Saturday, January 22

Translations: David Von Drehle

Parting The Red Sea
Mike Marchand
January 21, 2005

Last Tuesday, Washington Post writer David Von Drehle wrote a piece called “The Red Sea“, in which he takes the pulse of red-state voters. Some bloggers, like Tim Blair, shredded Von Drehle ruthlessly, while others, like Lileks, cut him some slack. I would agree with Lileks when he states, “You get the sense . . . that he’s gently breaking the news to people who regard the Red Staters as different and separate. The Amish, with zippers.” Except that there are some segments of the piece which, I think, clearly betray Von Drehle's cover as an ex-Red Stater just trying to defend his fellow Flyover Country residents and reveals that he’s a fully converted Blue Stater who does in fact consider the Red Staters different and separate; the Amish with less noble motives. Lileks concedes that’s a possibility, but doesn’t feel like fisking to prove his point. I do, and I'll note when I'm in that mode.

Early in December, with a photographer and his assistant, I drove from Nebraska, near the geographical center of the United States . . .

Translation: Geographic center, yes. Philosophical, political, cultural? Not even frickin' close. Some might say that, looking on a map of the continental U.S., it's quite clear that the geographical center would be in Nebraska, seeing as how it's, well, right in the center. But I'm assuming most of my readership graduated from urban public schools, so I therefore have to mention it.

. . . to the heart of Texas -- more than 700 miles, through empty spaces and sprawling cities and all or part of four states. We headed pretty much due south, no dodging or weaving. And never did we pass within 100 miles of a county that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in the recent election.

We were voyaging on the Red Sea.

T: Can you believe the Post paid me to do this? Good thing they did, or I never would have taken the assignment.

I feel like one of those conquering cultural thieves they read about in school and still celebrate holidays for instead of changing them to “Indigenous People‘s Day.” Ooh, even better, I feel like that fellow they all watch on TV . . . what‘s his name? Oh yeah, Steve Irwin. Crikey! “Now waaatch, as I fearlessly mingle among the primitive, and veerrry daaaangerous species called ‘rednecks!’”

This Red Sea does not appear on any map but one. Or let's say, it appears most clearly on one particular map. This map is marked with the boundaries of the 3,141 counties or county equivalents in the 50 United States. Counties where Kerry won more votes than President Bush are colored blue. The rest, the counties carried by Bush, are red.


T: Again I must assume you haven't seen this map, either, because it might shatter your idea that John Kerry lost in a close election, probably stolen by Diebold.

Blue islands and blue archipelagos, a blue isthmus here, a blue peninsula there, rise in a Red Sea that stretches from coast to coast. Rise quite literally, in many cases, because blue country is often marked by skyscrapers and high-rise condos and state capitol domes and university clock towers. Red country, as we shall see, is often quite flat.

T: And half the time I couldn't get my cell phone to work because there wasn't a tower around. My God, how do these people LIVE?

Mike Says: Notice the dripping condescension in what Von Drehle is saying: Blue Nation is smart and powerful; Red Nation is not. And I could counter the “flat” part by noting that churches, office parks, and, yes, the awesome natural beauty of mountains several times higher than the tallest skyscraper “rise” out of Red country, but I’ll trade that for the implicit rebuke of the “rich = Republican” argument. Thanks, Dave.

We met dozens of people along the way. We asked them about themselves, about their communities, about their votes. Some were leery of us. Several asked politely: "What are you trying to accomplish?" Others were more blunt: "What's your angle?" Another version: "What are you hoping to find?"

T: Evidently the Dale Earnhardt T-shirt and blue jeans I wore in an attempt to blend in didn't help. That or my cowboy boots and hat are both backwards.

We met Bruce Owen outside Abilene, Kan. He invited us into his home, introduced us to his wife, Donna -- and then seemed to wish he hadn't. He told us he rarely saw people like himself portrayed in "the media," except as objects of derision.

He had a point there.

T: Just wait until you see what I'm going to do to you people.

All I could answer was that we were tired of hearing pundits tell us about "Red America" and wanted a firsthand look.

T: So then I could go back to Washington and . . . tell them about “Red America." Hmm. Perhaps I should have brought a bigger expedition. You know, like those cornfed hat-wearing dopes who tromp through D.C. taking pictures of everything.

A lot of Democrats seemed settled on the belief that Bush supporters were stupid and selfish and sanctimonious, when they weren't downright religious fanatics and bigots.

