American Dream

rural roadOn October 7, one of the stranger evenings in recent California history, Arnold Schwarzenegger strode triumphantly onstage in Los Angeles to accept his election victory as governor of California. He held wife Maria Shriver's limp wrist as if she were another defeated bodybuilding opponent. Confetti rained on the broad shoulders that had helped make him an iron-pumping superstar. But commentators were not discussing how he was going to accomplish the Atlasian task of lifting California out of its $38 billion budget deficit. Rather, talk focused on the potential national implications of a Republican victory in the country's most populous state. Would Arnold be the platform from which Republicans would launch another successful presidential campaign?

Only days before I had arrived in San Francisco from a weeklong trip through the American heartland. In a series of long conversations with small town white working class residents in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah I sought to unravel the logic that propels this population to vote decidedly Republican. In the 2000 election, Al Gore won 60% of the urban vote, while president George Bush won 60% of rural voters.

Liberal city folk might point to this as evidence that the Republican Party feeds off small town ignorance while Democrats cater to a more discerning and better educated urban population. Of course this doesn't jive with years of Republican initiatives aimed at decreasing upper income taxes for their very wealthy and cosmopolitan constituency. The Republican Party is anything but homogenous, but somehow it all hangs together. We know that Republicans have a lock on Bible Belt social conservatives and Sun Belt business de-regulators, but why do they play so well among middle American rural voters?













rural flag

"The Democratic Party is too split up between people like me and Eastern liberals," says Peter James, a millet farmer in Eckley, Colorado. He eases his leg onto the adjacent barstool at the Roadside Inn, the town watering hole, and takes a sip from a frothy mug of beer. And what holds the Republican Party together? He tilts his head back, sucks on his wad of tobacco, and grins at the handful of patrons shooting pool and shooting the breeze with him.

"Bullshit," he says matter of factly and then hoots with laughter. The bartender and the patrons hunched over the bar chuckle along with him. But Mr. James won't get the last laugh tonight. He is the lone Democrat in the bar, and a minority in the rural flatlands of Eastern Colorado. The county, Yuma, was the nation's largest corn producer two years ago, so perhaps it is fitting that Mr. James, a political oddball of sorts, switched to millet farming five years back.

The bartender, Jade Simpson, is more representative of the politics of the region. Asked what makes him a Republican, he's quick to respond: welfare. Having lived for four years in China, he detests any scent of socialism, and the Democrats, with their more generous social spending, fairly reek to him. Leaning over the bar his eyes sparkle and his gaze is steady. "The biggest issue here is water; there's not enough water for the West. But the Democrats will get elected and make it one family, one child, just like they did in China. It's the same gang. It's socialism." He grins broadly to show that he's only partly serious but he looks into my eyes long enough to let me know he's not completely joking either.

In small towns like these, where the front pages of local newspapers tell of upcoming corn husking competitions and marriages of grandsons of deceased residents, a city boy can sometimes hardly believe his ears and eyes. Hours go by without seeing a foreign car. Buicks and Chevys abound. From the county highway, giant corn silos, cooperatives owned by the town, announce a coming cluster of residences. In Funk, Nebraska, we drive down the only street with a name: Easy Street, where, the sign reads, "the living is easy." There are no people out to tell us otherwise.













rural cafe

In Holdredge, Nebraska, the storefronts seem unchanged from the 1950s. Only a modern tractor driving down Main Street recalls the present era. In the dusty lounge of the town's only hotel, three men pass the afternoon lazily. A plaque above the entrance alerts us that the building also serves as a fallout shelter. The proprietor, a plump and nervously smiling man, resembles a yellow onion when seated. He remembers the day Jacob Holdredge, who founded the town, died. That was over 50 years ago. He has been running the hotel since, save for a trip to Chicago that he remembers most fondly for the "little train they had." I've never heard the public transportation system described with such glee.

When I tell him of my search for the political pulse of the country, he directs me to a man sitting in a chair by the window. His shoes and socks off, he is fanning himself with a fly swatter and periodically padding an unlit cigar over an ashtray.

His name is Bol Wicker, and when he is not fanning himself with a fly swatter he is driving around Nebraska soliciting opinions and gathering demographic data. He is regional coordinator for the Republican Party, a volunteer position he began by sending George Bush Sr. informal letters of his opinions. "I'm a Republican because of economics," he says curtly. "If the Democrats get in there, they take all the money away from the guys at the top. That makes it real difficult for them to start businesses and give jobs to people."

Mr. Wicker is a firm believer in trickle down economics, and decries the Democratic preference for social programs to ease hard times and jumpstart economic activity. "You can't help a person that doesn't want to help himself," he says. But Mr. Wicker is not a diehard Republican, and is wary of the Bible Belt conservative influence on the party. "I vote for the person, not the party, I've always believed that. And I wish the Republicans would drop Pat Robertson and his gang and get back to the basics."

