed to be learning here? must we treat the countrys dominant group like some obscure, poorly understood tribe? have white people not decided every election in american history?
Im somewhat sympathetic to the media argument for focusing on these voters. after all, trump eked out the 2016 election in pennsylvania, michigan and wisconsin by driving up votes among non-college whites.
But what we also need are diner pieces that focus on the other, far less covered group that could genuinely alter the outcome this year. reporters covering 2020 should be thinking about how around 20,000 black or brown votes in milwaukee, 10,000 in detroit and 40,000 in philadelphia would have flipped 2016.
Trump won wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes back then. but 93,000 fewer black voters the most consistent democratic-voting bloc in the milwaukee metropolitan area cast ballotscompared with 2012. what will happen this year?
Black non-voters have enormous power to reshape politics, as karthik balasubramanian, an assistant professor of information systems at howard university who worked on barack obamas campaigns, put it in a new york times op-ed earlier this year. but we tend not to get an equivalent or even proportional amount of coverage on what is driving black voters (or compelling them to stay home). some balance would seem to be in order.
At first blush, the events of the past few months offered the perfect opportunity to expand the scope of coverage. instead, the national conversation on race brought on by the police killing of george floyd in minneapolis became in the wake of the kenosha unrest aconversation about white voters.
The conventional wisdom is fairly straightforward: riots inevitably redound to the benefit of law and order republicans, especially those making nakedly racist plays for white grievance votes. the flood of punditry pushing the narrative that the events in kenosha spelled joe bidens doom was incessant. in the end, the armchair commentary seems little more than projection. the race remains stable. joe biden is up 7 per cent in the latest fivethirtyeight polling average down 2.2 percentage points from the day a policeman shot blake. in wisconsin, bidens lead has risen from 4.6 per cent to 6.8 per cent in the realclearpolitics polling average over thatperiod.
Demographics help explain why the media ignores black voters in particular and minorities more generally 77 per cent of us newsroom employees are non-hispanic whites, according to a 2018 pew research center study. the british media (including the ft) fare much worse 94 per cent are white and 0.2 per cent black, according to a 2016 city university survey.
But demographics do not excuse how easy it would be to remedy the immediate coverage imbalance, as opposed to the deeper institutional one that must be addressed. there are gathering places in black and brown neighbourhoods too barbershops and community centres and, yes, diners. there are also, even in the deeply segregated cities of the midwest, restaurants where people of all races eat together. the point is that these people are findable. these pieces are doable. and the presidential votes of the customers at a greasy spoon in motown will be just as consequential in this election as those in macomb county.
I am a brown first-generation american who married a european and has spent most of the past 15 years living in new york or abroad as a journalist. objective reporting aside, my politics are not hard to noodle out. the friends and acquaintances i have made in the 20 years since i left home have been, shall we say, simpatico. but i grew up in a very white town in the heart of republican wisconsin.
For the past four years, half of which i have lived on the other side of the world, ihave turned to my oldest friends in a few whatsapp groups mostly dedicated to inside jokes, marvel movies and seinfeld references to take the temperature of politics in what is shaping up to be one of the most important states in this election.
I am fully aware of the irony of criticising my colleagues in the media for focusing on these voters when this article in the media is about how i too incessantly focus on them. buthere we are. my only defence is that these are the wisconsin voters i have access to from afar. igo to my trump diner for the same reason the political reporters i sometimes mock do: to find out how this is all going to shake out, filtered through the anecdotes of the aggrieved white people who hold disproportionate power over the american electoral system.
My best friends from home are white and generally, but not exclusively, liberal. theyinclude a bernie bro who is holding his nose for joe biden and a republican who has sent his girlfriend to a concealed-carry class so they can both pack heat. one democrat decries cancel culture and another has become an avowed anti-racist. one buddys father worked the line at the harley-davidson plant at the edge of town; anothers was the companys president.
And it is in their parents that i feel i have at my disposal a fair cross-section of the white america for whom trump has cast himself as the last line of defence. (the politics of the tight-knit, white-collar indian-american community i grew up in are for another column though the further irony of eliding that group of voters in favour of white folks here is not lost on me.)
My friends parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents are nearly all republicans. they range from paul ryan conservatives to coronavirus truthers. most voted for trump; some have had second thoughts or turned on him based on events during his first term (familyseparation at the border, very fine white supremacists in charlottesville, nearly a couple of hundred thousand coronavirus deaths). others have not. my buddies clue me in on their thinking from half a world away.
It is rarely clear cut. but at my virtual diner, the general trend has been a slight drifting away from trump that seems to have run its course sometime around the 2018 midterm elections in which democrats took back the house of representatives. by now this drift has hardened into place. no one seems to be moving not for the mounting pandemic death toll, nor for kamala harris, nor for trump allegedly trashing dead soldiers, nor even for protests and unrest just down the road in kenosha. though on that last one, more than one friend expressed concern that it could turn wisconsinites toward the president.
Thats the thing im not actually learning all that much from my trump diner. my friends trumpy uncles are still trumpy. their romney moms are still generally turned off. my best friends mom a woman who ive never known to be particularly devout but who buttonholed me at a wedding last summer to tell me how hard it was to be a white christian these days is still posting about antifa.
But the stream of trump diner pieces is unlikely to abate, in part because trump voters and journalists share far more than either would probably care to admit. despite the general sense of bafflement underlying these pieces, the media often seems more comfortable covering these voters. it is not just that trumps base is wealthier than the democrats he lost voters making less than $50,000 in 2016 but a walk through the newsrooms of most ostensibly global western newspapers would reveal a demographic makeup not that far off a trump rally, or my hometown.
So we will inevitably get another round of pieces about how the regular folks eating corned beef hash still support their president, lately dressed up with their comments on how black lives matter protests have gone too far, and how race wasnt such an issue before all this.
There is a place for anecdotal journalism. butwe should expand who were willing to include in those snapshots of america. aswe head towards an election that is likely to be decided at the margins, it would be worth considering more deeply what the people who live closer to them are thinking. i hear they also eat at diners
Neil munshi is the fts west africa correspondent
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