T: I don't intend on changing their minds.

Whereas the Republican op-ed types seemed to feel that every conservative voter west of the Mississippi was somehow endowed with an innate wisdom and bedrock virtue not seen since the last days of Socrates.

Mike Says: Obviously he doesn‘t read many Republican op-eds. We don't discriminate geographically. We think ALL conservative voters are “endowed with an innate wisdom and bedrock virtue not seen since the last days of Socrates.” ;)

All kidding aside, I notice one thing: left-wingers HAVE, in so many words, called Bush voters stupid, selfish, bigots, et cetera. But I defy anyone to find any right-wing op-ed which states we're the smartest and best humans to walk the planet in 2000+ years. You can’t. But Von Drehle needed something to balance out the ideological fury. Red staters don’t think this way. Why should we? We won! Blue staters are angry and frustrated and lashing out in fits of hysterical polemics.

I do appreciate that he didn't play into the religion argument by using Jesus instead of Socrates, though.

When I first saw that county-by-county map, I felt drawn to go there, to hear for myself why George Bush was reelected.

T: ’Cause we sure as hell can't figure it out here at the Post. I don't know anyone who voted for him.

. . .

Here, on the eve of the president's second inauguration, is an honest effort to set down what I saw, what I heard, what I thought and what I learned.

T: In order: mostly farms; a lot of silence; “God, these people are boring"; and “God, these people are boring" again. Unfortunately, the Post wanted about 8000 more words.

. . .

One of the first things worth noting about the Red Sea is that people live there because they like it . . . This basic fact strikes wonder in some city dwellers, who live in cities because they love cities. They love the bustle, the myriad options, the surprises and the jolts and the competition. It can require a leap of imagination to perceive that there are people who seek precisely the opposite, and not just on weekends and vacations.

T: I still don't believe it myself. Somehow, some way, I think Wal-Mart is responsible.

"I like driving where I am the only one on the road," said Paul Kern. We found him next door to the lounge, scraping the mud from his boots outside the Waco [Nebraska] post office. He is a big man, a Lutheran minister, a native of Milwaukee.

"I like being able to shout and have nobody hear me. I like to be able to throw a snowball as far as I can and not hit anybody or anything. See, I was raised in a city with houses on each side of ours just five feet away, and an alley, and a -- aw, what's the word? A curb! The inner city. My father wouldn't let me have a dog because he said it would bother the neighbors. Out here I can have a dog and a cat. In fact, I have four cats."

He volunteered this as a way of explaining why he voted for George Bush.

T: Good Lord. This idiot voted for Bush because of snowballs? Watch what I do to him in a few paragraphs:

. . .

I couldn't help noticing that among the people Paul Kern won't likely hit with a far-flung snowball are black people, openly gay people and people born in foreign countries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, York County, Neb., is 97 percent white and more than 98 percent U.S.-born. One of the area's distinctive entertainments is, Kern said, "watching a ballgame where all the kids on both teams are white, if you can believe that.

"Not that there's anything wrong with the other!" he hastened to add. "But just to show you how it is around here."

Kern returned several times to his belief that cities have become dangerous, expensive, disorderly places, in contrast with the safe and dependable countryside. And he seemed convinced that there is some causal link between the unpleasantness of that other America -- the one beyond the Red Sea -- and the variety of people who live there. The idea of diversity appeared to be meshed in his mind with the specter of change, and change is clearly something he prefers to avoid. Monochrome Nebraska, as he put it, is "the last frontier. Where else do you have a place where you don't have to worry about crime, about juvenile delinquency, where you can leave your doors unlocked?"

The sameness of a place like Waco is not limited to race and ethnicity. Religious diversity consists largely in the difference between Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and Missouri Synod Lutherans. Most people you see appear to be of roughly the same economic class. Homes are all modestly scaled; on a random day near Christmas, of 62 houses for sale in the nearby city of York, only one cost more than $200,000. The stories Nebraskans hear of members of Congress struggling to live on $150,000 a year in Washington simply astound them. "I'd own this whole town with that kind of money!" Kern marveled. "I could live like a king."

I wondered if all this sameness created a pressure to conform to prevailing political views.

T: Smile, I just made you famous. Paul Kern, meet John Rocker. Don't try getting on the 6 train in New York anytime soon. Stay here in Monochrome, sucker.

