Meeting Myself in Bucks County
Pennsylvania in the Political (and Personal) Crucible
In 1991, at age 17, I fled Bucks County, an overwhelmingly white, working-class region in southeast Pennsylvania where I grew up. I left because the life of the working class was brutal and I wanted no part of it. I cringed at the racism and xenophobia that seemed to rise out of the anxieties of precarious labor. I desperately hoped there was some alternative to coming home each day looking as battered as did so many grown-ups I would catch staring blankly into TV screens or half-empty glasses of beer.
My father was laid off twice in the 1980s, two recessions ago, first from his job at a mustard factory, which packed up and moved south, and later from a company that produced tractor-trailer doors and side-view mirrors. I've only seen him cry twice. The first time was during his brother's funeral; Uncle Jim was killed in a drunk-driving accident. The next time was when he and I had an argument about my skipping a night of work at my first dishwashing job. He demanded I go; I spit back that at least I had a job -- cruel words from a 14-year-old with a Mohawk. Recently, the tip of one of his fingers was shorn clear off while working with a shrink-wrap machine with defective safety gear. He didn't push the issue with the employee compensation folks, though, for fear of creating problems.
My mom has worked in the same factory for more than 30 years. Along with about a hundred others, some immigrants from Southeast Asia, she makes small motors that can be used in dialysis machines, rotating advertising signs, or those amusement park games where you maneuver a metal claw hoping to extricate a small fuzzy animal. I'm amazed this type of production still exists in the U.S. So is she, especially since a holding company took over from the original family owners and, in turn, sold the firm to a tight-fisted corporation that's been cutting corners -- and jobs.
Statistics tell us that Bucks County -- one of those places Nixon's "southern strategy" hit hard when, under Ronald Reagan, it moved north in the 1980s -- has been undergoing a political sea change. The pressure of the Obama campaign and its well organized "ground game," as well as the global economic meltdown and diminished support for the war in Iraq have all had their effect.
For the first time since the 1960s, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county. Since April the Democratic Party has outpaced Republicans in registering voters by a margin of almost two to one. In fact -- and this should stun anyone -- the total number of new voters who choose "Independent," "no affiliation," "the Green Party," or other even smaller third party options surpassed Republican Party registration in those months. Think of that as just one more small indication of the utter bankruptcy of the Bush years and, of course, of the Grand Old Party.
With the upcoming election, this heavily white county, which tilted ever so slightly for Kerry in 2004, and went heavily for Hillary Clinton in the primary, may become a solidly blue area, coalescing -- albeit somewhat reluctantly -- behind an African-American Democrat.
Last weekend, with no small amount of trepidation, I returned to my old home in Bucks County, that former land of Reagan Democrats I had fled years before, curious to see for myself just what was driving this shift, and what it might mean beyond the November elections. Think of it as a modest journey to meet my younger self, and to see how both my home and I had grown in these last years. Of course, I was no less curious about whether the pervasive racism and class anxiety I remember so well from my teenage years was now bubbling over. The only thing I didn't expect was what I found - a political atmosphere as quiet and mild as the clear fall air.
A Hillary Voter
It was a crisp Saturday morning and I was in my mom's car. (As on many Saturdays, she was on her way to work before 5 am, and today had gotten a ride with a co-worker.) So here I was, driving through rural Republican northern Bucks County on my way to meet up with some Obama canvassers in Doylestown, the county seat.
This was, after all, one of the four counties that the wonk political website Politico.com has identified as key nationally to determining a presidential winner in 2008. According to the Wall Street Journal's Matthew Kaminski, it is also considered one of four "collar counties" ringing Philadelphia that will decide the coming election in Pennsylvania.
This world, my former world, whizzing by outside the window, has also, for months, been the fierce focus of countless pundits and reporters in a determined search for those white male working-class voters who supposedly gave Hillary the nod and were then endlessly said to be looking McCainwards (and later, their female counterparts, Palinwards) rather than vote for a black guy.
It was the sight of someone in a garish yellow chicken suit holding a "yard sale" sign that made me take the sudden U-turn. Pulling into a parking lot, I noticed a couple of early morning shoppers sifting through piles of tangled denim, corduroy, and polyester clothes, while others were checking out a table of glassware.
Sharon Palmer, 61, was presiding over the sale, a benefit for a local homeless shelter. In many ways she is one of the anthro-political subjects from this part of the state that much of the media has focused on. White and middle-class, she was a Hillary supporter during the primary.
What does she think of the elections?
"Everyone's talking around the issues," she responds. "Looking at my hair, you can probably tell I was a Hillary supporter."
