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Careful About Revealing You're a Liberal?—Then You Probably Live in a Red State

"This is a small town. It’s the South. It just wouldn’t be polite to get into an argument. . . . [Politics] is something we just don’t bring up unless you know you’re on safe ground."

David Shoemaker

The following is an excerpt from the new book Blue in a Red State: The Survival Guide to Life in the Real America by Justin Krebs (The New Press, 2016): 

Rita and Dean Smith love where they live.

“It’s a common thing with our neighbors—we’ll say, ‘How are you doing? ’ and they’ll say, ‘Another day in paradise,’ ” describes Dean.

This paradise is Pawleys Island, South Carolina. It’s a coastal town with plenty of retirees and snowbirds. “It’s a lovely pace of life,” explains Rita. “The ocean is a bike ride away. People are friendly. The cost of living is lower” than when they lived and worked in D.C. “We don’t have traffic alerts. The downside is we have wacky-ass politics.”

Rita experiences the conservative political leanings as part of her routine activities. “My part-time job is teaching exercise class,” begins Rita. “President Obama was in the news and one lady makes a comment—she goes on and on—I looked at her. ‘Number one, I support the Democrats. Number two, this is not the place to discuss it.’ Dang it if she didn’t catch me later in the parking lot and go on and on again.” Rita laughs at the memory but adds, “They assume they can make disparaging comments and I won’t be offended.”

Such assumptions come up around religion as well. “We also live in the Bible Belt,” continues Rita. “So let’s hold hands and pray,” she says, voicing what she’s heard countless times. She has a group of women she does water aerobics with and they’ll go to meals together. When they do, someone always starts the meal with a prayer. “And it’s not just pray, but pray to our lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Rita often lets it pass. “I put my head down, hold hands, and suck it up.” At one point, though, she decided to say something to one of the women who often instigated the prayer. “I sent her an e-mail, very, very, very carefully worded. I said I don’t feel comfortable—instead of saying grace, let’s raise a glass. Good Lord, next time we went to lunch, when I went to the restroom, while I was gone, they said grace.”

South Carolina may have pockets of liberals in Columbia or Charleston, but Pawleys Island is not one of those oases. “There are people who are local, they’ve been living here all their lives, and they’re a product of growing up here,” says Rita.

The rest of the area’s residents are transplants—which, in this case, means retirees. “A lot of retirees from the Northeast are getting in touch with their fathers’ politics,” muses Dean with only a touch of facetiousness. “They are leaving behind their youth. Now they are old white folks.”

Dean describes “pull up the drawbridge syndrome” as having taken hold among a number of these fellow transplants. “We have union people who retire here, on union pensions, and now retired into gated communities. They now talk trash about unions.”

“Older retirees are mostly conservative,” echoes Rita. Of course, there is a danger to assuming. Dean and Rita—white, retired, he in his sixties and she in her fifties, and happy residents of Pawleys Island—are an exception . . . and not the only exception. Dean explains that many of their close friends are from the North and brought their liberalism with them. “People are always surprised when they find fellow liberals,” Rita continues. “There are more than two of us. You’re always so surprised. We’re just in the closet.”

“There are a significant number of them,” Dean agrees.

Dean and Rita see eye to eye on most things political. They share a passion for civic engagement and social justice, as well as for broader community spirit. And they share a delight in the life they’ve built in Pawleys Island.

“When Dean was a child,” Rita recounts, “he used to come down here. Twenty years ago, we came down on vacation. Then we came down a couple times a year. Before we retired, we bought a condo and came down as often as we could. We were getting to know the area.”

“We already had more friends down here by the time we retired than we had in D.C.,” chimes in Dean. Both he and Rita had been federal employees with the Department of Energy.

“We wouldn’t move back in a heartbeat,” adds Rita.

“At first Rita wasn’t sure,” Dean notes. “Before we moved here, we were not sure how we were going to like it down here.”

