Thursday, October 06, 2016

Election minutiae: "Captive Nations" still ache

A national election touches on both broad themes and niche concerns among small demographic groups. I'm fascinated when I see campaigns recognizing and speaking to the latter. This smidgen of Democratic messaging is a nice touch:
The Hillary Clinton campaign is meeting with swing-state leaders of Eastern European descent, encouraging ethnic debate watch parties and phone banks, and scheduling conference calls with Clinton allies from her State Department days as part of an aggressive effort to capitalize on Donald Trump’s embrace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his equivocal support for NATO.

For years, voters with Eastern Bloc roots embraced the Republican Party, viewing the GOP as an anti-communist bulwark and a champion of strength in the face of Russian aggression.

But the Republican nominee’s frequent praise of Putin and talk of conditional American backing for NATO members under attack has alarmed voters with close family ties to Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other Eastern European countries, raising the prospect that they’ll bolt the top of the GOP ticket in November.
Having grown up on Buffalo in the 1950s and '60s, I am convinced they are onto something potent. In those days, Eastern European-origin immigrant communities, especially Poles and Ukrainians, were downright rabid in their anti-Russian passion, a passion that mourned their countries of origin as well as expressing their anti-Communism. They or their relatives had fled the Red Army and the killing fields of central Europe and they hated and feared the Russian colossus.

In their new country, many labored in the steel and auto industries. When national politicians came to town campaigning -- Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy -- they'd be outside of Memorial Auditorium, picketing in the Buffalo cold and snow, demanding all comers remember their "Captive Nations."

As the industrial economy turned to rust, these people became largely Republican. Eastern European roots produced such Republican leaders as a couple of Ohio governors, George Voinovich (2003-2007) and John Kasich (2011-present). It's been two decades since the Soviet Union collapsed, but the community memory remains a force. The Clinton campaign seeks to tap into it in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even a few votes might help.
Looking into this, I was surprised to learn the United States still observes an annual Captive Nations Week in July by presidential proclamation. Congress created the observance in 1959 and it still lives, presumably known largely among the groups Clinton is targeting.

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