Neal Milner: Can Hawaii Remain A 1980s Oasis In A Modern Political World? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeHawaii is in a long-time political bubble that will last through the coming midterms as well as the general election in November.

After that, though, certainly by the 2024 elections, there is a strong chance that our bubble will burst.

For now, while the rest of the country’s politics go crazy, Hawaii election night coverage will have a 1980s vibe, as if Bob Sevey were still anchoring, Joe Moore was doing sports, and Pogo and Checkers were more popular than Huntley and Brinkley.

No fancy charts, no decision desks, no breathless projections. Just a bunch of people like me calmly talking story while waiting for the next printout for the few results that weren’t decided already after the first printout.

Coverage is a remnant of kinda old Hawaii, like double-knit slacks and breezy, misty Kanikapila concerts at Andrews Amphitheater.

Election night coverage is ho hum because Hawaii’s politics are ho hum. You can only add so much hot fudge, whipped cream and cherries. The sundae is still vanilla.

Even if you think the big races have been heated (I don’t), they are heated in a predictable Hawaii election way.

If there are differences, say between Progressive and moderate Democratic candidates or Trumpist and other conservative Republicans, they are muted.

Republican gubernatorial candidates, from left to right, Duke Aiona, BJ Penn and Heidi Tsuneyoshi, are competing in the Aug. 13 primary. But Republicans are unlikely to win in the general election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

For that matter, most of the Republican candidates for the state’s highest offices are effectively muted out of existence months before the midterm takes place.

There are a few close races, at least close by Hawaii standards, but it’s hard work to sustain excitement about a lieutenant governor primary race or even about the governor’s races for both parties, which are likely to be decided one minute after the first printout.

Fresh Faces

Incumbents win, moderates win, fresh faces win only if there are no stale faces running, which is seldom the case.

People here say they want change, fresh faces, and candidates who are not politicians. That describes Vicki Cayetano who is by all indications getting skunked by the leading candidate and long-time politician Josh Green, who you just may have noticed by the scrubs he wears morning noon and night, is a medical doc.

As for Republican fresh faces, Heidi Tsuneyoshi would seem to fit that bill. Except that her poll numbers indicate that her chances are less likely than an accurate rail completion date.

And BJ Penn who, it appeared, could have mobilized the more insurgent, new kinds of Republican voters, has turned out to be a dud.

So, the primary winner will be former lieutenant governor and defeated candidate for governor Duke Aiona who entered the race so late that he was maybe one missed stoplight away from blowing the deadline.

Trump’s influence on the state’s Republicans? Steal, stopping the steal? This doesn’t come up as part of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is ratcheting up in ways we are only beginning to understand. As Thomas Edsall recently put it, “Red and Blue America Will Never Be the Same.”

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have become more extreme, but the party realignments are the most significant developments.

Changing Party Bases

The parties’ bases are changing in ways they haven’t for at least 70 years. As recent elections have shown, Democrats are no longer the party of the working class, and Republicans no longer have the same suburban white-collar base.

Close to three-quarters of the richest congressional districts are held by Democrats. A majority of the poorest districts are Republicans.

Instead of divides based on social class, the country is dividing along more fluid, complex lines like religion, education, rural versus non-rural, and region.

Fights within both parties are legion and brutal.

This trend began before Trump. He intensified it, but it is likely to continue, Trump or not. This all is, in Edsall’s words, “a profound upheaval.”

Hawaii seems to be an island of old-school, stable politics in an ocean of scary disruption. At least people think so. That’s our bubble.

The most common response to the view of Hawaii’s bubble is “good!” Lucky we live in Hawaii.

The beat goes on from there — all other common ways people think about Hawaii, all of them complimentary and reassuring: people are different here; the aloha spirit keeps political nastiness from developing; it’s cultural.

There are several things wrong with those responses. First, they are conventional, which means we accept them without thinking. Those responses are conversation stoppers.

Second, these optimistic views are based on virtually no reliable information, but rather on wishful thinking and motivational reasoning instead of facts.

Political understanding of this place is so surface-y and way too much focused on big shots and elections.