I nod knowingly -- as if short, grey hair = Hillary were an obvious equation.
Is she supporting Obama?
"Yeah, but not enthusiastically. It's prejudice. Not because he's black, but because I wanted to see a woman in the White House."
Then why not support Palin, I ask.
"Sarah," she says, half-horrified, half-amused. "She's got no qualifications and no experience. She's a middle-aged cheerleader with her winks and ‘hey, ya'll.'"
A recent Newsweek poll found that Palmer's attitude is typical. Women who backed Hillary have now gone to Obama 86% to 7%, putting to rest Republican dreams of Palin's prospective charm among Democratic women. When it comes to Obama, though, Palmer shows little more than a resigned pragmatism toward what he might actually accomplish as president.
"The financial crisis is a whole separate ball of yarn. It's going to take a long time to sort that one out. But health care..." she begins, only to trail off. A moment later, she adds, "We're realty agents, independent contractors. We pay for our health insurance." It's a seeming non sequitur, or at least an unfinished thought, that somehow makes perfect sense.
"Fourteen hundred dollars a month for me and my husband." Obama. Case closed.
From the yard sale, I head toward Doylestown along Route 313. During my youth, sprawling farmlands lined this road. Now, mini-malls and McMansions pepper the landscape as if some vengeful God of chain stores and overpriced housing had conjured them up from the rustic soil. The patches of tall trees that remain bear the colors of the changing of seasons -- amber, red, gold and yellow.
Knocking on Doors
Shane Wolf, a tall, 36-year-old marketing executive from New York and a volunteer canvasser for the Obama campaign, strides up the driveway of a home in Sellersville, a town of 4,500 in the northern part of the county. Stepping up to the door he gives it a solid knock and within a few moments a shirtless man in his thirties with a slight paunch appears. Shane asks whom he will be voting for on November 4th. "I won't be voting for McCain," he barks, "I just can't imagine Palin as President."
From my vantage point on the sidewalk in front of the gruff man's quarter acre of tightly manicured lawn and his drab, blue-grey paneled home, he remains partially obscured by the screen door. He holds it only slightly ajar, as if as a protective barrier against Shane -- and undoubtedly the Democratic Party liberalism he represents.
The man's oblique support for Obama may be no ringing endorsement, but it speaks volumes about the political shift that has occurred in this county. A recent Politico/Insider Advantage poll of four key counties in Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania showed Obama topping McCain 47% to 41% here. That's still within the poll's large margin of error, but he was startlingly stronger among the county's sizeable group of self-defined "independents" (46%-32%). Among 30-44 year-olds like the man Shane has just canvassed, he is leading by a whopping 12 points (49%-37%).
And keep in mind that his was the least welcoming reception Shane got while I was following him that afternoon. As we made our way through endless cul-de-sacs of near identical aluminum-sided homes, I felt ever more amazed that this was the place I so desperately fled as a teenager.
While we drive to another corner of Sellersville, Shane relates campaign stories. "Once, I knocked on a door and the guy asked me if I was from New York. I thought he was going to punch me. By the way, he was Republican. Instead, he said that he was voting for a Democrat for the first time since Kennedy." As Shane remarked, the average age in that heavily Republican community must have been 127, and yet many of the conservative homeowners were remarkably willing to give his Obama pitch a solid listen.
Has he dealt with any racism while canvassing for Obama? "I think the n-word was used once. I was stunned."
I, of course, was stunned for a different reason. Here was Shane -- an out-of-town Democrat -- alone and door-knocking for an African-American candidate in this Republican stronghold and yet he hadn't faced a flurry of racial invectives or even many stern skeptics. What on Earth was going on?
By the time we make it back to Doylestown, it's late afternoon and the Obama office is teeming with volunteers. Groups of late morning and early afternoon canvassers have returned and are milling about, drinking coffee, and swapping stories from the field. I've been around political campaigns before and this one definitely has the wind at its back.
Shane and I retire to a nearby café, where I ask him how he thought the day went and how well, in his assessment, the campaign is connecting with Bucks County voters. "No one slammed the door," he replies, chuckling. Then he adds in all seriousness: "As the campaign has reached out to traditionally Republican voters, they've begun to realize that it's time to set aside how they feel about social issues. Eight years of Bush's failed policies have created a perfect storm, capped off by this economic meltdown. There's something that matters more to them now than how often the candidates go to church."