The basics of the Republican Party -- lower taxes, less spending -- have always appealed to America's romance with itself as a clan of "rugged individualists." Although the current administration has been relentless in its drive to cut taxes, spending has soared. Mostly the money has gone to fight terrorism. Still, as money flows abroad while communities wither at home in a jobless recovery, working-class Americans are skeptical.

"That we don't take care of people here, and we're sending billions overseas, that's a big concern," says Matthew Reedley when asked what his political issues are. Mr. Reedley is a house painter and refurbisher. Like many people we interviewed, his politics are less ideological than they are practical. "My father cussed both parties, and I don't vote," admits Mr. Reedley. "Both parties are just protecting the interests of big business. So I don't really see the point." Squinting underneath his K-Mart baseball cap he is refurbishing an old antiques store in Centennial, Colorado. It's a dry town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that has steadily become drier and less inhabited since highways replaced railroads as the primary method of freight transport.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 20% of Americans live in rural areas. Are Democrats writing off these small towns as unrecoverable Republican territory, where isolation seals their conservatism? In the information age, they do so at their peril. Mr. Reedley has watched BBC news for the past seven years since he bought a satellite dish. "I do have opinions, and I'm starting to get more as I get older." He says he might even start voting one day.













rural road

No town is unchanging. Immigration (mostly Latino) and globalization (chain stores) are affecting midsize towns like Price City, Utah (8,000 residents). Kathy Sherman, a part-time receptionist at the city's government building, lists welfare as her biggest issue after abortion (she is Mormon). "We have a lot of, we call them pill poppers in this town," says Ms. Sherman. "The most work they put into anything is filing for disability. The politicians need to pay attention to the people that are trying to make it and give them a break once in a while."

Ms. Sherman has two young children, and has worked as a maid, a janitor and at the town cemetery. She says she's a Democrat, but would vote for anyone who spoke to her needs. "You can't pay bills on 400 dollars a month, and take care of kids, you just can't do it," says Ms. Sherman. "And they [politicians] need to know that."

Ms. Sherman's perception of welfare recipients as being pill-popping couch potatoes may be exaggerated. But politics is as much the art of tweaking perception as it is of twisting policy. Bumper stickers and sound bytes win elections. In-depth analysis gets mowed down by the rat-tat-tat of one-liners. The Democratic Party is seen as soft and welfare friendly to small town scrappers who feel they've had to fight for all they had. Add in a surging immigrant population and the recipe for white working class disgruntlement is complete.

Marge Young is one of many who feels neglected by social programs, and thus favors a politician "who's not going to spend all our tax money." Speaking from her rusting Chevy in front of the Big K-Mart in Provo, Utah, the mother of three recounts a recent frustrating experience. "The other day I went into a clinic and they said they couldn't help me because I don't speak Spanish. So maybe they [Latino immigrants] are worse off than me. But sometimes I wonder 'cause they drive a whole lot better cars than I do. And I work 50-hour weeks and have for a long time." Although she laughs, her anger is apparent.

Is it an anger that Democrats could tap in the next presidential election? Ms. Young voted for Bush in 2000 and identified herself as a Republican. "The Democrats have to come up with something good," says Ms. Young, rolling her eyes. But perhaps she is not a lost cause for Democrats. "I didn't like some of the things that Clinton did, but he made the economy great, and you have to give hats off to that."

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan won over working class voters, whom analysts would later term "Reagan Democrats," despite cutting government spending on social programs tailored for them. Rousing speeches by Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson decrying Reaganomics and the assault on the working class they represented proved feeble at the polls. Perhaps Democrats underestimate the power of "poor man's pride." For when Democrats are perceived as being handout happy, they often alienate -- and even offend -- working people. Many of the Americans we interviewed were suspicious of federal "supports," preferring "stimulus" initiatives.

Decades after Johnson's War on Poverty, small town pundits such as Mr. Wicker in Holdredge, Nebraska still point to its failings as evidence that government is best when it stays out of the equation. "Johnson gave all that money to the Appalachians; it only made them four times as poor," growls Mr. Wicker. Of course, disability and unemployment are minor expenditures relatively.

In the Roadside Inn in Eckley, Colorado, Mr. James holds up a hand to stop a debate that is spinning out of control. He looks around the bar. "You know what the biggest welfare in this country is right now?" he asks. "Farm subsidies," he answers, nodding his head to quell objection.

California elected a Republican as governor after only nine weeks of campaigning and one rather scripted debate appearance. On the campaign trail, Mr. Schwarzenegger was a silent assassin, smiling more than speaking. It was the perfect plan; he let the Democrats lose the election for themselves. Are Democrats ready for a similar embarrassment nationally?

If not, they have to change their image as welfare wet blankets. They must reclaim the crusade for working people, not just poor people. If, as Mr. James muses, the Republican Party is held together by bullshit, it may be time for Democrats to take their cue and venture out into America's small towns to get their hands dirty. Republican populist rhetoric may seem full of it, but Democrats will be the ones in deep if they don't figure out something good for 2004.

Dan Hoyle is an editorial intern at WireTap.
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