South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Richard Shiro)
Opinion writer

If you thought we were past the tiresome “How can Democrats appeal to Trump-loving Trump voters in Trump Country?” conversation, I’m going to disappoint you. And I’d like to use some recent comments from South Bend, Ind., Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to illustrate how problematic the discussion among Democrats is when it comes to thinking about different areas of the country and what kind of people live where.

Buttigieg was in the coastal enclave of San Francisco when he gave a radio interview that included this:

There are some folks I encounter here who seem to have trouble believing that things like Trump voters actually exist. And so I feel sometimes like I’m an emissary from the middle of the country, just pointing out that things look a little bit different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine, and that we really need to find ways to knit this picture back together into one America.

There’s a bit more to the discussion, but it goes on in that vein. Buttigieg’s intentions are good, since he wants to promote mutual understanding and common purpose. But he frames the problem as one that stems from condescending liberals who don’t sufficiently appreciate the lives and perspectives of people in the Midwest. In other words, the divide that exists is the fault of liberals alone. If they could just do more to understand the people who wind up voting for someone like Donald Trump, that would be the path to achieving unity.

I have a crazy dream that goes like this. After a whole bunch of think pieces asking why Republicans are so contemptuous toward components of the Democratic base — let’s say African Americans — a Republican contender for president starts telling his party that they have to change the way they think, feel and talk. “For too long, members of my party have treated African Americans with scorn,” he’d tell an interviewer. “But as someone who has spent time in those communities, let me explain how they see the state of our country, and why we need to find ways to meet them where they live. Republicans are out of touch and that has to change.”

Of course, a Republican presidential candidate would never say that, because a Republican presidential candidate would never criticize his own party's voters. They're happy to disrespect and insult Democratic voters and the places where they live, but they will testify that their own base is made up of only the most worthy of Americans, hailing from the small towns and rural areas where all virtue finds its true home.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying you can't find liberals who are condescending toward conservatives and the places where they congregate, because you can. And resentment over that condescension is a powerful political force, in no small part because Republicans and conservative media spend so much time telling conservatives that elitist liberals are looking down on them.

But you can also find lots of conservatives who are contemptuous toward liberals and the places where they live. Yet if a Democrat ever insulted the “heartland,” there’d be hell to pay, while Republicans insult heavily Democratic places all the time. Ted Cruz could sneer at “New York values” as a way of attacking Donald Trump in 2016, but what would happen to Kamala D. Harris if she told Buttigieg that Democratic primary voters didn’t want any part of his “Indiana values"?

One more vivid example from recent history: In 2004, the conservative Club For Growth ran an ad against Howard Dean, in which a couple told him to “take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.” Everyone laughed. Now imagine the outcry if a liberal group told, say, Mike Huckabee to “take his trailer park-living, tobacco-chewing, NASCAR-watching, squirrel-eating freak show back to Arkansas where it belongs.” The condemnation would be furious and immediate, much of it coming from the elite media, who would yet again instruct Democrats that if they want to succeed they really need to stop being so condescending and reach out to those heartland voters.

Let me suggest something else. When Buttigieg says that he has to educate people in California on the fact that “Trump voters actually exist,” he may be speaking a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but he means that liberals have no conception of who Trump voters are or what might motivate them. But that’s also absurd.

As Adam Serwer of the Atlantic points out, “There are more Trump voters in New York than Wyoming, Alaska, and the Dakotas combined.” Trump got about a million and a half votes in Buttigieg’s home state of Indiana, slightly less than the 1.6 million he got in the coastal state of New Jersey, and much less than the 2.8 million he got in New York, let alone the 4.5 million he got in California. Those are “real” Americans, too, even if they happen to live within driving distance of the ocean.

The point is, liberals are aware of who Trump voters are, and even have a pretty good idea of what motivates them, even if those motivations are different for different groups of Trump voters. They may sometimes cry in frustration, “How could anyone have voted for him!” but it’s not because they literally don’t know what was behind those votes. It’s because Trump’s corruption is so obvious and his character flaws so encompassing that they struggle to see how those motivations weren’t outweighed by the fact that Trump is so awful, which is a perfectly understandable sentiment. Every voter doesn’t have to be a sociologist.

I’m all for Americans being polite and considerate toward one another. But Trump didn’t win in 2016 because Democrats were too mean, and a Democrat won’t win in 2020 by being nicer to Republicans. A presidential candidate can treat everyone respectfully, and not waste his time arguing that the problem is that his own party’s voters aren’t open-minded enough, and realize that the path to victory isn’t in winning over Trump voters but getting Democrats registered and excited and energized and turned out to the polls.

As a starting point, if you’re a Democratic candidate and you get asked about what Midwest voters think or how Democrats should appeal to them, maybe the first thing out of your mouth shouldn’t be that the real problem is that Democrats are out of touch.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: What Democrats can learn from Buttigieg

Jennifer Rubin: What Pete Buttigieg brings to the 2020 race

Karen Tumulty: What does Pete Buttigieg bring to the table? Experience — really.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise on community and religion

Alexandra Petri: Okay, Mayor Pete, politics ought to be more like James Joyce