What Shane has pinpointed is Thomas Frank's well-known description of Republican Party dominance in Kansas -- but in reverse. After decades of being hooked on the values embodied by the Christian Coalition, values which powered the Reagan Revolution, many voters in Bucks County now seem understandably focused on bread-and-butter concerns -- wages, health care, and the economy. If this is the bellwether political battleground that so many pundits and journalists make it out to be, then a mass defection from the Republican Party is underway. It's no longer a matter of a single candidate's inability to connect with voters, but perhaps a wholesale rejection of what the party has to offer.
"The economy is definitely the number one issue for everyone here," Shane says. "I don't hear people talking about gay marriage."
Bruce Hellerick's 36-acre family farm is a short drive from Obama headquarters. For six generations the Hellerick family has been farming here, and for the last 35 years, they've been selling produce to passers-by. This time of year, the farm becomes a quasi-amusement park with a children's play area, where part-time teenage workers entertain kids, and up the hill, three corn mazes cut into a bounty of six-foot-high yellowing stalks.
Bruce assures me he's a staunch Republican, but also admits he remains undecided about November 4th. "Usually I'm decided by now," he says, smiling congenially. "The experience McCain has with the military and what-not really brings a lot to the table." On the other hand, he continues, "Obama's got a great vision, but I'm concerned about the people he's been associated with." As for McCain's running-mate: "Sarah's very charismatic, but I don't know about the folksy thing."
During our conversation he manages to use the word "family" and "tradition" so many times that I lose count. How is it, I wonder, that Bruce, so inextricably involved in ideas of family and tradition and so concerned about Obama's associations with fiery black pastors and Sixties radicals, can still remain on the fence only two weeks before Election Day? Two days of talking in Bucks County left me with the impression that one blended "family," the Republican one, was certainly disintegrating under the pressures of a new era.
Up the hill, two women are seated on a picnic bench by a corn maze. Wendy Walters, a 45-year-old hair stylist, is, like Bruce, a Republican and, as she quickly informs me, a hearty supporter of school vouchers. Yet she seems to have caught the virus of indecision too. She's just not sure what she's going to do when she steps into that polling booth. McCain's "issues seem to follow Bush," while Obama "is a book with a pretty cover and blank pages." So she tells me either/or-ing away. Across the table, her friend Tracy Northrop, 41 and a homemaker, is also Republican... and also undecided. "I don't like either one very much. I'm a Republican but I don't always vote that way. I'm very undecided. I think McCain is out of touch with the people. And Palin makes me really afraid."
Earlier in the day, while driving to Sellersville, I asked Shane about Bucks County's legions of undecided voters. He thought they understood something had to change, but haven't quite gotten to the point where they can admit, even to themselves, that they will vote for Obama. Bruce, Wendy, and Tracy give weight to Shane's theory that Republican defectors may inch toward voting for Obama. They could prove to be a reverse "Bradley Effect" -- Republicans who won't tell pollsters, or even maybe their friends, what they're going to do, but might quietly opt Democrat in this election.
But will they? While the Republican Party's support among voters here is visibly crumbling, there's also deep skepticism about the Democrats, particularly Obama himself. Do the concerns I repeatedly heard about Obama's "associations" or his "experience" serve as coded stand-ins for saying that he's black and will not get my support? Regardless of what these voters decide, though, dark days lie ahead for the GOP.
"Execute All of Them"
The Quakertown Farmers Market, deeded in 1764 by the sole American-born son of Pennsylvania's founder William Penn, sits just east of Route 309, a four-lane road that connects Bucks County to Philadelphia. All along its narrow corridors are signs on which a Quaker in buckled shoes raises an auctioneer's gavel, a reminder that farmer's used to gather here to sell their goods and that this was once among the leading agricultural counties in the country.
The market's once robust trade in livestock is now a distant memory. An eclectic assortment of discount shops and cheap food stalls lines the corridors that cut through this quarter-mile-long structure with names like The Teriyaki Chef, Latin Flavor, and As Seen On TV, which offers, just as its name implies, cheap goods advertised on late night television.
There's even a Kenyan restaurant, not to speak of shops selling all the fake leather cell-phone covers anyone could ever desire. It's a vision of the new Bucks County and maybe even a new America. A community and a nation increasingly inhabited by new immigrants and charmed by cheap goods made by other underpaid workers halfway around the world. It's a political universe that, this year at least, the Republican Party seems not to have a clue about how to tackle.
In aisles where classic Philly cheesesteaks are served up next to lo mein noodles and discount plastics from who knows where, Allie, a registered independent and a strong supporter of Pennsylvania's senior senator, Republican Arlen Specter, shows no Republican-style either/or equivocation. She's going to vote for Obama, even though, as she rushes to assure me, she's "not crazy about either side." She actually expresses relief, though, that someone "intellectual" might preside over the country after eight years of George W.