There are no recent studies of Hawaii’s political culture. There is little information about whether people here have changed their views over time.

All we get are some scattered polls usually around election time and some here and there public opinion polls about some issues, which is an inaccurate and limited way to use polls.

Nationally polls show the majority of Republican voters think the 2020 election was stolen. Also, Republicans are far less interested or convinced by the House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Recently Tsuneyoshi said the same things about the Jan. 6 attack: “I think we have to see how everything plays out. I don’t have an opinion of the insurrection. I think that’s a sensationalized situation. I think there was a lot of dynamics that were involved in that day.”

Nationally the majority of Republican voters think the 2020 election was stolen. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

A Political Island

A common sentiment nationally, and I would guess also here. But it’s still a guess about important information.

Look at all the national changes I mentioned above. It’s impossible to offer any informed opinion about whether they are happening in Hawaii.

To sum up, there is no relevant, up to date body of knowledge about politics in Hawaii. The longer I live here, the less confident I am about what we know.

This is not such a big deal if you believe that Hawaii can remain an isolated island politically, but that’s doubtful for a couple of reasons.

First, and I am just reminding you of what you already know, Hawaii has been and will continue to be profoundly affected by outside cultural forces.

Second, and more to the point, national politics bleed everywhere. We may not see much of these changes in the 2022 elections, Edsall says. But, he concludes, all the ferment “suggests that the balance of political power is more fluid than widely recognized.”

“It should undermine the confidence of those predicting victory for either the left or the right in 2024.”

It is tempting, because it is reassuring, to be confident that Hawaii will remain a 1980s oasis in a 2024 political world.

You may find it hard to imagine such changes here. But then again most of you, certainly me, could never have imagined as recently as 10 years ago that U.S. politics would be what it’s become. Or that you have become what you’ve become.

So, make your choices and mail in your 2022 ballot.

At the same time, undermine the confidence you may have about Hawaii being an oasis down the road.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Your sentence here is certainly correct: "Instead of divides based on social class, the country is dividing along more fluid, complex lines like religion, education, rural versus non-rural, and region."The biggest divide between the two parties at this time has to do with education, religion, and democracy versus fascism. It is obvious that most Republicans, especially Maga supporters, are not very educated. The vast majority of people who attend churches, are not educated. Democracy is on the brink right now because the Republican Party supports fascism. There's no easier way to put it. I am proud to be awake and woke.

Scotty_Poppins · 2 days ago

An interesting, if somewhat myopic, view of the state of Hawaii politics. The political turmoil of the mainland is mainly driven by national economic decisions made in the last 25 years or so and their subsequent impact on the middle and working classes. That impact being fear, resentment and anger. People who are thriving economically are generally happy and won't burn down their cities or attack their capitol. Hawaii has so far been largely immune from these trends as it's main industry, tourism, has continued to grow. However, this is all soon to change IMO. The young can no longer afford to buy a house or raise a family. The state and county governments no longer seem to be able to fix any problems, regardless of the amount of money they throw at it. The rail and underfunded public pension system will soak up future state resources and might even bankrupt the state. And, Hawaii is already the highest taxed state in the country. Politicians are unable to diversify the economy while anger towards tourism grows. All of this will reach a boiling point in the not to distant future and Hawaii will face it's own version of political upheaval.

Downhill_From_Here · 4 days ago

The reason Hawai'i is in the bubble Neal describes is because the Republican party is so weak. There's virtually no primary competition for Republicans, which means they don't need to compete to be further to the right than their competitors, as is the case in many mainland races. And because the Democrats are so dominant, in most cases the Democrat primary ballot determines the General Election winners. Candidates who present too far left are unlikely to win. These combine to leave us with a much more centrist legislature than Congress, and many other states. So those who wish for a stronger two party system here, be careful what you wish for. It might have worked in the past, but as Neal suggests, national trends will bleed into local politics, and a stronger two party system here will likely lead to what we see in Washington. Non-partisan County elections are the right direction for us, as is ranked choice voting, into which we'll be dipping our toes soon. We need to extend those both further.

Rob · 4 days ago

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