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El Paso Beto Rally Showed Just How Little Voters Care About Policy


In El Paso, Texas, I was surprised to learn that the resounding second-choice pick of Beto O’Rourke fans is Bernie Sanders.

They have very little in common, but that might be irrelevant. When pressed for more specifics, hardcore Beto fans at his hometown rally couldn’t point to much. Some said they believed Beto and Bernie Sanders share good character and values. Others did not care much about the difference in economic policy (Bernie being a legitimate socialist and all, with Beto being roughly pro-free trade) when asked whether that bothered them. Still others cited a need for change and anti-corporation animus that seemed satiated by the vaguely grassroots, anti-PAC money aesthetic of both candidates.

That’s not to say people didn’t have their reasons for supporting O’Rourke, but the message was clear throughout: O’Rourke is the new Obama, a positive campaigner, young and new on the scene, who provides necessary contrast to the current guy in charge. He gives them the warm fuzzies. Maybe that’s all it takes. Warm fuzzies should not be underestimated.

Shauna and Joe, from Greenville, Texas, drove more than 600 miles to see O’Rourke in El Paso. Like devoted groupies, they’ll be following him to his third rally today in Austin, Texas (that’s about 570 miles across Texas over the course of nine hours). When asked who their second choice was, Shauna answered decisively, “Bernie.”

“I just think they both wanna do good for the people and not necessarily the big corporations,” she explained.

Isaac, from El Paso, largely looks at it similarly, although immigration matters a lot to him. He started watching the news when he was 14, and recently voted for the first time this past November. “Since he’s from El Paso I think it’s a really great opportunity for us to support him … El Paso pride.” 

“He actually respects people for who they are. … Immigration is big here in El Paso, so having Trump talk about us and lying about how El Paso really isn’t secure and safe,” Isaac said.

Isaac’s second choice was also Bernie. Josh, also from El Paso, would go for Bernie, too. As for O’Rourke, “Big thing is he’s a hometown guy—love that about him,” says Josh. “He’s earnest, honest, everything about him is way different than any other politician we’ve seen.”

Like so many of his fellow El Pasoans, immigration is the highest priority for Josh: “We’re a huge immigrant community and if we’re gonna keep treating them like they’re second-class citizens or we don’t want to allow anyone in here, I think that’s a big problem. Putting people in camps? Not letting anyone through? That’s just not the way you treat people.”

In his speech, O’Rourke came out swinging on immigration and did not stray from the message that El Paso has been enriched by its immigrants and proximity to Ciudad Juarez, with subtle hints of shade thrown at the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Immigrants “were called to contribute to our shared success and to this country’s greatness, and they have,” according to O’Rourke.

“With Ciudad Juarez, we form the largest binational community in this hemisphere. And for 20 years running, we’ve been one of the safest cities in the United States of America,” O’Rourke said. “We are safe not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers, we are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers.”

Feel-Good Liberalism

“We understand that we are, in the words of Dr. King, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied in a single garment of destiny,” O’Rourke proclaimed. Obama-esque, for sure.

Then O’Rourke began the politically useful task of citing a bunch of community organizers and civil rights leaders. He nodded to organizers who fought for workers’ rights, the Mexican-Americans who led the Chicano movement, the women who organized the Farah strike in the 1970s. 

He nodded to just about as many broad feel-good liberal ideas as possible in his speech, touting a predictable smorgasbord of promises: an “economy that works for all” and “high-quality” government-run health care that “brings down costs of our premiums and our deductibles,” that serves veterans (especially in mental health care, he says), that brings down maternal mortality rates (which, he says, is a “crisis three times as deadly for women of color”).

He wants to “pay teachers what they’re worth,” while strengthening unions. He floated paid family leave, fixing the sex pay gap via federal legislation (ah, yes, federal mandates to “fix” something that isn’t the result of blatant discrimination, but individual choices), and he nodded to reparations while dancing around the topic a bit (“Let’s make sure that there’s access to capital for communities who have effectively been shut out of access to capital, home loans, and the ability to build wealth in this country for generations”).

