von Drehle’s Trek through the Great Red Plains

I’ve spent most of my life along the north/south axis that David von Drehle describes as “The Red Sea” in The Washington Post. (Thanks to Instapundit & before him, Tim Blair.) Not surprisingly, his take on life lived across that swath of America roughly from Waco, Nebraska to Waco, Texas is a bit condescending. He implies that, knowing little of Kerry because he didn’t campaign there, these people were timid. He sums up his impressions rather early:

The decision to vote for Bush instead seemed wrapped up in the age-old city vs. rural dichotomy, change vs. tradition, theory vs. horse sense, new vs. familiar.

Open-minded vs. closed-minded, offered Pam Sackschewsky from behind the bar at Hunters. She’s a Kerry voter.

This ignores the fact that, as Tim Blair points out, the author comes from an area that voted 10 to 1 for Kerry, while the “red sea” went pro-Bush 4 to 1, implying more independent thinking. (Anyone who has spent much time among those aggressively independent entrepreneurs of the plains knows they don’t hold conformity in high regard – certainly not as in the news rooms of the east.)

I was struck both by von Drehle’s rather narrow perspective and by the tone of the people he met.

While von Drehle is no Matthew Engle (subject of Lileks masterpiece on the Olive Garden,), he is a bit clueless. The more perceptive Gaddis argues Bush is reformulating America’s foreign policy as only two or three other presidents have. His is a new world and he is defining America’s approach to it in a new way. Nor have Bush’s domestic ambitions been small – privatizing (in part) social security, trying to make the educational system accountable. Sure, Bush believes in, clearly loves the American tradition, but to love it is to understand its emphasis upon change, upon the pragmatic, upon, indeed, revolution. Do these people really think that Kerry or, heaven forbid, Teddy Kennedy are the revolutionaries on the scene today? The people along the great corridor feel comfortable with Bush because he fits into the tradition they know. They feel he is “one of them” as they are not likely to feel about Kerry. But, being one of them means being tough, being open to change, seeing the world as frontier.

By the way, ninety to a hundred years ago, this was the first stop for a variety of immigrants. What von Drehle sees as homogeneous became that way over a period of time. That is called “Americanization” and it is still practiced on the plains. These towns, like neighborhoods in large cities, may be homogeneous; however, the states are not. I suspect, for instance, that von Drehle has had little interaction with a Mennonite community nor found the timing and dates of school functions changed because three or four students were Seventh Day Adventists. By this kind of drive-through reporting, von Drehle is likely to get some things right but make generalizations less likely to hold.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group of any size in these areas that didn’t include a homosexual. His remark is really bizarre. If he believes that Kinsey overstates, but not by that much, the percentage of homosexuals and if he believes that homosexuality is at least to some extent biologically determined, does he believe that no one knows or accepts the homosexuals in these towns? Does he think people in towns of three or four hundred don’t know each other with some intimacy? He sees categories – black and Hispanic and gay and woman. These people need to play some kids’ games that teach analysis; any one person is likely to belong to a variety of categories. Living in a small town on the Platte, our family was counseled by an African-Cuban psychiatrist in the fifties. What the hell do you do with that? The Puritan plain style is appreciated on those treeless plains. When Edwards’ wife complains the Cheneys don’t respect their daughter’s “preference” after Kerry has argued that Mary Cheney would say sexuality is not a “choice,” the parsing of the difference between preference & choice is likely to leave voters of this corridor cold.

Second, von Drehle seems to think that these people are not critical because they didn’t know Kerry – if he had only campaigned, he says, he might have gotten more votes. He quotes a woman who says “When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn’t see our country being led by someone like that.” Then he argues those were not Kerry’s positions. Well, yes. But given the constant post-election Democratic complaint that the anti-Kerry vote came from anti-abortion and anti-gay bigots, it is hard to fault this woman for her sense that the opposite position was Kerry’s.

Throughut we note tone. The people von Drehle meets don’t hate Kerry. Some like Bush, some just think he was the better of two bad candidates. They have a proportionality that comes from big sky country. They are polite. Having a pretty good idea of von Drehle’s biases, they don’t insult his candidate. We’ve been told repeatedly that the red states “hate” and “fear.” We don’t see it here. If these interviews and the need for post election stress therapy to blue staters are representative, we’ve been seeing a hell of a lot of projection.

Von Drehle becomes absorbed in Frank’s book, even though he admits flaws. Both are out to find “What’s the matter?” with these people. I suspect the plains guy would say, we aren’t sure there’s anything the matter. (Paying less for their houses isn’t something they see as problematic, nor having larger yards.) They live in a world not easy nor easily controlled – whether a farm survives depends upon a good many variables. So, a mix of stoicism and independence, self-reliance and fatalism grows in this corridor. If these people chose comfort, the “old and tried,” they would not have stayed on the farm and they would not have voted for George Bush. If they were risk-averse they might have aimed at the city. If they were risk-averse, they probably would not enlist in the percentages they do.

