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“Roseanne” and Her People: Populist Voters Who Don’t Fit in Either Party

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A pro-Trump comedian with a progressive past is a huge hit, raising larger questions about middle-ground voters.

Twenty-one years after it went off the air, ABC’s sitcom “Roseanne” has returned to television screens. The moment for the reboot could not have been better.

“Everybody seemed to be into it and, you know, the conditions that I wanted were right,” Roseanne Barr, the series’ star, told the New York Times recently.

The television audience seems to emphatically agree. According to preliminary ratings data released by ABC which doesn’t include web and recorded viewing, the revival’s premiere Tuesday evening was watched by 18.2 million people. Nor was it just older viewers who tuned in. Among viewers ages 18 to 49, the “Roseanne” reboot was the most-watched comedy show since 2014. The series’ return was watched by 10 percent more people than its original finale in 1997, which is especially remarkable considering how much broadcast television audiences have declined in recent years.

Beyond the fact that TV viewers can’t seem to get enough of familiar characters and recycled premises (“Will and Grace” and “Fuller House” are already in distribution while reboots of “Murphy Brown,” “Charmed” and “Magnum P.I.” are in the works), the return of Roseanne Conner as a diehard supporter of President Donald Trump is a perfect fit for our deeply conflicted politics.

While television shows routinely now portray families in more realistic fashion, “Roseanne” was highly controversial during its original run for featuring characters who dealt with financial problems, discussed LGBT rights and parent-child friction, and even confronted abortion (for many years a no-go zone on mainstream TV).

The second time around, the show is just as interested in dealing with contemporary issues, particularly the strong divisions between Trump’s critics and his fans.

That Rosanne Conner, a blue-collar grandmother in a Midwestern suburb, would end up as a Trump supporter makes perfect dramatic sense. As everyone knows by now, the former star of “The Apprentice” won the presidency by doing better among older, less-educated white voters who don’t live in big cities. The fact that Barr herself is also a Trump backer only adds to the authenticity.

Despite their demographic similarities, however, neither Roseanne comports to the stereotypes about Trump supporters. The fictional one has a biracial granddaughter and a grandson who enjoys wearing clothing typically worn by girls. The real one differs from the mold even more. She ran for president in 2012 as a Green Party candidate, was a vociferous critic of President George W. Bush, is friendly with left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore and still emphatically favors LGBT rights and legal access to abortion. Barr even anticipated the #MeToo” movement by a full year by publicly promoting accusations that comedian Louis C.K. had sexually harassed women.

In the premiere, when asked by her sister Jackie (played once again by Laurie Metcalf) why she supported Trump, Roseanne Conner cites Trump’s numerous campaign-trail promises that he would force companies to stop shipping jobs to other countries.

 “He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up. This might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house the way things are going.”

As in her program, Barr’s Trump advocacy has been a frequent topic during her publicity interviews. Her Times reboot conversation took an uncomfortable turn when she was asked about backing the president.

“Well, I think working-class people were pissed off about Clinton and NAFTA, so let’s start there. That’s what broke all the unions and we lost all our jobs, so I think that’s a large part of why they voted for Trump because they didn’t want to see it continue,” she told interviewer Patrick Healy, after a publicist tried to steer the conversation away from the topic.

Last week, Barr’s ABC colleague Jimmy Kimmel asked her about the apparent disconnect between her socially liberal views and her support for Trump, who had favored marriage equality and other LGBT-friendly issues before running for office, but in the White House has offered the religious right unparalleled access to political power.

“I’m shocked because you were a very liberal, socially liberal person in general,” Kimmel said in an interview last Wednesday.

 “I’m still the same — you all moved. You all went so f**king far out you lost everybody,” Barr replied. She then implied that criticism of Trump could ensure his removal from office, making Vice President Mike Pence, a hardcore Christian nationalist, the chief executive.

“Because we don’t want Pence,” she said. “You want Pence? You want Pence for the fricking president? Then zip that f**king lip.”

In Barr’s case, her loyalty to Trump seems to be an outgrowth of her strong support for Israel and its proto-Trumpian prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Once a vociferous critic of Israel’s policies, she has since become a defender of Netanyahu’s many controversial dealings with Palestinians.

That Barr would therefore make the leap to supporting Trump is not a huge surprise, considering Trump’s close relationship with Netanyahu, a contrast to the strained relationship the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had with former president Barack Obama and his original secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. (Israel is one of only four countries where support for the United States has increased during Trump’s term, according to a survey taken last November. While Trump has never had an approval rating over 50 percent in this country, Gallup found that 67 percent of Israelis supported the U.S. president.)

 In 2015, before Trump had declared his candidacy, Barr made clear that she opposed Clinton’s presidential bid. She reiterated that stance in June a year later, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “I think we would be so lucky if Trump won. Because then it wouldn’t be Hillary.” In tweets sent later that month (and subsequently deleted), Barr blasted Clinton as “anti-Semitic” and claimed that Clinton’s top adviser, Huma Abedin, was a “filthy nazi whore.”
Although Barr’s motivations for changing her political allegiance are unusual, a viewpoint that combines social liberalism with support for Trump’s (supposed) economic policies is not uncommon at all. It is, at least arguably, why he won the presidency. In a survey conducted last May, 30 percent of people who had voted for Obama in 2012 and then switched to Trump four years later said that they were primarily motivated by opposing Clinton. More than three-fourths of Obama-to-Trump voters, 77 percent, said they believed that as president Trump would create economic policies that were favorable to the middle class, or to all economic groups equally.