He spent very little time on abortion and a lot of time on transcending party ties—themes of national unity. He stayed positive for the most part, not picking on Trump, fellow Democrats, or the Republican Party, but focusing on what he will deliver. He also did not lay blame for the migrant crisis at the feet of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); he talked about ending overseas conflicts and supporting the service members stationed at nearby Fort Bliss.

Of course, some of the motivation here (perhaps all) has got to be self interest; he needs the votes of law enforcement and military members, especially as far-left progressives get increasingly radical, alienating more and more potential voters in an ill-fated quest for ideological purity. But the theme was clear and consistent. Unlike some of his even farther-left counterparts, he’s not interested in running a negative campaign or pandering to the radical social justice warriors who demand self-flagellation and demonizing certain groups (Republicans, cops, white people — whomever). As Rep. Veronica Escobar introduced him, “he’s a son of the border” and an El Paso native, representing not just Democrats, but the various groups that make up the sprawling city.

His speech was irrefutably good, and certainly Obama-like in more ways than one.

The rally’s demographics reflected El Paso’s demographics as a whole—El Paso is about 80 percent Latino—so there wasn’t the sense that O’Rourke was pigeonholed as a specific demographic’s favorite, or that him being a white guy was a major tally against him. I spoke with elderly people and teenagers alike, recent immigrants and not-as-recent immigrants, people who worked in all different industries. There’s a sense that he’s a bona fide El Pasoan, not disconnected by race or the fact that the O’Rourkes were not immigrants from Mexico. 

Paso del Norte, Ciudad Juarez, and Border-Crossing Crisis

Interestingly, the ongoing border-crossing crisis at the El Paso border—and the many asylum seekers currently being detained under the Paso del Norte bridge in grim conditions—was not shoved out of sight, but on the minds of many, and even mentioned in O’Rourke’s speech. He alluded to the terrible conditions people were being kept in (“reminiscent of a low-budget zoo,” one reporter put it) mere blocks away from where we were gathered. After the speech, I crossed over into Juarez, Mexico, via the Paso del Norte pedestrian bridge to see what was happening, and to get a sense of how Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are economically and culturally one.

The day before, O’Rourke had visited Paso del Norte and spoken to a Vice reporter there. The reporter and O’Rourke theorized about whether this was a stunt of some sort, trying to send a message. Why would CBP agents be letting journalists film?

“It invites the question—are we trying to send a message by the way that we are warehousing people at their most desperate moment? I’ve got to think that there is the capacity to do a better job, and I put that not at the feet of Border Patrol, I think they’re trying to do their best. I put that the feet of this administration,” said O’Rourke. 

Beto’s Record

Given that most of the people at the rally were Texans, I asked them whether Beto’s Senate loss discouraged them.

“Not at all,” said one woman.

“It wasn’t a loss,” said another. Another woman, louder, empathetically agreed “It wasn’t a loss!” “It actually elevated him,” said a nearby woman.

“I think it was a learning lesson,” chimed in a younger woman from El Paso. “A lot of people didn’t come out to vote. … But we did have so many people come out to vote, in their sixties, that had never voted in their lives.” She worked elections, she said, just barely old enough to vote herself, and has become a devoted follower of politics since the 2016 election.

I asked a group of elderly El Pasoans, one a veteran, what they like about Beto. “EVERYTHING,” said one woman, Vera.

Her fiancé chimed in, “He’s a combination of Obama, Clinton…” She cut him off, “And KENNEDY.”

“Are you guys concerned about him coming from a wealthy family, or not so much?”

“No, Trump came from a wealthy family,” supplied one of them, with a look of distaste. “A bunch of shysters is what they are!” tutted one of the ladies. “The Trump family, not the O’Rourke family, my God,” she added.

“Nothing against the O’Rourkes, my gosh,” she added.

I asked a good number of people whether they cared about Beto’s drunk driving record, and his privileged status, coming from a wealthy family. Bryan, a clear follower of politics from El Paso Community College, was ready to forgive O’Rourke’s transgressions.

“What do you think of Beto’s record?” I asked.

