Political Polarization (6): Real America vs. The Woke Mob
Red and Blue America
A little more than a month after being selected as John McCain’s 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin made her Real America speech at a North Carolina fundraiser. According to a Washington Post article at the time, Palin said:
“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" -- here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers -- "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.”
She continued, “This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom.”
The Post story includes a disclaimer from Palin’s spokesperson that she intended no slight to folks living in Washington, D.C.. In light of how the rest of the campaign went, particularly given the contrast between her style and McCain’s, she didn’t really veer from this messaging. And “Real America” ate it up.
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I’m sure the trope predates Palin. After all, Obama’s 2004 DNC speech was effusive in its claim that “there were no red states and blue states.” It was hopeful thinking when Obama spoke in Boston and election strategies have promoted the differences for decades. The media has long settled on the map that will record who has enough electoral votes to become president.
What Palin did in 2008 was to frame red states and blue state differences as a question of legitimacy. Those in red states, especially in small town and rural areas, were “real” in ways that the coasts were not.
What was once dismissed as “flyover country” became The Heart of America.1 By 2016, a Clinton comment about Deplorables (denouncing the segments of Trump supporters who were white supremacists) became such a matter of pride for red state residents that they bought t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. It’s no surprise that in 2016 and 2020, Donald Trumps’ famous rallies didn’t happen in major metropolitan areas but in medium sized towns nearby. Or that rural areas are festooned with Trump and Let’s Go Brandon flags.
In truth, the map above isn’t really about Democratic states and Republican states. It is about the balance of the population that lives in urban areas. In Oregon (where I lived for over a decade), most of the counties vote Republican but the population centers and college towns along I-5 vote Democratic and outweigh those smaller areas.2 In Kansas (where I lived for five years), the state was overwhelmingly rural/small town. Our market center was 23 miles away but had no more than 30,000 people.
This distinction about land3 is significant because it underscores that what we see at the national level is replicated at the state level.4 The larger the metropolitan area, the more state representatives it will have relative to the rural parts of the state. This makes metro areas more dominant in policy concerns which makes it harder for rural representatives to compromise (if they ever saw that as a good thing!).
Another factor feeding the Red/Blue polarization has to do with issues of cultural engagement. Covid first exploded in the Seattle and New York City. Why? Because it was highly contagious and higher density meant that people were interacting with infected others. This was not true in the states more predominantly rural or small town. Until, that is, masks and vaccines became a political issue and red states gathered in crowds (like Sturgis, SD) in defiance.
The same can be said about other social issues like LGBTQIA+ inclusion, preferred pronouns, anti-racism, and criminal justice reform.5 If you live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area, these are real issues and the people dealing with them are Real Americans. If you live in an isolated rural area, you mainly primarily know about these issues from dismissive FaceBook posts from your cousin.
It is a mistake, however, to dismiss these concerns in rural areas. The percentage of gay kids in the school may be just as high but the total number of students is so low as to make it easier to ignore. Small town police departments (as we recently saw in Uvalde) are not immune from either incompetence or brutality.
The challenge comes when “coastal elites” attempt to homogenize the American experience. It’s problematic to require the rural areas to address all of the concerns raised on Twitter. In her excellent book Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild observes
At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief. And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president in 2016, can appeal, saying, as he gazes upon throngs of supporters,"See all the passion." (15-16, italics in original)
There is another layer beyond simple feelings. American economic policy has failed many rural areas and small towns for decades and continues to do so. The SuperTargets and Walmarts, the Red Lobsters and Applebees, and the Amazons have decimated the small shops and cafes that formed community life in small town America. It’s not uncommon to see a decimated Main Street where a vibrant town square used to be. The manufacturing plant up the road is gone and folks now work at the Amazon distribution center. I’m not sure what all we could have done for these residents, or those who depended on extractive industries, but we could have done more than simply leave them to the whims of “the invisible hand of the market.”
Consider one of my favorite — and yet depressing — books: Glass House by Brian Alexander.6 It tells the story of Lancaster, Ohio which is home to the Anchor Hocking glass plant. For much of the 20th century, there was a symbiotic relationship between the plant and the community. Upper management served on city council. The plant sponsored community events from fairs to little league teams. Beginning in the 1980s, Anchor Hocking became of interest to the leveraged buy-out trend. It was debt-loaded, resold, combined with another company, spun off, resold, and eventually declared bankruptcy. The linkage between the town and plant was broken and jobs became harder to get (and relatively unsafe). It’s a painful story that leaves a crushed city in the service of far away private financial interests. It’s not a big surprise, but our politics allowed this to happen (because of our worship of an increasing Dow).
So while small towns suffer from plant closures and Big Box stores, rural America is left to deal with land erosion, water shortages, and wildfires. And it is the urban areas that are taking the water so central to rural life (especially in the west).
This isn’t to suggest that urban areas are winning in this conflict. They are struggling with growing inequality, rising home prices, concerns about crime, school funding, air quality, and an increasing unhoused population on the streets. Not only that, but suburbanization and McMansions have moved middle class populations outside the city limits, lessening the available tax base in the midst of some very intractable problems.
What is needed, then, is a broader definition of who Real Americans are. They live in farming communities, in small towns, in suburban rings, and in major metropolitan areas. We can’t see some as Not Real Americans.7 We need to see that the problems of each setting are real and need our policymakers to take them seriously.
That, in turn, will require us to see that sometimes our area gets attention and sometimes it’s the rural community that gets the attention. Over the long haul, it’s the only way beyond our Red/Blue divide.
There was an entire Chevy campaign based on rural America and their pickup trucks.
It is no surprise that the second Bundy uprising happened in Malheur county in southeast Oregon.
I don’t want to open the door to those silly “how did counties vote” maps because we don’t elect presidents by acreage.
The second-place finisher in the Republican primary for Colorado governor wan’t to introduce a state level version of the electoral college to diminish the voting strength of Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs.
My next series is going to be about criminal justice issues starting a week from today.
The recent conservative trope that urban voting is rife with fraud is an example of this.