Why you should care
Because there’s more than the “white working class” to worry about.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Ten days after the 2016 election, also-ran Ted Cruz proclaimed the result the “revenge of flyover country.” He didn’t spell it out, but we knew what he meant: The hicks and hillbillies of Middle America were fed up with coastal elites who claimed to represent them but secretly looked down on them and their grammar and values and carb-rich diets. Earlier that year, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch had encapsulated this sentiment in the title of her book, which seemed directed at a kind of ur-liberal bogeyman: Flyover Nation: You Can’t Govern a Country You’ve Never Been To.
Strident, if not quite accurate, Loesch provided advice on the morals and mores of a mythical landscape she dubbed “Flyover.” Writing about assisted suicide, for instance, she declared, “In Flyover, the only legitimate death assistance required is for the jailer to pull the lever and execute a criminal.”
Neither is flyover country frozen in time, like some Norman Rockwell canvas or, for that matter, the perennial American fight between city slickers and country bumpkins.
One of the many ironies to all this, of course, is that the man elected as the instrument of “flyover country’s” revenge was a litigious, Manhattan real estate mogul and TV personality with a Wharton degree and an aversion to the masses. A man who claimed to belong to the 1 percent, even if he wouldn’t produce the tax returns to prove it, and who likely wouldn’t have deigned to step foot in a state like Iowa if he didn’t want to be president.
For Democrats, the takeaway from the 2016 election could have been something like: There’s a lot to be gained if you don’t dis the way voters talk, eat or think; and also, reform the electoral college. But instead, the election gave way to months of tortured analysis by highly paid pundits and hand-wringing liberals about the “white working class” and what it really wanted, whether it was white supremacist, whether we should blame toxic masculinity or identity politics. Much of this important national debate, of course, was conducted via Twitter by coastal elites, left and right wing alike, and in the television studios of companies based in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.
Good thing Loesch and company had ready answers for us. Didn’t you think they would? They get paid to have answers about flyover country for us! And the answers usually have to do with the Second Amendment.
Which brings me to Roseanne — Barr, Conner, the woman, the sitcom, it so hard to tell them apart. Since its record-breaking premiere last week, the Roseanne reboot has become something of a political lightning rod. Especially for urban liberals, who, since the era of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, have searched for someone, anyone, to explain the politics of flyover country to them.
I hate to break it to you, but neither the show nor the woman nor the persona will provide the explanation you’ve been looking for. It’s true that the show is set in Lanford, Illinois, the family is mostly white and ostensibly working class (though few working-class moms could have afforded Roseanne’s dental work, which is sublime) and the lead character has an authoritarian bent and contempt for liberal bromides. Oh, and Roseanne is a brassy, outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, whom she kind of resembles.
But the show’s politics aren’t straightforward to me at all, just as the politics of All in the Family weren’t clear, despite Archie Bunker’s bigotry. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter this week, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes a decent argument that the show’s politics are actually lefty and subversive.
Maybe. Except the idea that any entertainment could speak for the political values of so vast a region is nuts. Iowa is not Idaho is not Ohio; this should be obvious, but I know from repeated experience explaining the difference to my fellow Americans that it is not (I grew up in Iowa.) Neither is flyover country frozen in time, like some Norman Rockwell canvas or, for that matter, the perennial American fight between city slickers and country bumpkins.
The first step to understanding what Loesch calls Flyover is to realize that it doesn’t actually exist; it’s a heuristic. “The biggest misconception about flyover country is that everything between the coasts is some giant monolith,” says St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior, whose collection of lefty essays is out in print this month. Its title? The View From Flyover Country.
Kendzior isn’t the only progressive who is reclaiming the term — or the terrain. In Iowa City, entrepreneur/impresario Simeon Talley is organizing something this month called Flyover Fest, which promotes inclusiveness and equity in fashion, media and the arts. “The lineup is predominantly female and women of color, including queer women,” says Talley. “And there’s a lot geared toward the body-positive and plus-size communities.”
Politically, Trumpism is hardly flying across Middle America either. Once a supply-side hero, ex-governor Sam Brownback can now barely set foot in the state he governed, Kansas. Teacher strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky signal a backlash against cuts to public services, the very kind that folks like Loesch say Flyover doesn’t need.
Meanwhile, Iowa, which broke my heart by giving its electoral votes to Trump, is now bracing for a farm crisis to rival the one in the 1980s, thanks to the jingoistic trade war the president is stoking. It’s worth remembering that Iowa was the first state to overturn the ban on gay marriage, and also was instrumental in the election of the country’s first Black president. So to the coastal elites out there, next time you’re en route from JFK to SFO and you look out the window, remember it’s not just a bunch of Roseannes down there.