“It’s a small coastal community,” Rita interjects. “You’re not moving to Podunk, Alabama—no offense to Podunk, Alabama. You get people from different parts of the country: Ohio, Pittsburgh, New Jersey.”

“And international,” says Dean.

Rita and Dean dove into the local life of Pawleys Island and stay busy in retirement. Dean serves on the local board of elections. In addition to teaching aerobics, Rita is on the board of the county’s 4-H. They are dedicated to a local soup kitchen. They organize social, political, and volunteer opportunities for local liberals. They have both been involved in local efforts to preserve the qualities of Pawleys Island that attracted them there. And they take advantage of the area’s easy access to outdoor exercise and exploration.

Through all of this, they’ve built up a community of friendships—and that circle is by no means exclusively liberal.

“We’ve got tons of friends who are Republicans, conservatives, some red-meat conservatives,” asserts Dean. With their liberal friends, they talk politics. With their conservative friends, they tend to avoid the subject. “This is a small town. It’s the South. It just wouldn’t be polite to get into an argument. . . . [Politics] is something we just don’t bring up unless you know you’re on safe ground.” So much of southern life, small-town life, and retired life is about being civil. “You just don’t bring up things that would tick people off.”

“We talk about other things,” explains Rita. “You talk about your wife or husband, children, grandchildren.” With political views, she adds, “I know you feel that way and you know that I feel this way. So it’s just something you don’t talk about.”

“You know people for more than one thing,” Dean continues. “In D.C., we’d know people because they were neighbors or because you work with them in the bureaucracy. Down here you know people four or five different ways.”

“You meet more people through mutual friends,” says Rita. “It’s a web of relationships. Where you live. Where you volunteer. If we were churchgoers, it would be through church,” adds Dean.

“We love the interwoven relationships, the sense of community,” Rita chimes in.

There are tensions within that community, though—especially because, Dean explains, often “people assume you’re conservative and assume you’re Christian.”

“Rita and I both had it happen because we are who we are— white, retired, living in the South,” recollects Dean. “People automatically assume we’re conservative Republicans. They’ll tell you racist things; the assumption is that because you look like me, you think like me.”

Even while staying true to their values and being active in politics, they try not to pick political fights. Dean explains, “We’re careful not to rend the social fabric,” using a phrase that comes up again and again. They often discover that they share many communityand family-oriented values with people who choose different political affiliations—but they don’t try to turn those people into liberals, or vice versa. Dean explains, “It’s the South. It doesn’t work that way.”

Which isn’t to say people don’t know Dean and Rita’s politics. “We go to the local watering hole. People there who know us might say, ‘Here come the Democrat liberals,’ and slap us on the back. And we have a drink with them,” Dean says happily. “It’s almost like an identifying thing. It doesn’t become a topic of conversation. It’s a random greeting.”

Neither Rita nor Dean started life in a liberal household. “I came to being a liberal later on,” Rita recounts. “My parents weren’t political or politically active. . . . My grandmother, who was born in Italy, moved to the United States. She was a Roosevelt Democrat. A union-member Democrat. A staunch Democrat,” some of which may have rubbed off on Rita.

“Rita’s grandmother said that Democrats may have saved her life,” interjects Dean. “She was doing Triangle Factory–type work—bad conditions—the unions and Democrats helped change that.”

“But my father and mother generally voted Republican,” resumes Rita. “Old-fashioned Republican. My father’s been deceased many years. He was a lawyer—the rule of law was important to him. He was glued to the Watergate hearings, and Barbara Jordan became his hero. He thought she was marvelous.”

Rita considers herself a “lapsed Catholic,” but her years in Catholic school helped shape her politics. “I became a liberal somewhere in high school. Even though it was a Catholic high school, it was very progressive. The nuns were all about women’s rights and empowerment. They didn’t wear habits. I voted Democrat and considered myself liberal, which was easy to do growing up in Maryland.”

