Sirota: Merkley may hasten populist political earthquake

Syndicated progressive columnist David Sirota has penned a very interesting piece about the Oregon Senate race, and how it may be the bellwether for a fundamental political shift:

This is a well-trod Republican path in swing states - a lockstep conservative record builds strength in GOP strongholds, and occasionally tolerant-sounding but legislatively meaningless rhetoric peels off votes in Democratic bastions.

This year, though, Smith is running for re-election against Democrat Jeff Merkley - the son of a sawmill worker who, as Oregon House speaker, made his name cracking down on predatory lenders. More Paul Bunyan than Paul Allen, Merkley is running on his record as an economic populist, airing ads hammering a tuxedo-clad Smith for supporting corporate tax cuts and the recent Wall Street bailout. He aims to flip Smith's own calculations on their head, betting he can maintain Democratic margins in cities and middle-class suburbs and cut into Republican support in rural and working-class areas. It's a smart gamble.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • Vico (unverified)

    Jeez -- a pullquote from Sirota that doesn't include the word "I" or his photograph.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    The description of Gordo's tactics is quite correct, but the "son of a sawmill worker" stuff gives me the creeps, as it smacks of the usual GOP appeals to anti-intellectualism and phony working-class "credibility".

  • naschkatzehusseim (unverified)

    I live in Deschutes Co., and Sirota bears out what I said on BlueOregon yesterday: it's up to all of you west of the Cascades to pull Merkley across the finish line. There are just too many people here who see Smith as "our" senator, the one representing the eastern half of Oregon. Sad, but true. Obama will take Deschutes, but I don't know if the coattails will be long enough for Merkley. However, all the population is on your side so you can do it.

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    The son of a sawmill worker works for me because I am the daughter of a logger. The implied assumption is that all loggers and sawmill workers are anti-intellectual is very very wrong. The assumption that Jeff's appeal is a GOP stategy is even more incorrect.

    Jeff Merkley and I, along with thousands of others are first generation college educated persons because of our mother's and father's wisdom and wishes to send us to the next economic level. This phenonoma is known as social mobility. Our parents were well read, thirsty for knowlwdge and willing to place their bets on their off spring.

    I have vivid memories of the recession in 1973/74 when graduates from Princeton, U of O, Stanford and OSU returned to the sawmills in Grants Pass and to the woods to work right along with their fathers because there were simply no jobs to be had.

    There is no phoney working class cred problem with Jeff Merkley's campaign, none at all. He, unlike Gordon Smith who grew up in ritzy burbs in D,C., did grow up from a humble background. Gordon's phoney appeal to rural Oregon voters is about as phoney as a politician can get!

    Jeff knows the struggles his parents and mine endured while they worked essentially for us to at least have the opportunity to try for scholarships and to attend college.

    There are generations of highly educated Oregonians who revere the working class roots of our parents. If it weren't for them, Jeff wouldn't be where he is today. And in a couple of weeks Senator Jeff Merkley will be representing Oregonian's from all walks of life.

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    Joel, I think your premise is flawed on a couple different levels.

    Does the fact that some people are alcoholics mean that drinking alcohol is therefore bad? Does the fact that there are sexual predators out there mean that sex is therefore bad? Of course not. Likewise, the fact that the GOP have used a distortion doesn't mean that the underlying facts are therefore a distortion.

    In fact, Merkley is the son of a sawmill worker. Given how many people, particularly on the ideological Right, uncritically accept the prejudices and assumptions of their parents and the communities they grow up in, the fact that Jeff has a similar background but both excelled intellectually and arrived at different ideological conclussions is the perfect antidote to the rightwing distortion.

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    Joel, I see what you mean, but I had a slightly different reaction to that bit of what Sirota wrote, which is that I suspect there's a much more interesting family story in Jeff's background than we've seen in public -- what was the mobility from Roseburg to Portland about, how does being a first generation college graduate and beyond influence him? I don't think it's all phony. I even wonder if the fuller version might not work better for him, in speaking to realities of people's mobility and the quality of their aspirations.

    The Habitat for Humanity thing in particular fits a pattern of people I know who are first generation college grads who do well academically and aren't anti-intellectual but want to "give something back" -- or maybe it's pass it forward -- in terms of breaks (often luck of their own making) and mentorship they've gotten along the way, stay connected to their communities or ones like those they've come from, etc.

    In Zulu, the word for "builder" is "umakhi," and the word for neighbors is a grammatical plural form of the same word, meaning "those who build together." I get both senses from Jeff Merkley, the more I've learned about him and heard from people who know him.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    the "son of a sawmill worker" stuff gives me the creeps, as it smacks of the usual GOP appeals to anti-intellectualism and phony working-class "credibility".

    I don't get this reaction. What's anti-intellectual about having a father who worked in a sawmill? And is unreasonable to suggest that someone whose father was a blue-collar worker might have more empathy for blue-collar workers?

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    I obviously touched a nerve by dint of lousy phrasing.

    I also come from a working-class background, first generation to get beyond high school, etc. Not sure any of that matters. Indeed, I hope it doesn't.

    What bugs me, I suppose, is that the "son of a mill worker" framing (both in Merkley's advertisements and in Sirota's piece) seems to validate a central piece of the GOP playbook. Just look at the way that Sarah Palin is campaigning: she tells us, both explicitly and implicitly, that "real" Americans are either working class or live in small towns. This is all part of the larger culture-wars framing that the GOP has been flogging since the "silent American", anti-intellectual schtick of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

    I am sick to death, as are many others here, I think, of the idea that the only way for Democrats to win is to co-opt the GOP's ideas, and I want nothing to do with any anti-intellectual tactics. So motives matter a lot to me. Now admittedly I try to pay as little attention as possible to advertising, so I may have missed some important "fine print" in Merkley's mailers and TV/radio ads, but I must ask this: What exactly is the point of Merkley telling us that his father worked in a sawmill? And I do mean Merkley's point, not whatever you may be reading into his campaign thetoric.

    Chris Lowe wrote: "I...wonder if the fuller version [of Merkley's life story] might not work better for him, in speaking to realities of people's mobility and the quality of their aspirations." EXACTLY, thank you. If Merkley's point is that his personal background informs his politics and, say, gives him a compassionate perspective, then I hope he is saying that. Because gawd knows that when a GOP candidate starts flogging working-class "cred", it's usually in a culture-wars context.

  • rw (unverified)

    The more you know about the particulars of a region, the better you can parse a pithy phrase. Pulling green chain, tree planting and slash disposal work has been stadard college student fare in teh PACNW in past decades. DOn't know about now, but that's how scads of attorneys, psychologists, medical doctors and architects I know from my adolescence got thru grad school. They did these jobs seasonally or at night. And now they are firmly placed in a different stratum, each.

    SOooooooo... for an Oregonian, it might not mean what folks believe it means! And some of the most brilliant and progressive folks I've ever known dropped down and out of THAT part of the forest culture into Hoedads, et. al. Heh. And worked fire and timber cruising in season.

    The culture and history of this state and our people is so much more rich, more interesting than can be evinced in these drivebys we call blog posts!

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    Anything stated by reporters, talking heads, sages, idiots, or David Sirota, or campaign advertisers that pushes the idea that Jeff is one of us rather than one of them is money in the bank and I love it.

    I'm able to simultaneously understand that the frame is inaccurate and largely irrelevant, and that most people (intellectual or otherwise) think largely in those terms whether they know it or not.......

    <h2>What this does is slightly move the definition of us to encompass a slightly larger group.</h2>
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