Those numbers square with research released in June of last year by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group and a separate draft paper from Vanderbilt political science professor Larry M. Bartels. These findings suggest that Republican voters in general are not nearly as far to the right on economic issues as the national Republican Party, but they are generally unified on “culture war” or identity questions, such as standing for the national anthem or support for law enforcement. Both analyses show that Democratic voters are split in the opposite direction: They mostly agree on the need for more activist government but are split on cultural and social issues.

Here’s the Voter Study Group graph of where Americans stand politically on an x-y graph:

It’s remarkably similar to the distribution that Bartels’ study found:

Populists, meaning people who are moderate or conservative on social issues but economically progressive, are a substantial part of the electorate. But their opinions do not align with the opposing elites who set the agenda in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Rhetoric aside, leading Republicans are much more committed to cutting taxes and slashing government programs than to imposing Christian nationalism or blocking same-sex marriage. By contrast, Democratic donors and activists have tended to favor centrist economic policies while favoring liberal positions on cultural and social issues.

While there has been some focus on populist voters among political analysts, especially in the wake of Trump’s shocking election victory, it has usually been limited to the portion who are white. This is a mistake. Other research has made clear that many people of all races hold a combination of moderate or conservative social views and liberal economic opinions.

The Pew Research Center’s periodic “political typology” reports are the best source for this data, since they are based on much larger sample sizes than typical polls. As such, they can better parse the attitudes of demographic minority groups. According to Pew’s 2017 typology report, just 8 percent of people who were classified as “solid liberals” on every issue are black. Just 9 percent were Hispanic. About 73 percent were white. Since “non-Hispanic whites” are only slightly above 60 percent of the population, this suggests they are significantly overrepresented among self-described liberals.

Black and Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly concentrated among two other demographic groups, one that Pew calls “Devout and Diverse” and another that researchers called “Disaffected Democrats.”

Among the 9 percent of Americans that Pew classifies as “Devout and Diverse,” 44 percent were white, 30 percent were black, and 16 percent were Hispanic. This group strongly disapproved of Trump, with just 27 percent saying he was doing a good job as president. They also strongly favor government-provided health care and increasing public services even at the expense of more national debt, and they overwhelmingly believe that women face obstacles to professional advancement. Most want a bigger government rather than a smaller one.

At the same time, however, the group holds moral and cultural opinions that differ from conventional liberal views. A significant majority, 64 percent, agreed with the idea that belief in God was a necessary part of being a good person. Just 53 percent said that homosexuality should be accepted by society. This group is also evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage, with 47 percent of Devout and Diverse respondents saying they opposed same-sex marriage, while 46 percent supported it. The group is similarly divided on the question of abortion, with 49 percent saying it should be legal in most or all circumstances and 46 percent saying it should not.

While an overwhelming majority of Devout and Diverse respondents (89 percent) favored more changes to ensure equal rights for black Americans, a plurality of 47 percent agreed with the idea that African-Americans who cannot get ahead are responsible for their problems. Just 41 percent agreed with the opposing statement that racial discrimination was the main reason that many black people “can’t get ahead.” This group is also surprisingly divided on the Black Lives Matter movement, with only 57 percent saying they support it with 31 percent saying they oppose it. On immigration, 44 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “immigrants are a burden,” while 47 percent said that immigrants strengthen the country.

Similar dynamics exist among the 8 percent of Americans whom Pew classifies as “Bystanders,” people who are largely uninterested in political participation. To the extent that they have political opinions, their views are economically progressive. Only 15 percent want lower taxes on businesses, just 29 percent want a smaller government, only 37 percent think the economy is fair, and 68 percent say government has a responsibility to make sure that all Americans have health insurance.

At the same time, a majority of this group, which is just 37 percent white, told pollsters that belief in God is a prerequisite for being a good person. Just 44 percent disagreed with the idea. A modest majority (59 percent) approved of same-sex marriage, while opinions were closely divided on legal abortion (favored by 51 percent). On Black Lives Matter, only 41 percent said they supported the movement, with 30 percent opposing it. More of this group (50 percent) blamed poor black people for their economic situations than blamed racial discrimination (41 percent).

While it’s not clear in what group Pew’s researchers would classify Roseanne Barr (or her fictional alter ego), the reality is that both parties could position themselves better to align with the electorate. The question is: Do they want to?

During his campaign, Trump made all kinds of promises suggesting he would pursue progressive economic policies, but as president he has largely ignored those pledges. By the same token, Democratic officials have encountered some resistance from base voters who won’t tolerate candidates who want to curtail abortion rights, who oppose gun control or who support law enforcement over civil rights critics.

In the end, if one party decides to change its orientation toward the left-behind middle-ground populists, the other will likely follow suit. But for now, both Democrats and Republicans are going to follow network television executives and keep sticking to what worked before.

This article was originally published on Salon.