Mike Says: Here Von Drehle lost me, permanently. Everyone knows there's not a lot of blacks in Nebraska, and it seems ludicrous to envision a gay couple starting a farm. But Von Drehle feels the need to post this demographic information as if there's a sign at the York County Line that says NO BLACKS, NO GAYS, AND NO HEATHENS, OR WE’LL THROW SNOWBALLS AT YOU!

All that said, Kern dug his own grave a little bit. Bruce Owen, that guy from Kansas, was smart enough to play it as cool as possible, and while Von Drehle couldn’t believe his suspicion, Owen’s intuition was right. He smelled a rat.

Despite his loose lips, I find it somewhat hard to believe that Kern really equated diversity with crime, though. Since Von Drehle’s quote machine suddenly stopped working, I consider it much more likely that he connected those dots on his own. One benign but semi-racist statement plus complaining about crime equals a poster child for the ignorant anti-diversity hicks in Red America. It shouldn’t surprise anyone: ask a liberal what he thinks of Nixon’s Southern Strategy or Bush 41’s Willie Horton ads. They naturally consider “anti-crime” a supersecret code for racial bigotry.

I also think this way because Von Drehle clearly has a problem with the logic of causality, wondering if all the uniformity in the Red Sea was the reason so many people vote Republican. But all the diversity in major cities didn't stop them from voting for Kerry by clips of 2-to-1 or better. As Tim Blair noted in his fisking, Von Drehle needed to look no further than his backyard of Washington, D.C. to find homogeneity in voting that makes Waco, Nebraska look like the UN Security Council. But Von Drehle insisted on “visiting China and not just Chinatown,” so he must not have noticed that.

. . .

When blue Americans and red Americans talk about each other, a fundamental disagreement has to do with which side is trying to ruin the other side's life. At the risk of oversimplifying, many blue Americans believe that Bush voters are trying to shove conservative morals into liberal bedrooms, to mandate prayer before intercourse, for example, and replace Victoria's Secret with Gladys's Nightshirts.

Conversely, many red Americans believe that liberals seek the spread of promiscuity and license into every village and dell and that they won't be truly happy until vibrators are distributed in grade schools.

T: Which we’d never do, of course, at least not since Jocelyn Elders resigned as Surgeon General.

Mike Says: Again, another strained attempt to find balance on the right for the moonbats’ open hostility. I’ll cut him some slack on this one because it is funny.

. . .

[T]he more people we talked to, the more I realized that Bush was helped enormously in this part of the country by the fact that he ran virtually unopposed. Kerry spent nothing on advertising in the Red Sea states; the unions and other groups that supported him put little or no effort into spreading his message here. Many of those we encountered spoke of Kerry as they might speak of a distant relative they had never met but had merely heard mention of as children at a family gathering.

"I didn't know too much about Kerry," Elaine Bowers said.

"I couldn't get a real feeling he knew what he was going to do," said Bruce Owen.

T: If only Kerry had been smart enough to campaign and advertise here, maybe these idiots might have realized what a wonderful guy he was. *dreamy sigh*

Mike Says: . . . nothing. I'm speechless. Well, one thing: might Bruce Owen not “getting a real feeling what he was going to do” be more an example of knowing Kerry too well, as opposed to not well enough?

. . .

At a gas station in Asher [Oklahoma], we spoke to Joyce Smith, an immaculate woman in a bright red suit with her hair neatly done under a scarf. She was driving her husband, James, from their home in Coalgate to the capital for some medical tests. She smiled when we asked about her vote.

"Well, you know, real Bible-believing Christians are in a minority in this country," she answered, "so I was a little concerned that Kerry could win. I am so thankful that he didn't. See, I believe if our president has good morals, our country will be blessed, and if he doesn't, we won't. That's what the Bible says, in the Old Testament."

Smith has led "quite a life," as she put it -- abandoned by one husband in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo; widowed by husband No. 2 with retirement approaching and no nest egg. Through it all, she kept the faith she first professed when she was 12 years old, having been coaxed to baptism by her sixth-grade teacher.

T: Because obviously she wouldn’t have voluntarily become religious. Jesus Christ, haven’t these people heard of the Establishment Clause? If only we’d given her a vibrator.

She was too polite to say, in so many words, that she felt John Kerry was a man of bad morals. Instead, she put it this way: "When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn't see our country being led by someone like that."

Later, I double-checked what Kerry had said on those subjects. During his campaign, he opposed same-sex marriage and said that abortion was a private matter. But Joyce Smith heard it the way she heard it, and voted the way she voted.

