January 16, 2005


The Red Sea: Want to know why George Bush won? Set sail into the crimson heart of America (David Von Drehle, January 16, 2005, Washington Post)

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

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?"

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.

All I could answer was that we were tired of hearing pundits tell us about "Red America" and wanted a firsthand look. For months, the passions had been running awfully high. 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. 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. When I first saw that county-by-county map, I felt drawn to go there, to hear for myself why George Bush was reelected. I did this knowing that Bush voters can be found anywhere. Why not just stay home and hunt for some here? I guess for the same reason a person might visit China and not just Chinatown. [...]

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.

"Not at all," Democrat Terry Kloke answered. "I find people value your opinion here. I don't think they mind at all if you tell them what you think. The fact is, you see pretty much everybody every day, so there are not many secrets in a place like Waco. Everybody pretty much knows everything about everybody. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know."

The pressure is, therefore, to conform to behavioral standards, not so much to certain political viewpoints. That's a very good thing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 16, 2005 8:35 PM

I know several fine Democrats around my home county, we just have the good sense not to elect them to public office. Ever.

Posted by: Dan at January 16, 2005 8:50 PM

"We've got both kinds of music here in Bob's Country Bunker, Country and Western!" (from memory)

I just had a short visit to the heart of La-La Land this week, for all their vaunted talk of "diversity", there's a small minded sameness in the residents of that area that I find oppressive.

(I must be living well, because the rains ended just before I arrived.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 16, 2005 10:43 PM

So the prospect of affordable housing horrifies him? Weird. Deeply weird.

Posted by: John Thacker at January 16, 2005 11:23 PM

Not that weird. If you're paying thirty five hundred a month to live in San Francisco or Manhattan, you've got a lot of incentive to insist that you're buying a superior (as opposed to simply overpriced) lifestyle, and from there it's a short leap to insisting that you're a better class of person.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 17, 2005 12:54 AM

Remember, while the stereotypical image is of the rural bumpkins fearful of going to The Big City, there are lots of big city Blue Staters out there scared to venture west of the New Jersey Turnpike or the Captial Beltway for fear they'll be treated worse than James Byrd or Matthew Sheppard. The post-election pictograph by ABC's Carole Simpson showing the convergence of Red State America with the Confederacy was one of the more obvious examples of the type of thinking that goes on among the media elites in those areas, and it's that sort of mindset that results in these once-every-four-years anthropoligical tours into the American Outback to see if those people who actually vote Republican are really members of the same species as those living along the coastlines.

Posted by: John at January 17, 2005 1:00 AM

WaPo editor to von Drehle,

"Dust off the 'country mouse/city mouse' story, willya?"

Well read, that editor. Knows his Aesop.


Posted by: Ed Bush at January 17, 2005 10:40 AM

Editor to von Drehle,

"Hey, Dave. When you get a moment, dust off the country mouse/city mouse story, willya?"

Now that's one well-read editor. He knows his Aesop, he does.

Posted by: Ed Bush at January 17, 2005 10:50 AM

Editor to von Drehle,

"Hey, Dave. Dust off that country mouse/city mouse story again, willya?"

Now that's one well-read editor. He really knows his Aesop.

Posted by: Ed Bush at January 17, 2005 10:57 AM