At the opposite end of the mart, John Lewis becomes irate the moment I utter Obama's name. "I don't believe in Robin Hood," he says emphatically, "taking from the rich in order to give to the poor. Obama, he's an unknown quality. There's too much we don't know about him." Then, in a sudden burst, John exclaims: "Execute all of them for what they've done with this bailout! Frank, Pelosi, and all those guys. They should get the guillotine. Enron -- those guys did one one-hundredth what they did and they all went to jail. My kids, my grandkids are going to be paying for this. Those people that took out those mortgages couldn't afford the houses they bought."
Here he was -- the man I had expected to meet and who, in abstract form, has been at the center of my recollections of Bucks County since the day I left. But I had been here for a weekend, talked to dozens of people during a hotly contested election in a time of widespread anxiety, yet only hours before I was to head home did I finally meet the angry white man.
Everyone else I ran into seemed strangely subdued at the very moment this nation is supposedly on the cusp of historic change, if not at the precipice. Had all the rest of the angry white guys of my youth taken momentary shelter beneath rocks in the county's much diminished hinterlands?
Leaving Home Again
It's always tough visiting home. On my last day, I strolled with my mother around a shopping center nestled in one of the county's more upscale areas near the Delaware River. Perhaps it was a sign of bleak economic times, but -- eerily enough -- the two of us were just about the only ones there late on a Sunday morning. As we walked by brand-name discount stores vacant of customers, we began to talk about why I split all those years ago. It was, of course, a private conversation, but interlaced -- as I suspect so many are right now all over the country -- with comments about the upcoming election, about whether race will really matter, whether those working-class white votes will go to Obama or not, and whether any of it matters down the road, when it comes to wages or the possibility that, someday, decent health care will really be widely available.
Our private discussion was old hat for us. She insists I left town because the big city beckoned. I insist my flight represented a gut urge to find something more than a job in a factory that would shutter sooner or later and a desire to find a place where people weren't always calling the few blacks or Asians in the area any number of epithets, or simply pretending they didn't exist.
She swore I was overplaying both the racism and the economic distress -- that the problem was me, not where I grew up.
By now, as mothers facing obdurate children are wont to do, my mom was seething and so she began walking ever faster, clutching tightly at the strap of the handbag slung over her shoulder. Having outpaced me, she suddenly turned and blurted out: "You know, not everyone here is like that. Why do you want to focus on the bad stuff when lots of things have changed since you left?"
It was, in truth, a good question. And then, uncoiling from her anger, she gave me a brief personal history lesson: "You know, when I was a kid, there were two girls who dated black guys. People treated them like hookers. Today, you see mixed couples walking around all the time and nobody says anything." And who can deny it -- except the Republican Party? We are in a different world.
Still, I wasn't completely convinced, not by her, or even by my weekend on the Obama trail. Still, as sons are wont to do, I let it go. After all, I was back in Bucks County and puzzled by what the undeniable recent political shift there meant -- beyond an indictment of the Republican Party. And, maybe, that's all I can say.
With the exception of the fellow who wanted to "execute" them all, there was such a muted, tamped-down feel to my encounters, made only more awkward by the fact that I was walking around like the other journalists scouring the county, pad and pen in hand. No longer a home-town boy visiting mom and dad, I had morphed into a college-educated thirty-something exploring anthropological oddities from a by-gone era of manufacturing jobs and Reagan conservativism. And yet that was hardly the way it felt to me as I crisscrossed that haunted landscape.
Of course, the Obama supporters were pumped up on canvassing day, while the air in the sparsely staffed Republican offices I visited was filled with the desperation of an animal caught in a trap. If Obama doesn't take the county, judging by the number of new, energized voters and the radioactivity of the Republican Party, I'll be shocked. But, of one thing I'm sure, that's only part -- maybe the least part -- of what's going on here.
The rest, I don't know. And that includes myself. I no longer feel at home here, if I ever did, among my people -- the white working class -- at the very moment when I probably should. After all, I know something no reporter from elsewhere knows. I know that the past is always buried in the present, and if I need a reminder, I only have to look at my mom -- and then myself. For her, however much Bucks County is changing, in basic ways it hasn't changed very much at all. She still works six days a week, often ten hours a day, at a job that may be gone tomorrow and, as I did at age 17, I'm again hopping on a train, leaving Bucks County behind.
Copyright 2008 Robert S. Eshelman