T: Obviously she watches FOX News.

Mike Says: And the analogous Democratic counterexample is . . . ? Oh, I guess we don't get one. Von Drehle bends over backwards to come up with some kind of balance whenever he admits that some left-wingers drank too much Kool-Aid. But he either isn’t honest enough or isn’t man enough to, say, offer that some Democrats got suckered by boogeyman draft scares, or constant “Bush Lied Soldiers Died” drumbeats.

I don’t suppose, since Von Drehle did all the research, that he could even admit that despite what Kerry said or what Ms. Smith heard, Kerry actually voted against the partial-birth abortion ban and against the Defense Of Marriage Act. But maybe if he just spent more money in Oklahoma . . .

. . .

Before the trip, I heard a lot about a book that claimed to explain how people like Joyce Smith and Bruce Owen and Paul Kern . . . have been tricked by the moneyed class into voting against their own best interests. I found a copy of What's the Matter With Kansas? at a bookstore in Ada and began reading it as we resumed our southward journey.

The author, Thomas Frank, grew up in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City and received a PhD in cultural criticism from the University of Chicago. His book is a lament for the lost prairie Populism of years gone by -- not the Ku Klux Klan aspect, which he never mentions, but the capitalist-scourging aspect of William Jennings Bryan and the Farmer's Alliance.

In Frank's view, if Red Sea residents knew what was good for them, they would vote for capitalist-scourging Populists today. But they don't know what's good for them, Frank explains, because of "a species of derangement." The deranged people of the Midwest are no longer able to make "certain mental connections about the world," because those once-"reliable leftists" have been deluded into caring about moral issues.

I marveled at Frank's discovery of a strong leftist tradition in Kansas, a state that has voted for the Republicans in 30 of the 36 presidential elections since 1860, including twice against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And I thought maybe Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian who denounced Darwin's theories of evolution at the famous Scopes trial, might have a lot in common with some of the so-called values voters of 2004. But Frank kept me reading until it was too dark to read anymore.

T: And thank God; Your Best Life Now and The Purpose-Driven Life were starting to get real old. Also . . . in that third paragraph, I subtly switched from “Frank‘s view” to a neutral tone. I wonder if anybody noticed?

Mike Says: Yup.

. . .

Unemployed, burdened by student-loan debt, raising young kids -- and voting for Bush because of "his morals and his ethics." Mark Pack seemed like a perfect person to ask about Thomas Frank's theory of deranged hicks who cannot make mental connections about their own best interests.

"Mao said basically the same thing when he talked about religion being the opiate of the masses," Pack answered. "And wasn't it Lincoln who said you can't fool all of the people all of the time? Bush got 54 million votes, and I don't think they were all from blatant idiots. I think we get really carried away by generalizations in this country.

"It's a shame moral values are not taken seriously in the blue states," Pack said, in a generalization of his own.

T: Wasn’t that neat, that little comment? I almost made it seem like he said the “moral values” bit right after he got all uppity, quoting Chairman Mao and Abe Lincoln.

Mike Says: Bush got 59 million votes on Election Day. Von Drehle should be leaping to correct him any minute now.

Any minute now.

Any minu — oh, forget it.

. . .

I wanted to meet a member of that class of people so dear to George W. Bush that he has extolled them in nearly every campaign speech he has ever given: an entrepreneur. In Bush's America, such figures are the engines not only of economic growth but of creativity, opportunity and civic improvement.

T: In Blue America, we criticize them for not giving their employees health insurance, then for selling off stock and leaving their employees without a retirement fund.

Mike Says: “Bush’s America.” “such figures.” It’s obvious Von Drehle regards anywhere that anybody might believe this stuff to be a fantasyland of deluded morons. “In Candy Land, such gingerbread men are the givers not only of marshmallows, but of caring, happiness and love.”

. . .

That's what I found:

After a campaign in which the Democrat made very little effort to seek their votes, the Red Sea folks decided to cast their ballots in large numbers for George W. Bush. Something he said or did struck a chord with some note of their own political music. Maybe it was the feeling that bureaucrats just don't get it. Or the idea that elitists hold the heartland in contempt. Maybe it was the worry that traditions are under attack. Maybe it was the view that coastal culture is an enemy, not a friend, in the effort to raise children. For some, it was the feeling of authenticity and apparent horse sense. The attitude toward land and resources that comes from living amid an abundance of both. The significance of personal faith.

