Decking Out The Midterms In Flannel

Mark Leibovich fixates on the “bumpkinification of the midterm elections”:

Candidates themselves don’t deserve all the blame for their bumpkinizing. Much of that rests with the blizzards of money being blown from wealthy donors and super PACs to a growing oligarchy of media consultants, who typically live on the coasts and work for multiple candidates at once. In a D.C. twist, those bumpkins we see on our screens are often not even real bumpkins so much as some rich guy’s idea of what a bumpkin should be. One telltale signal is how familiar the props are — the livestock, the guns, the motorcycles, the dogs and, of course, the flannel. An ad for Rob Maness, a Louisiana Republican running for the Senate, features a trifecta: a gun, an airboat and an alligator.

In large part, this is what we have to show for the nearly $4 billion that is expected to be spent in this campaign, the most of any midterm election in history. “When you have this much outside spending, way too much of the advertising has no soul,” acknowledged Todd Harris, a partner at Something Else Strategies, who is based in Washington, far from his clients Ernst and McFadden. The people who are creating these spots, in other words, don’t have much connection to the state they’re working in.

Stephen Mihm points out that this has a long history:

Most [of the Founding Fathers] believed the best and the brightest would and should be in charge, and they naively believed that the populace — whom they privately referred to as “the rabble” — would be more than happy to be governed by their social and intellectual betters. It didn’t work out that way. Ordinary people versed in the revolutionary rhetoric of equality didn’t appreciate the condescension, and they pushed back. The novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge captured the origins of “bumpkinification” in “Modern Chivalry,” a comic tale published between 1792 and 1797. In one scene, an office-seeker accuses his opponent of being seen holding a book. “I am innocent of letters as the child unborn,” the accused says proudly. “I am as ignorant as an ass.”

How Waldman apportions blame:

I wouldn’t want to excuse Washington consultants, but let’s not forget that responsibility is not zero-sum. Everybody who takes part in this is to blame. There are the candidates, who serve up a ten-course meal of drivel. There are the outside groups that swoop in and try desperately to distract and confuse. There are the reporters who decide that it’s really important that they write another ten stories about somebody’s chickens or somebody else’s “gaffe.”

But in the end, ultimate responsibility lies with the voters themselves. It is within their power to say to candidates, “Look, I’m upset about Congress’ inability to solve problems too, but the fact that you put on a flannel shirt and told me a story about the wisdom of your grandpappy does nothing to convince me you’ll actually be able to solve those problems.” They could do that. But they don’t.

Margaret Carlson spotlights an example of what Leibovich is talking about – the ad above from Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst:

She’s closing out her campaign the way she began, reminding voters that she’s just a simple farm girl, albeit one who takes a tough line with pigs. In the same plaid shirt, the same dark vest, on the same hog farm, Ernest reminds people she’s not a snooty lawyer looking down her nose at Grassley. Standing in a sty, Ernst calls it a mess.

“It’s dirty, noisy, it stinks.” But she’s not talking about where she is. “I’m talking about the one in Washington.”

In a campaign devoid of policy prescriptions, but with plenty of free-floating rage at Washington, she may be expressing what voters think. This year, it may be the most vivid metaphor that wins elections.

Jazz Shaw pushes back on Leibovich:

There are still people who actually live in farm country and maintain the values he so cheerily derides. There are people working in factories and mills – at least those few who can still find jobs – and get up every day worrying about problems which probably seem quaint, if not fictional, to those who spend their lives living in Manhattan, D.C. or Hollywood.

If Joni Ernst does pull this off and win on Tuesday, the commentariat may have learned a valuable lesson. Advertisements featuring people working on farms, castrating hogs, emptying trash cans or nailing shingles on the roofs of homes actually do work, and not because the viewers are stupid bumpkins. It’s because real people would prefer to be represented in Congress by someone who understands and can relate to their own lives.