A new poll came out this morning showing Minnesota's Democratic Governor Mark Dayton well positioned for re-election in November. The Koch Brothers haven't gotten their claws into the voting public yet with a barrage of attack ads, but even Dayton himself acknowledges that if and when they do, he expects his approval numbers to drop and his re-election contest to tighten. Looking over the comments section of the article about the poll results, one poster suggested a potential Dayton vulnerability being the passage of the largest cigarette tax in American history. Another fired back calling that unlikely because "I don't know anybody who smokes anymore", meaning the issue wouldn't resonate with enough of the population to swing an election.
I happen to agree that the cigarette tax increase could be an under-the-radar issue that hurts Dayton, which I'll get to later but I'm struck by the extent to which I see middle class people with stable life circumstances pontificate on how they don't know anybody who smokes anymore. Obviously the rising tide of public smoking bans is the biggest factor here, but most telling is the extent to which cigarette smoking has been excised from middle-class life and now exists predominately as a pastime of those on society's margins.
You want to know who still smokes in America today, Mr. Middle Management from an upscale suburb? It's the drive-thru lady at McDonald's who just handed you your morning coffee. It's the CNA wiping your grandmother's ass every day at the nursing home. It's the wife or daughter of the guy whose mug shot you just saw on the news recently arrested for spousal abuse or incest against a minor. It's the middle-aged lady at the bus stop in a wheelchair with progressive MS who hasn't been able to walk for 10 years. It's the nervous-looking guy outside of the mental health clinic who you can tell is "not right" when you walk by him on the way to the office. It's pretty much all the people who Democrats, liberals, and progressives SHOULD be noticing and SHOULD be lending a helping hand to, and the fact that we've become a party that "doesn't know anybody who smokes anymore" makes it a lot easier to view the "others" who still smoke as merely a financial resource for government to exploit so that they have to pay everybody else's freight.
Deep down, I knew we had a problem a generation ago when the Democratic coalition couldn't win elections without the help of the "college boys". Now I'm a college boy myself, albeit one with working-class roots who refuses to forget where he came from. But it becomes a lot easier to see why self-described Democrats/liberals/progressives "don't know anybody who smokes anymore" when the Democrats can only win national elections by running up the score on Long Island to compensate for all the votes they're losing in West Virginia. This schism has largely been formed by the usual suspects of culture war issues, but also speaks to the extent in which the Democrats have gotten into bed with the big money of Wall Street, blurring the lines of who the party truly represents and creating a scenario where one faction of the party's natural coalition has become so invisible that another faction--the one that's winning--can't point to a single person in their network of friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers who is among the 18% of Americans who still smoke.
Interestingly enough, Minnesota Governor Dayton is actually someone from the "college boy" wing of the Democratic Party who did have a tangible and seemingly empathetic connection to recognize the moral hazard of governing in a way that targets the lifestyles of those on society's margins for a path-of-least-resistance revenue windfall. He has a personal history of substance abuse and mental illness, a history he used on the campaign trail in 2010 to sympathize with the plight of other addicts and decry a campaign opponent's unconscionable call to exploit addiction by balancing the state budget on the backs of low-income smokers. After getting elected, Dayton swiftly broke that promise and actually raised the cigarette tax by a larger amount than the campaign opponent he excoriated was calling for. And on top of it all, the blood revenue Dayton raised with this predatory tax against the very people who used to sit next to him in addiction clinics went towards corporate welfare packages for one of the nation's largest health care corporations and a billionaire professional sports stadium owner, completely undermining Dayton and the progressive movement's posture about fixing "inequality".
I mentioned the politics of the cigarette tax hike potentially making Dayton vulnerable, but the irony is that the Republican Party may be even more out of touch with winning over the votes of the "invisibles" to recognize and exploit the gift-wrapped political golden goose they have, pointing out that Minnesotans with an average income of $20,000 per year are paying hundreds more in taxes per year to bankroll a Mayo Clinic expansion and a new Vikings stadium. Any opposition party on any side of the political spectrum that doesn't recognize the potential to poach votes from the other side by pointing out the sinister hypocrisy of the aforementioned policy should get out of the business of politics, but so far there's no indication that Minnesota Republicans have recognized the need to appeal for the votes of the "invisibles" whom the middle-class commuters "don't know of".
I no longer live in Minnesota but Dayton's willful cynicism is the final straw for me. Here's a guy who has been immersed in the marginal world of early 21st century smokers and still seems them as path-of-least-resistance cannon fodder to hold harmless the middle-class commuter demographic who "doesn't even know anybody who smokes". Obama was recently a smoker himself and has likewise been calculatingly vicious to the "invisible" people he deems easy to take for granted, never campaigning on cigarette tax increases in either 2008 or 2012 but putting cigarette taxes near the top of his policy priority list about five minutes after both his election and re-election. Observing this, it's hard not to be equally cynical that the only reason politicians are moving towards support for marijuana legalization is so they have another way to separate some knuckleheaded 18-year-old kid from $5,000 per year of his money, and then earmark that money for crony capitalists the represent the important members of the "new" Democratic political coalition.
These are the actions of a party--and arguably an entire ideological movement--that has lost its moral compass. And it goes a long way towards explaining why the more Democrats talk about fixing income inequality, the more lopsided income distribution actually becomes. You can be a political party that makes a good-faith effort to reduce inequality...or you can be a political party that cherry-picks the lifestyle choices of working-class "invisibles" as the primary source of new revenue the government collects. But you don't get to do both.