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Blue vs. Red
By Blake Hurst

When David Brooks penned an article for The Atlantic Monthly (December 2001) describing the differences between rural and urban America, he started with his tongue in his cheek. But in the midst of the long essay, to the middle-America reader, the satirical tone faded. That left Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer and freelance writer, with a few things to say.

Red vs. Blue Map

Like an anthropologist touring deepest, darkest Africa, the writer David Brooks has courageously trekked to Middle America, studied the natives there and reported back to readers of The Atlantic Monthly, one of the nation's toniest opinion magazines. He reports that out here in Red America (as the last election maps dubbed George Bush country) we're dumber, poorer, fatter and less well dressed than those in Blue America (the parts of the country that voted for Al Gore). At least, his data shows, our wives have more orgasms.

Brooks didn't do his investigating in actual fly-over country-not as far as I'm concerned anyway. His model for Red America was Franklin County, Penn. (population 121,000). Brooks says Pennsylvanians joke that their state has "Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in the middle." Well, maybe, but any state that calls Arlen Specter a Republican isn't truly Red America.

According to Brooks, "We in the coastal Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We're more sophisticated and cosmopolitan--just ask about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don't ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don't know." Brooks goes on at great length to fill in readers about the results of his Pennsylvania trip. But he misses a few things. In fact, it's quite easy to imagine that many of the observations Brooks records as Red America gospel were actually examples of the deer hunters and truck drivers of Franklin County having a little fun with the Ivy Leaguer from inside the Beltway.

Brooks is exactly right, though, when he talks about how Middle Americans view their station on the economic ladder. He's surprised at the lack of class-consciousness, and Red Americans' willingness to consider themselves among the "haves," even when they're being paid at levels that wouldn't convince yuppie teenagers in Blue America to leave the house. Charles Murray has pointed out that true wealth in America is limited to the few entrepreneurs and inheritors of wealth who make up the Forbes 400...plus the upper income folks living in small-town America.

The combination of progressive taxation and urban real-estate prices ensures that almost nobody on the coasts has more spendable income than the highest paid people in Franklin County or the rest of rural Red America. People here in Missouri's small towns can buy a beautiful older home for less than $100,000. Brooks makes much of the fact that he literally could not spend more than $20 for a meal in Franklin County. The fare in Red America is a bit limited. You can't buy one of those meals with a dime-sized entr┌e in the middle of a huge plate, with some sort of sauce artfully squirted about. But you can buy a pound of prime rib for 10 bucks. Class-consciousness isn't a problem in Red America, because most people can afford to buy everything that's for sale.

Brooks touches on the non-pretentious nature of Red Americans. The guy in threadbare overalls just behind you at the parts counter may well be a multimillionaire. And Brooks is on target when he talks about the reaction Franklin County residents would have to a Lexus. A foreign-made car on Main Street of my small town is a sure indicator of a visitor, and it will be the only car in the whole town with its doors locked. The status vehicle here, of course, is a large SUV.

The lack of pretension extends to the way we dress. Our jeans are dirty not because they're rarely washed, but because we work with grease, dirt or steel. That ground-in grime is a badge of a day's work well done. And no, Mr. Brooks, those are not pocketknives connected to those strings and chains you noticed extending from Red America's pockets, but wallets big enough to hold all the information in your palm pilot, plus the receipts from last week's business.

We are, for sure, fatter than the rest of America. But there's a certain freedom in a paunch, as it says to all that the work we do can be measured in bushels, pounds, shingles nailed and bricks laid, rather than the fussy judgments that make up office employee reviews. And a little extra weight helps when you have to "grab aholt" of heavy things and make them move.

Contentment with one's lot may well be the greatest difference between Red and Blue America. People living in the great middle are perfectly happy to be slightly overweight, a little underpaid and dressed in fashions that cause comment when we interact with our betters. We aren't overly impressed with formal credentials, often commenting that so and so is "educated beyond his level of competence." My congressman happens to be from our small town, and when he's home on the weekends, he's shingling his house. His constituents are proud of the fact that their representative can run a nail gun and is still humble enough to get his hands dirty. Just the same, the project has taken over a year, and we all think it's time he finished.

We respect formal learning, but we value practicality over more esoteric fields of knowledge and treasure self-sufficiency above all. "Settle down and go to work. Keep your mind on your own business. Think about what you're doing. Buckle down." All of these sayings, repeated ad nauseam in the workplace, on sporting fields and at schools across Red America, are exhortations to seriousness, concentration and the unfrivolous business of getting jobs done in the safest and most efficient manner.

