Essay

RED AMERICA, BLUE AMERICA

Sure, it’s Bush vs. Kerry. But the political punch-up is a clash not just of candidates but of cultures. BOB LEVIN reflects on a nation divided.

May 17 2004
Essay

RED AMERICA, BLUE AMERICA

Sure, it’s Bush vs. Kerry. But the political punch-up is a clash not just of candidates but of cultures. BOB LEVIN reflects on a nation divided.

May 17 2004

RED AMERICA, BLUE AMERICA

Essay

Sure, it’s Bush vs. Kerry. But the political punch-up is a clash not just of candidates but of cultures. BOB LEVIN reflects on a nation divided.

ONCE UPON A TIME I was a college student in the American Midwest, a Philadelphia kid plunked down in the storied heartland. I loved it, too: the vast flat fields of corn and soybeans, the huge sky over the grain elevators and truck-stop signs, the county-seat squares with their imposing courthouses and the tidy wood or brick homes flying their Stars and Stripes. I loved swimming in old quarries or farm ponds with rope swings, and catching the cornball parades that were so much sweeter here in the real America. Jimmy Stewart dwelled in towns like this; Rod Serling could appear on any corner. I loved everything except that this was the early 70s and I was a longhair in Nixon country and his Great Silent Majority was not, in my experience, silent at all.

Venturing off-campus felt like a foray into hostile territory. Kids stared, grown-ups glared, some shouted from passing Fords and Chevys with “America: Love It or Leave It” on their bumpers. They had friends in Vietnam and didn’t take kindly to protestors. They supported their president who, as one woman told me, had “that Christian look in his eye.” Drugs were slipping into their schools and they held a public meeting where a psychologist, visiting from New York City, recalled Margaret Mead saying we were a global village and these problems were worldwide. One lady begged to differ. “We don’t have these problems until outsiders come in,” she snapped. “I can recognize anyone who comes into this county.” Much later she was still muttering about “Margaret Mead and the rest of the Communist party of the United States.”

Talk about two solitudes: who were these people?

I’ve been thinking about those days, watching the States lately. The ongoing political punch-up is a clash not just of candidates but of cultures, happening not in one nation but in two: Red America and Blue America, as the electoral maps shade them. The Red states (not as in Communist, Lord knows) are Republican and Christian and decry gun control, gay marriage and abortion; the Blues are Democratic, less religious and take a liberal line on all of the above. These are gross generalizations, of course, but in a country that still anoints its leader in a winner-take-all electoral college, generalizations rule. So the campaigns will go through the motions in the reliable Reds and Blues, while waging all-out war in the relatively few swing states like Ohio, Missouri and of course Florida.

And a furious fight it will be: if the notorious 2000 election proved nothing else, it’s that the two Americas are excruciatingly even in numbers (though the more rural Reds have a lot more land) and hold starkly opposing views of one George W. Bush. To the Reds he is a staunch, God-fearing, freedom-loving leader who rallied the nation after 9/11 to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq while cutting taxes and presiding over a recovering economy at home. The Blues, while perhaps conceding the rallyround part, have no clue what the Reds are talking about. To them Bush is a lying, simplistic, dangerous ideologue who twisted intelligence (and alienated allies) to send U.S. troops on a senseless march to Baghdad—who stoked terrorism, not smothered it—and who has run up record deficits while submitting phony budgets that pretend Afghanistan and Iraq don’t exist. I am, needless to say, firmly in the latter camp. But then I’m easily dismissible, too: not only a media guy but an urban, Eastern, die-hard Democrat now residing—suspiciously—in Canada of all places.

I ASKED whom

they’d voted for, and why. They replied “Reagan” and “God”-God was why they voted for Reagan.

Way back when, though, when I was starting out in newspapers, I lived in a few Red states (they weren’t called that then) and found it not only enjoyable but educational. In Oklahoma I covered tornadoes, fires and football, developed an enduring fondness for country music and met a lot of nice neighbourly people who invited me to church. At Christmas, trying to head off further overtures, I wrote a column about how, even growing up non-Christian, I’d always admired Yuletide traditions. The former publisher of the paper pounced on me the next day. “You’reJewish]’ she proclaimed, and proceeded to tell me that there’d once been another Jew in town, he’d left and made lots of money, they all make money and so will you. Did I take offence? No, because she didn’t mean any; she was a charming lady, just clueless. I might as well have been Martian.

In Indiana I sat in a school gym listening to rural white folks, steamed over a spate of robberies they blamed on blacks from elsewhere, grill a local prosecutor on why they couldn’t just shoot anyone who came on their property; a few had brought their rifles, just in case. This was the mid-’70s, in the same area where I’d gone to college, and the Vietnam War was history and so was Nixon. But the disgraced president remained a lightning rod. A touring journalist from New York, giving a speech in town, called him “evil.” This disturbed the editor of the paper I was working on, who told me that, sure, Nixon made mistakes, but evil}—we’d never say that here, only out East. I said, well, guess I’m still an Easterner.

Those days never die. Here we are, threeplus decades later, and Bush and John Kerry are still scrapping over who did what during Vietnam and the current Iraq mess has revived words like “quagmire.” And Bush, who campaigned last time as a uniter, has proved a skilled divider, taking a page out of the Nixon playbook. Running a controversial war, he has swathed himself in the flag and sent his attack dogs (speaking of weapons of mass destruction) to smear critics and openly doubt their patriotism. He’s using cultural wedge issues—the gaymarriage amendment is the most glaring— to drive blue-collar voters from the Democratic fold. And he’ll say anything to get re-elected. John Dean, the former Nixon hand, has written a new book maintaining that the lies and obsessive secrecy of the Bush White House are, as the title has it, Worse than Watergate. Expect an acrid airing of that subject as the 30th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation approaches in August.

And expect an eye-gouging political brawl all the way to Election Day in November (Kerry’s looked wobbly, but at least he’s punching back). By then I will have cast my absentee ballot as usual in DeKalb County, Ga., my last official place of residence in the U.S. That is, unfortunately, Red America, meaning my Blue vote will be washed away on a Republican tide. You get used to it. Back in 1984, on the night Ronald Reagan was swamping Democrat Walter Mondale, I was working in the Atlanta bureau of an American newsmagazine, randomly calling Georgians to ask whom they’d voted for and why. The answers, with remarkable consistency, were “Reagan” and “God”— God was why they voted for Reagan. Several asked whether I was a Christian; one tried to save me right over the phone.

What could I say? I was beyond saving, obviously.

bob.levin@macleans.rogers.com