I think it’s very impressive that he ran for Congress and won at a very young age,” said Bryan.

“But didn’t his family have a little bit to do with that?”

“Yeah. That’s hard to deny, but then again, his charisma, you can’t deny that as well. He has his merits and he has his background. The voters want what the voters want, and the people voted for him.”

“Do you have an issue with his drunk driving record?” I responded, trying to get to the meat of the issue.

“Of course not, of course not. I think people make mistakes, he was a young guy. It was like 20 years ago … I think it would be a great opportunity for him to talk about criminal justice, reforming criminal justice and not making it so punitive.” When I pressed more, asking whether the drunk driving incident was indicative of O’Rourke’s privileged status, Bryan said:

“I think he could talk about it. One important thing is to recognize your privilege. You could say, like, you know what, I was let off the hook because I’m a white man and that this isn’t the case for so many black people out there who aren’t given that privilege. … This would be a great opportunity for him to talk about it.”

Fair, but such standards should undoubtedly be applied evenly. Bryan had good insight into who would be the worst in the field: Amy Klobuchar, because she lacks charisma. And the worst candidate is one who can’t get Trump out of office.

Elizabeth Warren, too. “She has the chance to be in the general, and lose it.”

When I asked Jesse from Oregon what he liked about Beto, he said, “You almost can’t put it into words. And I think everybody here feels it, and they feel that he is something special.” Jesse was right; people had traveled from all over the country to see O’Rourke launch his campaign in his hometown. I talked to people from Washington, Michigan, Kansas, and Oregon. One older man had flown in from Japan, even.

Jesse continued: “There’s a famous quote that I love by Maya Angelou. She says, ‘People hardly ever are gonna remember what you say, they’re rarely remember what you do, but they’re always going to remember how you make them feel.’ And the ability for Beto to connect with everybody, regardless, with such a wide range of people, is what is so special about him.”

Beto, the Everyman

This is the biggest thing people are missing as they grasp at straws, trying to figure out what about Beto’s policy differences make him more appealing than, say, Kamala Harris or Warren. People don’t see him as a politician, they see him as a rock star (worthy of groupies that follow him around Texas). Or a guy they’d like to hang out with and grab a beer with.

Three older ladies from El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico, when asked why they like him, responded, “He’s articulate, he knows how to send a message, he’s a very good listener. I think that he can do well for the country.”

“Sounds like an ideal spouse,” I responded.

“Yes, but he’s married!” they mourned, giggling. Another woman chimed in a jokingly glum tone, “Too late.” A few nearby women giggled and looked at each other. (For the record, this wasn’t the first time that day that people had mentioned how much they want to marry him.)

“He’s an everyman, he’s one of us, he makes waffles with his kids, he walks his dog. And he listens. And he makes me feel hope.”

“Exactly,” another woman said, eyes wide, before the three started talking about how the last time they felt hope was when Barack Obama was running.

I never expected making waffles and walking a dog to be what helps people cast their votes, but that’s my own failing. Most voters don’t have long, cohesive internal manifestos critiquing specific policies of candidates, thinking about second-order impacts, or adhering to a consistent ideological principles. This is true for both sides.

The Beto rally highlighted how much tribalism exists. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book “The Righteous Mind,” talks at length about how emotion and intuition are more dominant in shaping our morals (and thus our partisan affiliations) than rational arguments are. Often, we feel some way about an issue then come up with more logical justifications for it after the fact.

Those same lessons can easily be applied here. Tribalism reigns supreme: we care about our own team, we project onto other people, and we are willing to forgive the transgressions of our own if we like other things about them. We’re generally willing and ready to pounce on our enemy, forgetting to apply those same standards to our guy—the one we like, the one we’re gunning for. This is just as true for Beto supporters as it is for Trump supporters, Warren supporters, Harris supporters, or even Mayor Pete devotees.

This isn’t innately good or bad; it’s just human. And it’s better if we’re just honest about it instead of pretending we have lofty principles that we legitimately stick to. We don’t. But remember: the Earnest Politician doesn’t truly exist. He or she will always disappoint if you pay attention long enough.