Brooks details the religious differences between Red and Blue America recognizes that we Red Americans have different religious beliefs than Blue Americans, and includes the familiar statistic that church attendance is a better predictor of voting patterns than is income (or most any other factor). But he finds no indication that Red America is about to man the ramparts in a culture war.

Blue America should really relax about this whole subject and quit worrying about people with bad haircuts showing up at their front doors talking about Jesus. Small-town Americans have to balance what we say and do with the necessity of getting along with the people we live with: people who have kids in the same schools, who do business with us are on the school board with us, and may well go to the same church. As Brooks points out, living in a small town often leads to a greater level of tolerance, because we interact with everyone around us on so many levels. There are no anonymous store clerks or people in line at the checkout counter. Not only do we know the person ahead of us, but we can probably tell you the color of his pickup and may even remember the time he scored the winning touchdown in 1973.

And our religious beliefs do inform the way we vote and how we regard our public officials. We seldom debate politics or culture openly here, because we already know what our neighbors think. Our beliefs are not monolithic, but everyone knows his neighbors so well that he can predict how they'll react to most political questions. And by and large, all of us are pretty disgusted with the culture of Blue America.

Most interesting about Brooks' article is that it is impossible to imagine a piece written from the opposite perspective. Would The Atlantic pay my way to go prowling around Chevy Chase, or the Hamptons, or Marin County, contrasting the culture there with the one I'm familiar with? Not likely. It's not that subscriptions to The Atlantic aren't sold in my part of the world. We Red America residents are much better informed about Blue America than the reverse.

A certain arrogance explains the lack of reciprocal interest. It seems that Blue Americans just can't imagine that the rest of the country isn't downright envious of the way they think, or dress, or spend their days. The differences between the two parts of the country can no longer be assigned to the provincialism of Middle Americans. The deregulation of airlines and communications, the Interstate system and mail order have guaranteed that our exposure to coastal life is easy and cheap. Red America is peppered with satellite dishes, Internet connections and book club memberships. In fact, these links may well be responsible for accentuating the nation's cultural divide. From the Playboy Channel to Johnnie Cochran to non-stop news about Monica, we get a bellyful of Blue America whether we want to or not.

Brooks recognizes that "one can barely find any books at Amazon.com about...small-town America--or at least, any books written by normal people who grew up in small towns, liked them and stayed there." He describes how any books about my part of the country are "either by people who left the heartland because they hated it (Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent, for example), or by urbanites who moved to Red America as a part of some life-simplification plan." Brooks concludes: "Apparently no publishers or members of the Blue book-buying public are curious about Red America as seen through Red America's eyes."

The real reason for the lack of books about America's heartland by the people who actually live here is the assumption that small-town residents can't possibly live rich and interesting lives without Starbucks, modern art and expensive universities. Brooks himself confides that he wouldn't want to live in Red America, because he finds our way of life "too unchanging." If one is happy, though, change isn't eagerly anticipated.

Most Red Americans can't deconstruct post-modern literature, give proper orders to a nanny or pick out a cabernet with aftertones of licorice. But we can raise great children, wire our own houses, make beautiful and delicious creations with our two hands, talk casually and comfortably about God, repair a small engine, recognize a good maple sugar tree, tell you the histories of our towns and the hopes of our neighbors, shoot a gun and run a chainsaw without fear, calculate the bearing load of a roof, grow our own asparagus, live in peace without car alarms, security guards, or therapists--even find the same wife a lifetime source of interest and joy.

Brooks is concerned that the differences between Red and Blue America will lead to a divided country, where the modes of living will be so different, and at such loggerheads, that common ground could be difficult to find. In truth, these divisions have always existed in our country, they're just now becoming emphasized. Sinclair Lewis wrote with love and hatred of Red America 80 years ago. I think most of the Snopeses worked on our farm for a while when I was a kid. And reading Faulkner just reintroduced me to my grandfather's neighbors. Davy Crockett was outsmarting city slickers from under his coon skin cap nearly two centuries ago, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had a similar theme, contrasting rural values to the decadence of the nation's capital.

One of the most interesting statistics that Brooks uses to contrast the two Americas is the fact that only 53 percent of conservatives consider themselves intellectuals, while 75 percent of self-identified liberals do. In the Red America I know, humility is a cardinal virtue, and most of us wouldn't be caught dead calling ourselves intellectuals, though we do often identify ourselves as conservative.