Lakoff argues that Republicans want the government to be the father and the Democrats want the government to be the mother. But von Drehle points to an important statistic: married voters tend to vote Republican, singles Democratic. He posits some answers:

One could dream up all sorts of theories about this. Married people have, on average, a more stable financial situation. They have, on average, more avenues of support in times of trouble. You might say that marriage involves the surrender of certain personal liberties in favor of creating lasting institutions. You might say marriage favors stability over experimentation. All of these might point, on average, to a more conservative disposition.

However, one of my colleagues argues: Democrats want the state to be the husband. This has many ramifications. von Drehle argues this married/Republican link might be because “marriage involves the surrender of certain personal liberties”; he is quite right. But the broad prairie and big skies don’t encourage natives to think of the government as much of a help – it isn’t going to stop tornadoes or guarantee rainfall. True, Democratic cultural positions such voters are most opposed to tend to be ones that see the individual as pure will, unfettered. We are what we decide to be, these positions imply; marriage tends to reinforce our sense that we are what we are–and that we are connected, responsible for others. But if the state is the husband we don’t mind, even expect, intrusion in areas a married couple expects (& wants) to handle on its own; then, that “state husband” is expected to offer support, to free us to be pure unfettered will. A citizen who sees herself (or himself) as “wife” can feel less responsible: the other “half” of this intimate, even personal, partnership needs to be the responsible one, the one who saves for retirement, the one who plans for catastrophes, the one who guarantees basic comforts, who comforts & protects against insults and injuries, . . .the one who, in the village, raises the child.

5 thoughts on “von Drehle’s Trek through the Great Red Plains”

  1. This guy seems to want to play “Martian Anthropologist” to his fellow citizens. Why? These are normal, everyday people. If he wants logical disconnects and idées fixes, why not try Democratic Underground? I’m getting heartily sick of these “Oscar Wilde meets the Denizens of Langtry, Texas” pieces.

  2. Curious. It seems increasingly clear we “red-staters” know “blue-staters” so much better than they know us – we read their newspapers, magazines and books, watch their movies and television shows, listen to their music, send our children to their universities, and visit their cities for business and vacations – in short, they own the institutions that produce much if not most of America’s secular culture. Then one election and then another comes along, and a man they almost universally despise wins, and then wins again, and one of their leading newspapers sends a reporter out to determine just what in hell is wrong with the rest of us. A mirror and serious reflection would have been more useful.

  3. I know something about Nebraskans, as my mother and my husband are both from the same tiny town south of Hastings. (I will confine my comments to Nebraska, because I tired of the Von Drehle piece before he left the state…)

    One of our Nebraska friends made a point, similar to one made by Ginny. Far from being risk averse and parochial, people who inhabit the plains and make their livelihood from its bounty are gamblers. Every year they bet the farm on the weather, and then face their decision, whether for good or for ill. It might be interesting to note that we were having this discussion in his villa in al-‘Ain, Abu Dhabi, right on the border with Oman. We had driven there in our Subaru station wagon, across the edge of the ‘rub al-Khali, from our house in Saudi Arabia. That is what Nebraskans do.

    That is what you get when you mix with Nebraskans. They are people who get in a car or a plane and go somewhere new just to see how it’s done there. Our neighbor in Saudi Arabia (a Nebraskan) told a funny story about a trip he made to New Zealand. He found himself in a very remote corner of the country, and wandered into a pub. There were four other patrons there at the time. As they began to talk, they found that all of them were from Nebraska.

    I contrast this episode with a discussion I had with a gentleman on a plane. My seatmate was a lawyer from Manhattan, going to visit his sister who lived somewhere out west. He was nervous, because he would have to drive, and he said he didn’t drive very well. Geez! He was at least 45! Where is the sense of adventure? Where I come from (Idaho) you see 10-year-olds manning the wheel of a 20,000 GVW spud truck in the field. What makes the people from there feel that their experience is better than those country hicks?

    I have found that people from rural Nebraska may wear plaid and paisley together, but they know what matters. To them, you are fine just because you have a pulse. They are not fools. They just assume you are a good person and treat you in that manner, unless and until you prove otherwise.

  4. What struck me personally about the von Drehle piece was that he grew up in the same town at the same time as me–the edge of Aurora, Colorado when it was mostly cows and wheat fields, and asphalt to cover the dirt of the street where I lived was planned for sometime in the future.

    Like von Drehle I left Aurora for the more “sophisticated” milieu of the East Coast. I’ve lived in lower Manhattan for the last 20+ years. I’ve had some high-profile jobs at major media organizations. But unlike him I haven’t forgotten where I came from and I haven’t developed any self-hating contempt for who my family and I really are.

    I am struck mostly by von Drehle’s pretentiousness. He desperately wants to assert his superiority to those “rubes” he encounters on his anthropological expedition to the land of Them, and by doing so distance himself from what he really is but wishes he wasn’t.

    Back where both von Drehle and I come from that sort of behavior is readily recognized and summarily dismissed due to its phoniness. In the big sophisticated cities it seems to be encouraged and praised.

    Von Drehle’s article ends up saying a lot more about him than it does about the predictably cartoonishly portrayed Red Staters. If only von Drehle coulda been raised in Bonn, or Bern, or Berlin, or anywhere but Aurora–well, then he coulda been a contenda.

    Clearly, he ain’t.

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