Dean had more conservative influences in his youth. “I grew up in the Appalachian South in the mountains. I was in church a good deal. I was immersed in it. I never questioned anything.” He sighs.

“Then I went off to college, and college changed me. I went in the fall of ’67—I was there ’68, ’69, ’70—I went from being literally a Goldwater Republican first semester of freshman year to a Mao Democrat the first semester of sophomore year.”

Dean remembers those years fondly, with a little excitement and wonder. “A little bit of realizing how big the universe is in my science class changed me. All those things I had thought about were bound up in a small-town religious sort of thing. The universe is so big. Along with that came a political awakening. Then they started shooting people like me at Kent State. The war was hanging over me. I was 1-A for a while.”

He didn’t end up in the war, but this awakening did shape his career choice. “I wanted to work for government, so I wouldn’t have to work for the man. Working for the government was working for the people. I kept those values.”

Dean tried to pass those values down as well. “I raised two good atheist sons” from a previous marriage. “One who is a good liberal and good atheist is married to a strong Catholic. He rolls his eyes and keeps his mouth shut. His mother was Jewish; I was nominally Christian; we were both modern people. We gave them each a taste of both religions. They both decided not to do anything—they are perfectly happy being who they are.”

Rita moved away from the church in her twenties, when she was in college. “I would still do Christmas and Easter to make my mother happy. A mother’s guilt can reach across miles, even now from the other side.”

Being nonreligious is about as unusual as being liberal in their community. They are content without a congregation, though they have relationships with some of the churches in the area. “We have a very liberal Episcopal church,” says Dean. “It runs a free medical clinic in a separate building, an after-school program, a food bank.”

“We are dedicated soup-delivery people for the soup kitchen,” explains Rita. “It’s a bunch of liberal Episcopals and a bunch of fallen Catholics.”

While many of their volunteer activities are coordinated through local liberal groups and the Democratic Club—such as collecting school supplies and participating in trash pickup— other community events are where they meet some of their conservative neighbors and friends.

Rita is on the board of the county Habitat for Humanity. “There are about ten board members all across the spectrum. Two other liberals on the board. You’ve got both ends of the political spectrum. The director is a good liberal, but being executive director has to remain neutral, can’t get politically involved. Because Habitat is a religious sort of organization, when we dedicate a home or a site, there’s always a prayer. Fine, I can deal with that.” But she never crosses over into political conversation with the more conservative board members.

Dean serves on the election commission and says, “I’ve got close friends on the election commission who are Republican. We share everything except how we vote.”

In part, regardless of your values, Pawleys Island is a hard place to be a Democrat. “We elect our sheriffs—we’ve only had twenty-five sheriffs over two hundred years. I run into our sheriff at the bar,” relates Dean. “I was having a drink with him and he says, ‘I was a Democrat for years and years, then realized I couldn’t get elected as a Democrat.’ Probably at heart, he’s still a Democrat.”

Dean is happy their different affiliations don’t stop them from sharing a drink. Again, in a place like Pawleys Island, he sees no reason to let that stand in the way. “We’re nonconfrontational. We want to protect the social fabric.”

As much as they can tire of hearing right-wing rhetoric, they are also cautious about liberals who haven’t adopted the lessons of keeping the peace.

“There are some people down here who wear their politics on their sleeve—they eat, breathe, and sleep politics,” cautions Rita. “Those are the ones who will alienate their friends and neighbors. For us, it’s part of our lives, but not all encompassing.”

“The Democratic Club fell apart because one person was too hyperpartisan—that just didn’t sit well with people who chose to move to a sleepy resort town,” explains Dean. “Another guy moved in and resurrected the club. He’s mild mannered, a retired Presbyterian minister. A good liberal—but doesn’t get so hyperconfrontational. He’s a southerner,” he says, as though that’s explanation enough.

