Welcome to the HomelandA Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2006 Brian Mann
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-58642-111-5
Preface Two Brothers, Two Cultures........................1Introduction The New Homelander Elite.....................111. No Man's Land...........................................352. My Brother's Keeper.....................................473. Day of Reckoning........................................594. Going Rural.............................................725. Islands of Blue.........................................866. Red President...........................................997. The Homelander Senate...................................1088. Boomburg, U.S.A.........................................1239. Beating the House.......................................13710. The Great Schism.......................................15311. The Curse of the Cities................................16612. The Science of Faith...................................19013. Winning Red............................................20614. The Republican Party's New Elite.......................21415. The Big Homelander Payoff..............................22316. Breaking with Tradition................................23817. Let's Hear It for Rural Democrats!.....................260Conclusion One Nation, Two Tribes.........................269Acknowledgments............................................286Suggested Reading..........................................287
Chapter One No Man's Land
Highway 54 lies like a high-tension wire across Oklahoma's panhandle, an abstraction connecting two vanishing points. There's a steady whine of rubber and pavement, but the prairie is vast; it feels like the van is standing still. My brother's boy David is sprawled in the backseat with a pair of binoculars. He spots a mule deer grazing on a low hill off to the south and studies it eagerly. He shot his first buck last year.
"Hey, Uncle Brian," he calls. "Do you think that deer is a liberal? I think that might be the only liberal in Oklahoma!"
The kid loves to razz me about politics. He's a smart, gangly twelve-year-old and already a devout conservative like his dad. They're both regular listeners of Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. They live on the outskirts of Washington, Missouri, a bustling town on the fringe of St. Louis. Theirs is one of the burgeoning exurban enclaves that are steadily dragging Missouri into the red column. Eighty percent of voters in downtown neighborhoods voted for John Kerry, but out in Allen and Daniel's small town the results were flipped - a 58 percent win for George Bush.
David talks class warfare, same-sex marriage, and creationism the way most boys talk baseball or Gameboy. He gets it from Allen, a big silver-haired guy in his mid-forties who still expresses deep regret about the vote he cast for Bill Clinton in 1992. In David's world an East Coast liberal uncle is more exotic (and in many ways, more fun) than a two-headed frog. "Maybe the deer [in Oklahoma] are all Hillary Clinton voters," he says with a grin. "Maybe that's why they like hunting out here so much."
"Give it a rest, Davey," Allen says. But his sentiments are pretty much the same. The very mention of Hillary Clinton makes his brow beetle. "Come on," he says, when I ask him about the idea of New York's senator running for president. "I think people out here would go crazy. I don't think she would survive."
If you're a secret service agent reaching for the red telephone, relax. My brother is one of the gentlest men I've ever met. But he knows his neighbors - not just the ones who live next door, but also the virtual homelander community that's scattered coast to coast. He surfs the right-wing-media scrum on a daily basis, the blog sites, the AM radio and Fox News blather-fests. He hears the hatred, the viciousness, and the unreason. "I hate that stuff," he admits. "All the mocking and the lack of civility. It's nutty how some conservatives talk. Just like it's nuts how liberals talk about George Bush. But that's how people feel."
It's late summer, and we've been driving for a week through southwestern Kansas, down across the interlocking panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, dipping into New Mexico. For blue state types this is enemy territory, the undiluted heart of red America. For a hundred miles in any direction, the culture war is over. The Democratic Party has dried up and blown away.
A woman down in Texas told me, with a kind of superstitious awe of seeing a single Democratic sign in some poor fool's yard during the 2004 campaign, "It's like putting a bull's-eye on your property. If you ever told people you were a Democrat, like at a party or something, they'd think you were just plain crazy."
Most of the things that stick in the craw of conservatives are either nonexistent or invisible here. The nearest abortion clinic is half a day's drive north, in Wichita, Kansas. Gays and lesbians who live in this part of the country are tolerated, for the most part, so long as they keep their sexuality to themselves. "Of course we have gay people here, too," says David Scott, chairman of the Republican committee in Ochiltree County, Texas, "but it's sort of Don't ask, Don't tell. They're treated well, but they're not marching down the streets either."
In some of these sprawling counties, nine out of ten voters chose George Bush to be their president, and they would do it again in a heartbeat. In summer 2005, as Allen, the boys, and I road-tripped through homelander America, Bush's approval rating was plummeting in much of the nation, battered by Iraq and endless scandals, but his rural base was unperturbed. One survey found that the president's popularity was actually growing in a half-dozen homelander states, up 25 percent in Utah, up 11 percent in Idaho, and up 5 percent in Oklahoma.
