The Drinkers Have Spoken; Will The Candidates Listen?

Oct 6, 2014

It's almost closing time for our `Politics on Tap' series.  Throughout the summer, author Dan Libman interviewed voters in their neighborhood bars, asking about their political concerns ahead of the election.  After a beer or two they opened up about Obamacare, the economy and redistricting.  Now, with `last call' looming -- at the bars and the polls -- Dan asked the regulars what issues they want the candidates to address.  Read the peoples' opinions in Dan's essay below.  And don't forget:  Vote responsibly.

The novelist Richard Powers lived for a time among us, and set one of his books, Prisoner’s Dilemma, in DeKalb. Reflecting on his home town, the character Artie sullenly thinks, “With as little as DeKalb, Illinois, had to offer—nothing except for being the place where barbed wire was invented—there was nevertheless a stretch of fourteen days in fall where no better place on Earth existed.” Clearly written of a time before Cindy Crawford announced her presence to the world.

I heartily endorse the part celebrating a Midwest autumn. You know the drill: painted gourds, corn mazes,  cider donuts, all while the humidity and bugs have finally abated. And it was during this salubrious autumn of the soul when I engaged in some of the most spirited political conversations of the election. For example with Andy, whom I met at Fatty’s. He says one of the “bigger issues” he’s paying attention to is the legalization of marijuana.

“I think the state government should look deeply and realize that Colorado and Washington are going to benefit greatly from the legalization of marijuana," he said. "I think it’s a way for states to tax as much as they wish in order to try and decrease the deficit that our state clearly has right now. Huge deficit.

"If there is any way for us to try and close that gap,this is one option to look at. I think it would be nice if Illinois could lead the way in this, much like Colorado and Washington. It would be beneficial to our state.”

Just down the street in DeKalb’s Irish bar O’Leary’s I walked in on Ty, Ross and Steve already engaged in a long-running political conversation: a weekly afternoon suds-enhanced colloquy. Ty started by filling me in on one of his pet topics.

“There’s too many tradesman I know who are and willing to work -- and even willing to work for less than union wages -- that will get things done, but the work is not out there. We need a public works program," Ty asserted. "People who complain about taxes have to understand that someone paid for their education, someone paid for their kid’s education. You have to pay it forward. It’s part of the system and, if you don’t do it, there is no civilized society and it doesn’t work. That’s what made America great and, if you keep playing with it, America is going to be third world.”

His drinking buddy Steve had more corporeal concerns.  “Ebola. Just the reality that somebody’s going to cough in a plane and it’s going to spread around the world.”

I asked Steve what he wanted to hear the politicians say about Ebola, and he told me simply, “That they have a plan. And it doesn’t seem like they do.”

Illinois’s great city up north -- second city to The Second City -- Rockford has also appeared in several works of literature. To Saul Bellow, Rockford represented an unjaded, unsophisticated ear, a counterpoint to the desire-crippled Eugene Henderson, who finds himself toward the end of Henderson the Rain King, on an airplane reeling after an African adventure. “The stewardess offered me a magazine to calm me down.... She was from Rockford, Illinois.” And Henderson adds wistfully, “Every twenty years or so, the Earth renews itself in young maidens.”

I found that same spirit of genuine renewal in many of the political conversations I had in Rockford, for example, with a young couple at the Prairie Street Brewhouse.

“Maybe something that would change Rockford for the better,” the wife began. “Enhancing downtown, making it a better place.”

Her husband explained, “We don’t live too far from downtown here. And the overall feeling of the downtown is not the place to go or to be. And I think that I would want to see that change. Places like this. Places that will bring people in. That whole hotel thing that they’re going to go after would bring more people into the downtown and make it more of a destination rather than an eyesore.”

I found Dave and Tom down the road at Carlyle, the oldest of Rockford’s currently operating microbreweries. Union guys both, we tucked into our Humulus IPAs and I asked Dave what he was hoping to hear from the politicians.

“I don’t know, he said. “I just wish they would work together. I’m tired of the fighting.”

His drinking companion Tom jumped in. “Get something done in Congress, you know? More bipartisanship.”

I asked Tom if he had any issues he was paying close attention to. “I’m a retired iron worker. I’m for the labor movement," he said. "I think these people out there vying for the minimum wage ... How can a young person make it on that $7.75 hour wage any more? I don’t blame them.

"I think we're going to have a revolution and demand higher wages. It’s just not right, you just can’t live on those wages they pay now with the expense of everything. You can’t make a living on that wage if you’ve got double kids and driving a car.”

Back down in DeKalb, a conversation about the fast food workers with Marcia had a different tenor.

“I think people that are working at McDonald’s, they should be working for minimum wage," Marcia said. "Go get some training, go do something to get a better job. But that’s a step in the right direction for them to kind of spur them on to do something.”

Lo these many months of gazing at pressed-tin ceiling and the bottoms of too many pint glasses, all while talking to the men and women who work, vote and drink here in northern Illinois, I have to say I come away buoyed about the future. The poll results may not be exactly what I hope for in November, but the voters behind those results are engaged, serious, and paying attention. They are exactly what I hoped to find when I set out on this adventure.

Anyone who says Americans have become apathetic about the political process should spend an evening hopping around the saloons with me. In fact, you probably should do that anyway.

-- Dan Libman

Dan Libman is an NIU faculty member and craft beer aficionado. He's also the author of the story collection, Married But Looking.