Rita builds off that point. “The mean spirit you’d see on the Republican side”—specifically by the Tea Party on the national stage—“was being held by this particular Democrat. No, no, no, we don’t want to be that way, we don’t want to reduce to that level. They are not evil. They just vote differently. They are nice people. Don’t demonize the other side.”

Dean offers one example of a person whose values are in the right place, but whose approach is out of step with the vibe of Pawleys Island. “She’s a dear, dear person, and she’s taken on as her life’s purpose the elimination of plastic grocery bags. It’s almost monomaniacal. When she brings up the subject, she’s so out of balance on this one thing—she ends up pushing people away without knowing it.”

He adds with a laugh that they’ll say to one another, “ ‘If you go to the grocery store and forgot bags, don’t run into so-and-so! ’ We appreciate people who are balanced, not hyperpartisan. It’s not mentally or emotionally healthful.”

While they may disagree with people over national and even state politics, as is often true, on the local level, they can find agreement with the most unlikely allies. One of the reasons to keep up good relations is that in a small community you never know whom you’ll end up working with. This was especially true of a campaign called “Don’t Box the Neck,” an effort to keep bigbox stores out of the Pawleys Island area.

“We’re a nice little small town and there was a threat of a big box store. Walmart. There were various reasons we don’t want a Walmart. Well, this one store became a Pandora’s box—the outcry from the community was across the board,” explains Rita. “Black, white, Republican, Democrat—it was a coalition. Then people started showing up at meetings.”

“Thousands of people,” adds Dean.

“There was a real sense of community. You move here for a way of life. It doesn’t matter how you feel politically.”

“What happened was that Walmart didn’t know it was getting into a community of retirees who were moving here for the nature, the natural beauty,” recalls Dean. These retirees had resources and organizing skills. “Suddenly there were websites, e-mail lists, T-shirts. We defeated this.”

While politics often brings out local divisions, this campaign united local residents. “We saw neighbors, friends, business owners—the ones most affected—people concerned about quality of life,” remembers Rita.

It had larger ripple effects as well, says Rita. “There was a Tea Party candidate for city council. The only opposition was another Republican. The Republican was involved in Don’t Box the Neck and actively invited these people,” meaning everyone who was part of the coalition, to be part of his campaign. “He’s an old-fashioned Reagan Republican, which makes him look like a moderate down here. Democrats showed up and we beat this Tea Party guy sixty-eight, thirty-two; we beat him in every precinct.” There was another Republican who came to speak to Rita and Dean’s liberal group. “He was the first Republican candidate to speak to us. ‘We’ll give you questions and be respectful,’ I told him,” says Rita. “He said, ‘I’ll be ready.’ ”

“A question was posed to him: why not run as a Democrat? ” she continues. “He said, ‘I’ll be honest—it’s hard to get elected as a Democrat.’ We have some people in the group who say, ‘I wouldn’t vote Republican with a gun to my head.’ Others said, ‘You play with the hand you’re dealt.’ ”

“Democrats turned out in that primary to defeat the radical conservative” by supporting him instead, declares Dean. “It gave us a voice.”

This race wasn’t in their district, but if given the chance, Dean and Rita would have had no qualms voting Republican. “We would have voted for him in a heartbeat.”

That they have found Republicans they would vote for, conservatives they can collaborate with, and friends from all parts of the spectrum fits the life that Rita and Dean have carved out for themselves. Their friends back north are sometimes surprised they can take their conservative surroundings. To them, it just shows their friends don’t fully understand.

“Maybe people think it’s more confrontational down here than it is,” ponders Rita. “There are no shouting matches. It’s not in your face. You might have back-and-forth banter and local letters to the editors—but it’s more polite. Sometimes it ain’t easy to keep your mouth shut and to find people who think like you,” but overall it has worked out to give them a community they cherish. “Let’s just say if folks in Congress had the attitude of people down here, a lot more would be getting done,” speculates Dean.

“The government just doesn’t work anymore.”