In this parallel America, the New York Times and CNN feel as remote and irrelevant as the Village Voice or Le Figaro. The radio dial offers a scratchy drone of conservative and evangelical chatter, delivered with complacent, easy-going certainty. These are the voices of men preaching to a vast, far-flung choir. With Rush and Dr. Dobson scripting the libretto, the music of rural America is scored by a parade of puff-chested country-and-western singers, thanking God for their families and the U.S.A.
"I'm just a singer of simple songs," croons Alan Jackson. "I'm not a real political man. I watch CNN, but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus, and I talk to God ..."
After six days of this stuff, even David is tired of it, or maybe he's just eager to dust off one of his corny jokes: "If you play country music backward," he says, "your wife comes back, your boat's fixed, and your truck'll start running." And maybe homelanders will start voting for Democrats again.
The occasional jangle of a Spanish-language tejano station begins to sound downright transgressive. It hints at far-off things, at impending change, like the rumbling of a thunderstorm on the horizon. And things are changing. This isn't a fair sample of modern America, not by a long shot. The Rockies rise out that way somewhere, and the Pacific slope stretches beyond with its vast suburban metroplexes. In the opposite direction, back East, there are cities so dense and byzantine that at this remove they resemble biological organisms.
Somewhere on this continent there are three hundred million people, a dizzying mix of different races and creeds and faiths, a crackling Internet, Starbucks, skyscrapers. But here there is only the humbling imperative of land and emptiness. It's so profound, so global in scope, that it reduces all the rest of creation to myth and figment.
Allen points ahead at a punctuation, a shape of light on the rim of the world. Grain silos anchor hundreds of these midwestern towns, rising bleached and massive like Mexican cathedrals. Their bulk suggests a hidden bounty, dispersed like manna over the emptiness. The two kids, David and my own son, Nicholas, stir with restless energy. "How long until we get there?" Nicholas asks. "Can we get hamburgers?"
His cousin is a political junkie, but at age ten my boy is baffled by this whole enterprise. Drive around asking people their opinions? Strike up conversations with complete strangers about politics? He thinks the whole thing is nuts. "You know what you think, Papa. And you know they don't agree with you."
"That's why I'm curious about their ideas," I tell him. "I want to know why they think the way they do."
"But you're not going to change your mind, are you?"
"No, probably not. Not much anyway."
"I doubt it."
Nicholas is unconvinced. So is Allen, to be honest. He has gamely agreed to play the role of rural conservative, the red yin to my blue yang, but he's a little nervous. "You just can't make me look like a bumbling idiot," he says.
It's a reasonable enough concern. Metros have made a sport of denigrating rural Americans. Even as they lose battle after battle, urban pundits and politicians continue to dismiss homelanders as bumbling hicks, too stupid or misguided to look out for their own welfare. "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about," Frank writes on the first page of What's the Matter with Kansas? "This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests."
The day after the 2004 election, London's Daily Mirror published a front-page banner that was adopted as a talking point by millions of American metros: "How can 59,054,087 Americans be so dumb?"
There is practically a sub-genre of urban punditry that aims to diagnose GOP supporters like my brother. Depending on whom you ask, they are racists, neurotic failures, or morons. One scholarly paper widely circulated on the Internet (it served as the basis for an article in the on-line magazine Slate) attempted to identify the "specific variables that have been hypothesized to predict conservatism." The motivating factors included fear, aggression, "intolerance of ambiguity," and (my personal favorite) "anxiety arising from mortality salience."
Another analysis posted on-line claimed to prove that blue state voters were simply smarter than red state voters. The official-looking chart, later debunked, ranked Kerry voters at 100-115 IQ points, while slatternly Bush voters drooled along in the 85-100 point range. It received half a million hits in a single day and was fodder for articles in The Economist and Florida's St. Petersburg Times.
In March 2006 a University of California-Berkeley researcher published a paper in the Journal of Research in Personality claiming that whiny, insecure children grow up to be conservatives with right-wing traditional values. "The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests," wrote Kurt Kleiner in a Toronto Star article that circulated widely on metro blog sites. "[The study] reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics."
"One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime," argued progressive journalist Bill Moyers, in a speech after the 2004 election, "is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts."
This kind of fear and distrust is widespread in metro culture. When I began work on this project, a common objection voiced by friends and colleagues was that homelanders were simply too backward to warrant serious scrutiny. "I think you're taking this multiculturalism thing too far," a fellow writer told me. "Sometimes certain cultural values are just wrong. Maybe even evil."
I asked him for an example and after a pause, he said, "Genital mutilation. Or genocide."
"No, I mean give me an example of something evil that conservative rural Americans are doing."
