In Nebraska — as in the rest of the country — the polarization seemed to hasten about the time that Mr. Obama won the presidency. To be sure, much of the hardening against the Democratic Party specifically and ideals of tolerance and diversity more generally can be attributed to an unholy stew of angry commentary on Fox News, algorithmic political siloing on Facebook and the subsuming of Nebraska’s independent newspapers and television stations by Lee Enterprises and the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, also attributes the extreme partisan vitriol to the Democratic National Committee’s decision to shift its resources away from rural red states like Nebraska, which was in part because Mr. Obama had slashed the committee’s resources.
“Obama hated the D.N.C.,” Ms. Kleeb told me, “because he feels like they stabbed him in the back” by supporting Hillary Clinton over his upstart campaign in the 2008 presidential primary. Distrustful of the Democratic machine — and the party brand — Mr. Obama turned fund-raising efforts away from the D.N.C. and focused on building “progressive” organizations like Organizing for America, she said. But that created two problems.
First, now cash-poor, the committee began to spend more selectively. In Nebraska, the monthly allotment went from $25,000 to $2,500. That 90 percent cut in party funding, Ms. Kleeb said, meant that Republican talking points often went unchallenged. “You’re not doing any organizing,” she said, “not because you don’t want to, not because you don’t know how to organize or create good messages, but because you don’t have the money to do it.”
Second, Democrats were forced to push hard for bipartisan support on key issues, which often further muddled their messaging. Left-leaning state senators in Nebraska, for example, joined with conservative senators to ban the death penalty in 2015. (A subsequent ballot measure restored it.) In 2016 and 2017, the progressive environmentalist and pro-small-farm group Nebraska Communities United fought against the construction of a massive poultry-processing plant on the flood plain of the Lower Platte River by partnering with a local group that was afraid the plant would be staffed by Black Muslim immigrants from Somalia. Ms. Kleeb herself, when she was the director of Bold Nebraska, one of those progressive groups, helped to block the Keystone XL pipeline not by talking about its climate impact but by joining with conservative ranchers who were outraged that the power of eminent domain had been granted to a foreign corporation. The problem with that strategy over time, Ms. Kleeb acknowledges now, is that voters often walked away confused. “They don’t even know where the Democratic Party stands,” she said.