Bread Bags as Footwear: A Primer and Analysis

Joni Ernst did her best — we have to presume — to answer President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and connect with the American people.

Ernst’s strategy included going back to her own past to remind us that she is just an ordinary American, much like everyone else, the very people the Republican Party stands to represent.  We’ve seen this before, right?  Republicans coming up with folksy tales of strife and hardship in an effort to gain credibility with voters is a familiar tactic.  Mysteriously, it seems to work, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that they keep going back to that tired trope.  However even the experienced ear had a hard time following exactly what it was that Ernst was talking about in her response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  Bread bags?  As footwear?  What?

Let me explain how bread bags were really used first; it is much less dramatic than Ernst wants it to be.

I grew up in Minnesota in the 1970s so none of this stuff is much of a big deal.  It certainly doesn’t seem worthy of a national speech.  In Minnesota, we know, for example, that appropriating a practical innovation from the past hardly signifies hardship, but I suppose if you live in a dry, warm climate — e.g., Phoenix, Amarillo — you might be intrigued.  You might think, oh dear, people were so poor they wore plastic bags for shoes and boots!  In America?  In Joni Ernst’s America?!  (No, actually, Ronald Reagan’s America, if you want to be clear, but more on that in a minute.)

Like much of Ernst’s speech, the bread bag story really means nothing.

I grew up a few years ahead of Joni Ernst and using bread bags in boots was not that uncommon.  Kids wore them on their socks, not on the outside of the boot, to keep socks dry.  This usually was necessary because kids played outside a lot in the 1970s, even in the winter, and the felt in winter boots would get wet.  Wet felt does not keep a foot as warm as dry felt.  It is even worse if that felt wets your wool socks.  The solution — a temporary one until you could dry your boots overnight over a heating register — was the plastic bags.  It was imperfect, but you could still get back outside and not loose your toes to the cold.  (It was colder back then, too…it really was.)

We were not poor, we were not ashamed…we were resourceful.

(By the way, Joni Ernst did say she wore plastic bags over her nice shoes on rainy days.  I can’t say she didn’t.  But does this seem practical, even for an “ordinary Iowan”?)

Joni Ernst appears to want us to think this marks here as average, perhaps even poor, and so familiar with the common struggle of many Americans, if not worse.  She also lamented — through a fixed smile, deservedly worthy of parody — that she had only one pair of good shoes. ONLY one pair?  I’m not sure that’s much of a big deal either.  As a kid I imagine I had one pair of good shoes, too.  These were the shoes you wore to your aunt’s house for family parties or maybe to school for the Christmas concert.  Back then kids didn’t have shelves of new shoes stacked up waiting to be grown out of in a year’s time.  (We played outside back then, remember, not in the malls with mom and dad.)

But more shocking, I think, is how much Joni Ernst’s story misses the point entirely.  Of course her conservative audience won’t notice (mostly because they don’t care to think), but even a simple mind can sort it out.  Think about it…surely there are many people today who probably still don’t have a pair of “nice shoes”?  Does Joni Ernst realize that?  She’s smiling into the camera telling us that as a little girl she had only one pair of nice shoes, when many people in America likely don’t have even that, children and adults alike.  That’s the problem, Joni…that’s the problem you miss.  If the common American is your audience, why hide in the past when talking about hardship?  Why make that effort to make it personal?  I would argue there is something to hide.

Joni Ernst was born in 1970.  So when she was a kid and into her teen years, she lived in the Reagan era.  Isn’t that right?  Conservatives have made a myth of the man, have they not?  We are reminded — erroneously — of all the good that Reagan did for the average American.  Well then, why is Joni Ernst carrying on about her bread bag shoes in Reagan’s “morning in America”?  Or maybe more significantly, if the conservative revolution Reagan unleashed indeed was so good for America, why are we talking about a decimated middle class today?

Ask conservatives, are we better off today compared with post-WWII decades conservatives long to restore?  In the decades since 1980, we have taken a decidedly wrong turn.  By almost every measure that impacts average Americans, conditions are worse, not better.  It seems to me we were better off in the days of bread bags when kids had only one pair of nice shoes.

Isn’t it strange that Joni Ernst has to go back to the 1970s and 1980s for a story in response to Barack Obama’s state of the union speech?  I think so.  The point is the Republicans really haven’t much of a story to tell about the recent decades that puts them in a positive light.

Of course Republicans don’t see it that way.  They seem incapable of grasping the breadth and context of issues, they don’t understand nuance, they seem unable to follow cause-and-effect lines of reasoning.  You name the issue — economic, social, political — they live in these safe little narratives where everything is true merely because someone they trust says it is true.  Opinion trumps facts.  If I am wrong, give me an example.  One example will do.

Joni Ernst isn’t the problem — not directly — it is her narrative, the story she tells.  It reveals a shallow understanding of the world in which we live, one that is shared by too many people who eagerly nod approvingly to the false anecdotes she creates, that is the problem.

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