He thought for a long time. I could see that he was determined to produce clear evidence that homelanders were as dangerous and threatening as a band of cannibals. "Supporting the war in Iraq," he said finally. "And pushing millions of Americans into poverty. And the deliberate erosion of civil liberties. And the separation of church and state."
All of which struck me as valid concerns, especially in an era when the Democratic Party offered only a token counterweight to the Republicans. But there's a sizable gulf between the Patriot Act and the Beer Hall Putsch, a lot of ideological bandwidth between picketing a Planned Parenthood clinic and genital mutilation.
"My idea," I said, testing it on another colleague, "is to look for the people and institutions that are disseminating these traditional ideas. I don't mean the screamers. I want to find intellectuals, writers and thinkers who are shaping the movement. I want to find communities where these principles are being applied. Let's see how well they work."
A skeptical silence followed. "Well, take creationism," I said. "It's inching its way into textbooks now. Tens of millions of Americans believe in it, including my own nephews. Nineteen states are talking about downgrading evolution in science classes, describing it as a theory on a par with intelligent design. So where does that stuff come from? How does it fit into in people's lives? There must be someone in the conservative community who's really thought deeply about this stuff."
"What if there's not?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you really think you'll find someone who can defend that nonsense in a thoughtful way?"
"But conservatives have universities now. They have think tanks and journalists. They can't all just be lunatics and propagandists."
"What if they are? George Bush is their leader, and he's not exactly a thoughtful guy. It seems to me that the Right is made up of a few very bad and manipulative people and a lot of very stupid and gullible people."
This from a friend who is worldly and thoughtful and as open-minded as anyone I've ever met. He would never dream of talking dismissively about a traditional society in Africa, say, or Central America. The difference, of course, is that those rural tribesmen can't vote in our elections. They don't make decisions that affect our urban-centric lives. They can't tell us who we can marry. They can't tap our phones. They can't send our kids off to war.
This sort of fear and loathing has made it difficult for metros to understand what they're up against: not a group of crazy, Bible-thumping zealots but smart, aggressive political activists with a coherent agenda. Republican strategist Bill Greener often serves as a consultant on rural political campaigns. He shakes his head at urban America's sneering assessments of the homelander movement, delivered (as he describes it) "in the tone of 'What's wrong with these people?' I don't think that does the Democratic Party any favors," he says.
Certainly not with voters like Allen, who fumed for days after Howard Dean dismissed Republicans as "pretty much a white, Christian party" and complained that conservatives had "never made an honest living in their lives." Dean later said that he was talking about GOP leaders, not rank and file voters, and he complained that his words had been taken out of context. But for many homelanders, the flap was proof that top Democrats don't respect rural issues or cultural values. "That is the thing that sticks under my skin more than anything else: the level of condescension I often feel," Allen says, "when I'm talking to somebody and express a conservative viewpoint and they think that I must be a complete idiot for having those viewpoints. It's almost like a kick in the gut. You know that whatever you say the gulf between you and them is so vast that there's no way to even have the conversation. I want to feel like the positions of my people are respected."
The first signs of civilization on the outskirts of Guymon, Oklahoma, are a truck stop, a trailer park, and an empty cattle yard. Towns out here have the quality of settlements along some tenuous trade route. The houses are modest, the brick streets wide enough for a military parade. The sidewalks feel empty.
There are churches everywhere, some big and cocky looking but most of them modest and spare. God is ubiquitous in this country, on billboards, on the radio, even on the editorial pages of local newspapers, which often offer daily passages from Scripture. In my notebook there is a quote copied down from the top of a roadside picnic table: "The best drug of all is when Jesus calls." The words were carved with deliberate, calligraphic neatness into the pine planking, next to mustard stains and etchings of phalluses. "If you listen, you can hear. Jesus is with you everywhere."
For those of us from the other America, from the realm of cities and suburbs, rush hours and Google-enhanced globalization, homelander culture feels strange and arid. We suspect that there are pieces missing, as if the concept of a society had been sketched out quickly in rough draft, with the details and subtlety and nuance to be added later.
The people, too, seem improbably spare, their hearts filled with blunt notions of patriotism and kinship and the Holy Gospel. They believe that certain things are right and proper and certain other things just aren't.
This kind of thing offends the urban sensibility. Perhaps it's no surprise that city folk who encounter it so often respond with irony or flat-out scorn. "The tailgates groan with huge coolers, and groan even more when proud, gigantic rear ends are added," wrote Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, after a reportorial dip into the rural culture of Virginia. "Should you desire to remove the right to bear arms from these people, you might well have to prize away a number of cold, dead, chubby fingers." (Continues...)