In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 22: Battered Democrat Syndrome

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Joe Klein has dinner at retired account Bill Chavez's house in Yuba City, California. Photography by Pattie Chavez for TIME.

Yuba City, California

Traveling Companion: Dalia Mogahed

Event: Meeting with Yuba City Democrats

It is now official. The very best thing about this trip has been the meetings that you, dear readers, have arranged for me with your friends, neighbors and co-workers. The final one took place last night, arranged by Bill Chavez–a retired accountant. Bill invited me to dinner at his house and then hired a local hall for our meeting. He invited the town officials, all of whom are Republican, plus the local Democratic committees. No Republicans showed up, which is probably attributable to the fact that Bill is an outspoken Democrat.

First, though, the dinner. Bill and his wife Pat are from the Bay Area. They retired to Yuba City because it was halfway between their children (and, more to the point, their grandchildren) in Chico and Silicon Valley. They bought a home in a now-bankrupt subdivision called Dunmore, a warren of 3-5 bedroom stucco homes that looks like any other California subdivision, except for one rather crucial factor.

Bill is a half-Filipino, half-Panamanian; Pat is an Anglo–which made her unique on their block. One by one, the Chavez’s neighbors appeared: he had Hindus from Indian Punjab on one side; Muslims from Pakistani Punjab on the other. A neighbor named Boniface, recently arrived from Zimbabwe and studying to be a psychiatric technician, dropped by. Jeannie Klever, the chair of the local Democratic committee, and her husband Dale dropped by. We repaired outside to several tables set up for dinner. Ed and Yesenia, Mexican-Americans from across the street, joined us. (At this point, my traveling companion Dalia Mogahed, a pollster who is director of Gallup’s Muslim Studies Center and wears hejab, was beginning to look more at home than me. Dalia grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, in a neighborhood as diverse as Dunmore–but she was astonished and exhilarated by this flagrant display of American heterodoxy all the same–and observed, accurately, that Bill and Pat, the retirees, were crucial: they were the people with the time and energy to knit the neighborhood together.)

The topic turned from politics to…youth soccer. Ed and Yesenia have three kids, all players. Practice is three days a week, games twice a weekend. “We don’t have practice tonight,” Ed said. “Freedom!”

Meeting with the Yuba City Progressives in California. Photography by Pattie Chavez for TIME

I could have stayed there for hours, savoring the food and the scene, but we had a meeting to attend. About 70 people showed up. The mood was immediately set by the first speaker, Pam Circo, who said: “I really don’t know what’s happening to us in this country. I used to be able to have civil conversations with my friends who are Republicans, but I can’t anymore. We argue about Obama constantly. He’s socializing medicine. He’s raising taxes. It’s very upsetting. I try to tell them the fact, that those things aren’t true. But they won’t listen. A whole part of my life, talking to friends about politics, no longer exists. It’s very upsetting.”

The next gentleman to speak was a Sikh named A.S. Sekhon, a medical doctor and retired Colonel in the U.S. Army–the first Sikh battalion commander, he later told me. “Both the Republicans and Democrats have screwed us in pretty good. They’ve outsourced 11 million jobs. Both parties allowed this to happen. Clinton started it and Bush continued it. Now those 11 million are getting welfare checks. You can’t have a great country without manufacturing. We have to find a way to bring those jobs back or we will be second to China.” (Dr. Sekhon later told me that 25,000 Sikhs live in Yuba City, the first were deserters from the British Army in Canada, who arrived in 1906.)

I’m not sure where A.S. is getting his figure, though he’s obviously using some hyperbole here. The BLS doesn’t tabulate total outsourcing/offshoring of jobs. (A quick call to their expert line elicited, “There’s not really a way to even count that.”) But 11 million did pop up as a total estimate of American jobs lost during the Great Recession in a WSJ op-ed about outsourcing and how that practice may keep many jobs from coming back.  – Katy Steinmetz

There was a fair amount of debate about Dr. Sekhon’s point. The Democrats were divided on free trade, though united in their fear that the country was slipping in the economic with China. They also were united in support of President Obama (with one exception, a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood who was upset that the President wasn’t more outspoken on civil liberties infringements: “The Republicans talk about us losing our freedom–and they’re right,” she said. “But the problem isn’t socialism. It’s wiretapping and the other government intrusions into our lives.”) Many of their comments, throughout the evening, expressed dismay about the quality of discourse in the country, the anger they see and hear on television, the one-sidedness of their local newspaper. A woman named Francie Lane brought a copy of the paper up to me and showed that day’s news: a long, long front page story about the rigor and worthiness of the Tea Partiers; an editorial trashing the idea of raises tax rates for people with incomes over $200,000 to Clinton levels, and celebrating the wealthy for producing American prosperity. “Essentially it says, if it weren’t for the wealthy, we’d all be in despair.” (She was right. It did.)

These people were articulate. They made informed observations and asked interesting questions. A young man named Andrew asked me why CNN features non-stop political consultants rather than actual experts. “Something happens in Afghanistan or the economy, and they have these consultants analyzing it rather than people who know something about the topic. Why is that?” Good question; I’ve been wondering about that myself.

Bill and Pat Chavez. Photograph by Joe Klein

But from time to time throughout the evening, I found myself thinking about dinner with Bill and Pat’s neighbors, out on the street in the fading sunlight, kids from a myriad of cultures playing with balls and a variety of wheeled contraptions. I don’t think that Sarah Palin has these people in mind when she talks about “real” Americans; I don’t know how many neighborhoods like this exist. I asked Boniface, the Zimbabwean, if this is how he pictured America would be. “Yes,” he said. “This is just how I imagined it.”  It is just how I imagine America, at its very best, too.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.