T: Came all this way and still didn’t figure anything out, except that Democrats can even win over these sorry fools if they invest the time, speak the language, and then get the hell out before they go mad. Basically, just what I did, only plus kissing babies. They eat that crap up here.

In short, I found ordinary people with various motivations, sundry stories, personal beliefs, custom-made decisions.

I suppose there are no great surprises there -- these views represent many of the strands that have been collected over the past generation into the political camp we call "conservative." But the focus on this common label may obscure the individual nature of these voting decisions. I met regular churchgoers and people who attend church seldom if ever. I met young libertarians and elderly prims. I met a wealthy man and a man unemployed and deeply in debt. I met people who admire Bush and people who have little regard for him.

I imagine this might disappoint those people who seek a large and unified explanation of something as important as a presidential election. How much more satisfying it is -- especially for those who make a living from explaining elections in catchy sound bites -- to conjure up overarching themes, towering trends, looming like alps over an election. Nothing sells like a big trend story, whether the trend is "right-wing backlash" or "values revival."

T: Don't believe any of this. I just needed a good, writerly conclusion. In truth, they are really all the same: white, religious, heterosexual, bigoted, stupid, and bland, so horribly banal I wanted to scream. Remember my "overarching theme": the lack of diversity? Think of that instead. Hopefully that'll sell.

One afternoon, about 3 o'clock, we turned off Kansas highway 15, down a mud track in an expanse of nowhere. We stopped and got out of the car. . . . Turning slowly where I stood, I took in the whole 360-degree horizon, which bisected the curve of sky like the base of a snow globe. And for a moment it felt like we were in a world apart, so distinct and separate did this lonely sheet of earth appear. But I knew that if we set off and kept going, we'd meet up eventually with Blue America.

T: As long as we didn’t run out of gas. Please tell me you filled it up. Please, for the love of God. They’ll kill us all if we stay, or make us watch NASCAR or The Passion Of The Christ, in which case I'd rather they killed us.

In a tangible sense, even after this bitter election, something connected this land to that one, something more durable than fear and loathing, though it was beyond my view.

T: All I got is the fear and loathing. Are we still seceding?

An industry has been set up to convince us otherwise, but I'm here to tell you that a person can get from there to here, and here to there. Maybe next time, the Democrats might give it a try.

In that light, I looked again, and the world seemed to float off in every direction toward new beginnings and fresh possibilities.

T: When these become part of Blue America, we’ll change it all. Skyscrapers and university clock towers as far as the eye can see. My God, it will be beautiful.

Mike Says: Red America: pessimistic and dead. Blue America: optimistic and alive with promise. Don't wake him. He's obviously having a wonderful dream and I'd hate to spoil it.


Location: Mishawaka, Indiana, United States

I graduated with an English degree from the University Of Notre Dame in 2001, and in 2008 I have a day job that has nothing to do with my degree but gets the bills paid in a semi-regular fashion. (I have running water five days a week!) The idea is that once I get turned around on my bills, I go to grad school. I also have an idea for cold fusion. Anyone's guess which will be feasible first. In non-work mode, I'm usually reading columns by famous and well-read thinkers, blogs by critically praised writers, or sometimes blogs by overzealous cranks who make me laugh. I yearn to be all three at once; until then I'll settle for being the third. I also have an undying love for the Chicago Cubs and Notre Dame football. Praise them and I'll buy you a beer; curse them and I'll dump it over your head. If that's not enough, I'm becoming quite the fan of no-limit Texas Hold'em. My games have one of two results: I either win all the money or whine because I didn't win all the money.

marchandchronicles -at-

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July 2006
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Essays on whatever I feel like writing about.

August 8, 2005: High Gas Prices
August 1, 2005: Judge Roberts' Hearings
June 20, 2005: Senator Durbin's Comments
May 23, 2005: Newsweek & Pepsi
May 2, 2005: Al Gore's MoveOn Speech
April 25, 2005: Lebanon
April 18, 2005: The Nuclear Option
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January 31, 2005: Iraqi Elections
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What's Your Line?


I absolutely love the name of your site.

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Just the name? Not the content? . . . I'll take it.

You have something in common with Dave Barry, Hemingway, and Mark Steyn: I'm not linking to them, either.


That's good stuff there Mark.

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Psst, it's "Mike."

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