“You can find common ground and build on that,” affirms Rita, returning again to Don’t Box the Neck. “It wasn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. It was common ground, quality of life. The gentleman who is the mayor of Pawleys Island had a reception. He’s a Republican—but he talked about how we all came together.”

“He also bragged about all the guns in his house,” inserts Dean.

Rita dives in: “People in the North don’t understand about this—they never had guns. People in the South hunt. I know people who are responsible gun owners. They’re for hunting, for protection; they’re responsible. So when you start talking gun control . . . everybody had guns.”

“Those of us who spent the majority of our adulthood in metro areas understand that guns are not always a good idea,” adds Dean. “It’s one of those topics that’s a conversation killer.”

Along with guns, Rita knows that God holds a different place in southern and northern culture. She speaks of an effort by a Christian group to run a program in public schools. “A northern friend said, ‘Could you imagine trying to pull that shit in Maryland? ’ Down here it’s like, ‘They took God out of schools.’ ”

“I’ve heard that out of the mouths of good Democrats,” states Dean. “ ‘They took God out of the schools.’ ”

“It’s one thing we do miss from the North,” admits Rita. “You roll your eyes; it rolls like water off a duck ’s back.”

There are other features of life in D.C. they miss. “The restaurants,” announces Rita. “Can’t find Ethiopian, can’t find good Thai.”

“There are tons of good restaurants,” Dean explains, but they’re “all Italian or American. No diversity of food.” What they miss tends to be “more cultural than political.” In the population, “diversity is just black and white. Nothing else. No Asian, no Indian subcontinent, no former Soviet Union.”

It can also just be easier living their values where they used to live. “When I go up to Maryland, you get five cents off for every bag you bring, and charged for plastic bags” at grocery stores, recounts Rita. “Ninety-nine percent of the people have reusable bags; very few come out with plastic. The reverse is true here. I don’t see that awareness. There is a grocery store now that does the five cents off, and I go there now for that reason. If a Styrofoam cup falls out of your pickup truck onto the side of the road, good thing I’m there to pick up after you.”

They do still recycle—and in doing so, they’ve run into one of their notable neighbors: Oliver North. “Saw him at Ace Hardware about a week ago, returning products.” Dean chuckles. “Ran into him at the recycling center—recycling and driving a hybrid SUV,” he says with knowing irony. “He saw me looking at him, gave me a little wink.”

Rita recounts her reaction at seeing him: “ ‘War criminal,’ I said under my breath.”

Oliver North’s notoriety was part of Rita’s realization that, as a liberal, she was different from much of the country. “I knew something was horribly wrong when during the Iran-Contra scandal, on vacation in the Outer Banks, I saw some local little tabloid where Oliver North was touted as hero. What?! This man is a criminal! He broke the law! At that moment, I thought, what the fuck is going wrong with this country? This was during the Reagan years. Even people two years after me were Reagan conservatives. I was a child of the ’70s. We were putting flowers in guns. In the Reagan years, people wanted to make a million dollars—that was the divide—and ‘liberal’ became a dirty word.” That didn’t stop Rita from being a liberal then, and it doesn’t stop her now. In Pawleys Island, “people are proud to be conservative. But if you say you’re proud to be a liberal, you might as well say, ‘I’m proud to be a child molester.’ ”

Yet, this is now their home—and they are staying put.

“The good so heavily outweighs the bad,” Dean offers simply. “We went back after we had been away six months or a year, back to friends in downtown D.C. We were riding the Metro—we looked around. Everyone going to work had a low-grade melancholy. They didn’t even know they were unhappy. We’d been around happy people to know this was very different.” When they got back to Pawleys Island, he says, “We wanted to get out and kiss our driveway.”

“I hugged our palm tree,” Rita says, laughing.

Boasts Dean, “In ten years, we’ve only had one snow. And that was gone in four hours.”

Excerpted from “Blue in a Red State: The Survival Guide to Life in the Real America” by Justin Krebs. Copyright © 2016 by Justin Krebs. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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