Summer in Northern Michigan Highlights Causes of Republican Victory: By JOANNE KOWALSKI

Friday November 19, 2004

“According to exit polls, Bush supporters tend to be culturally and religiously conservative married rural voters, a large majority with an annual salary of over $150,000.” 

—Rebecca Paris, “Divided We Stand”, Berkeley Daily Planet, Nov. 5-8. 


Last summer, I spent three months with family in rural Northern Michigan (a red zone in a blue state) where almost everybody owns a gun, drives a pick-up and is a member of a faith based community. Except for some tourists, I met only three people who made over $150,000 a year—a real estate broker who sold properties to Wal-Mart, a retired developer from the city who built a mansion in the woods and a drug dealer. Not even the president of the local university makes over $150,000 a year. 

Almost all of rural America voted Republican and the vast majority of rural counties have average income well below $60,000 a year. According to the 2004 Census, the Average Household Income in my brothers’ county was less than $50,000. In comparison, in Detroit’s Wayne County, the annual income was $58,000. Alameda County is $81,000. 

If the polls were correct, it was not the working class guys in pick-up trucks or the members of faith based communities who reelected Bush. They don’t have the money. Nor was it the single mother living in a trailer on her folks’ land, the retired worker in a double wide out in the woods or the small farmers, teachers, loggers or local merchants. Most make well under $50,000 a year. 

Many rural poor did not vote. In my brothers’ township there are over 2,000 potential voters. Of these, less than half are registered and only 528 voted—almost 50 percent more than in previous elections. 

Only 11 percent are registered Democrats. The area has a virtual one-party system that has been dominated for generations by a few influential families. All elected offices are partisan and usually Republicans run unopposed. The media is tightly controlled. The war in Iraq is barely mentioned. Homeland Security, Palestine and the Patriot Act simply do not exist. When Fahrenheit 9/11 came out, it never made the news. And for most, the Internet has yet to arrive. 

Democrats have ceded control of the area to the Republicans. There is almost no Democratic presence there. No one from the state party, Kerry’s campaign, the DNC or MoveOn was visible during the campaign. Nor is there ever any support from the state apparatus for those few candidates who do run locally as Democrats. As a result, the perception that Democrats are the party of city folds, think-they-know-it-all intellectuals, minorities and gays goes largely unopposed. 

Despite this bias, only 47 percent are registered Republicans. The remaining 42 percent are Independents or third-party folk. These Independents didn’t flock to the polls to vote for Bush. In my brothers’ township, Bush got only 54 percent of the vote. Kerry pulled 40 percent, much better than Gore while 6 percent voted for third party candidates. In the poorest township in the county, the Democrats won. 

People talk to each other freely in Northern Michigan. Conversations spring up spontaneously in restaurants, bars and stores. While people certainly had strong opinions on abortion and gun control, these issues were, for most, of peripheral concern. The big issues were the economy and the war. 

Despite the constant propaganda, the war in Iraq is not popular. I only heard one person, a retired Special Forces officer, wholeheartedly support it. While some tried to justify it, most were opposed and much of this opposition ran deep as it is their kin being called to fight. Even veterans spoke of our present military with scorn. 

The most pervasive issues were economic. The center of the towns in virtually every part of this country are dying. Good buildings, houses, factories and stores, stand empty. Strip malls are in disrepair. Full time, permanent jobs are hard to find. Since NAFTA, local factories have either closed or been forced to move. Big boxes have destroyed local businesses. The multinationals that have moved in, often over local opposition, are either dangerous or destructive to the environment - chemical plants, strip mining, toxic waste dumps and factory farms. Wages are low, benefits negligible, job security non-existent. Many men take temporary jobs hundreds of miles away. One WWII vet and “loyal American” told me the new corporations were destroying the community with their greed. 

Even with the media blackout, because of the war, the escalating debt and his ties to greedy corporations (Enron, Halliburton, the S&Ls) Bush is not well liked. Even die hard Republicans said they would have to hold their nose to vote. 

Unfortunately, Kerry did not present an attractive alternative. From the backwoods, it looks like the Democrats care more about the right of gays to marry or gun control than they do about the rural economy or the war. Even when Kerry said something meaningful, he was not trusted, partly because of his rich-boy demeanor, but also because he had no record of taking principled stands on the economy or the war. Then, too, there were those who felt betrayed when Clinton signed NAFTA. Others consider Reno’s massacre at Waco an attack upon the religious right. Because of this, distrust of Democrats runs deep. 

What got the most enthusiasm was a television interview with Ralph Nader. While no one thought he could win, they saw him as talking about something real and liked what he had to say. 

Two people ran for local office as Democrats. One lost by 20 votes. The other tied. No local Democrat has ever come that close before. They have asked for a recount. 


Joanne Kowalski is a longtime Berkeley resident. She is currently working on an economic development project with her brothers in Northern Michigan.?