We're used to subtle condescension about our smarts. Brooks quotes SAT scores that show a marked difference between Waynesboro High in Franklin County and Walt Whitman High School in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda. It's not surprising that one of the richest suburbs in the country would have higher scoring students than Franklin County. The real estate prices in the Bethesda area limit the students there to the progeny of people able to shop for the best schools, while Waynesboro no doubt matriculates students from all strata of Franklin County society. Brooks doubts that the products of Franklin County schools can compete in college with urban students. But it has been my observation that students from smaller, less challenging schools catch up with urban students in about two semesters, as psychological stability and hard work compensate for any inadequacies in high-school education.

After his sortie into the minefield of SAT scores, Brooks pretty well leaves the whole question of a Red-Blue intellectual gap alone, but it is certainly a subtext to his piece. While it's true that many of the best and brightest leave rural America at some point for college and city jobs, they often try to get back as soon as they can. Is it really so dumb to choose to live in a place where life is affordable, the roads aren't crowded and you don't have to put up with obnoxious megalomaniacs and self-important snobs? Red America is full of smart people, as many employers are learning. It's just that intellect, like wealth, isn't flaunted here.

Veiled disdain for the intellectual wattage of the people of Middle America helps explain the media's shock when individuals like John Ashcroft perform well--as he did at his Senate hearing and in his conduct since confirmation as attorney general. Critics of Ashcroft are quick to remind us of his small-town upbringing, his unabashed faith, and his father (who was a preacher in a conservative church), using those facts as a sort of shorthand for narrow-mindedness, indicators that a person is probably not up to life in the fast lane. Those of us who have known John Ashcroft for a long time aren't the slightest bit surprised at his aplomb in facing his critics, and his job performance since. Anybody paying attention and not blinded by the fact that he comes from Red America, where priorities are merely different, not lower, could see that Ashcroft's background was excellent preparation for the demands of his current responsibilities.

Residents of the "less sophisticated" part of the nation see examples of intellectually and professionally inspiring natives all around us. My father-in-law, after a successful career as an electrical engineer conducting research in the nuclear field, returned to central Missouri and started an apple orchard. He listens to opera in German, the news in Spanish, and recently had an article about stress testing printed in a peer-reviewed journal after conducting his experiment with tools he had in his farm shop, along with a few items from his kitchen. My high-school class of 65 includes engineers, a dentist and a lawyer who recently won a case before the Supreme Court. My long-time hired hand has a son who is an engineer for Microsoft. Examples like this aren't hard to find in most any part of Red America.

Aside from religion, one of the most marked differences between the two parts of our country is the way we think about the military. Red Americans and Blue Americans volunteer for military service at radically divergent rates, and we honor those who have served in the armed forces differently. It is a staple of post-Vietnam liberalism that black Americans bore an unfair burden during that war. That is not accurate--the black casualty rate in Vietnam tracked fairly closely with the minority population. It is, however, most certainly true that rural Americans, southerners in particular, bore a disproportionate part of our national fighting, then and in all engagements since. According to historian Victor Davis Hanson: The vast majority of those who fought in Vietnam as frontline combat troops--two thirds of whom were not drafted but volunteered--were disproportionately lower-income whites from southern and rural states. These were young men of a vastly different socioeconomic cosmos from the largely middle- and upper-class journalists who misrepresented them, the antiwar activists and academics who castigated them, and the generals of the military high command who led them so poorly.

The prayer list at my small Southern Baptist church is currently full of families with loved ones deployed to the Middle East or Central Asia. I wonder how many churches in Bethesda are similarly occupied. Every small town I travel through in my region has a monument in the city square, or a plaque at the city park, listing those who were lost in each of America's wars. The rosters run on and on. Red America may be deficient in producing poets and advertising men, but the guy who used to sell me gas was a paratrooper on D-Day, and I spent an hour at my wedding reception with two close relatives, on different sides of the family, discussing their tours of duty in Korea.

Red America is never redder than on our bloodiest battlefields. We may be thought of as hick cousins, we will always be caricatured for our faith in God, our children's accomplishments will probably be discounted by the most prestigious colleges, and Hollywood and Manhattan will always draw their rubes and villains in our clothes. But patriotism in Red America didn't have to be relearned after Sept. 11. Selfless sacrifice is still an honored tradition in our communities, whether it takes place on the nation's battlefields or at home in the nursery.

Brooks ends his article wondering whether Americans will stay the course in the war against terrorism. After 10 pages of patronizing my neighbors and me, it's interesting that he's not worried a bit about Red America's response to the terrorist threat. Instead, he frets over the ability of his Blue neighbors to find the sturdiness required to win the war. So on the most important question to face our nation in decades, the gut instincts of middle America are, despite our SAT scores, the right ones.

Farmers like me spend a lot of time worrying about the state of our "subsoil moisture." In our part of the world, we almost never receive enough rain during the growing season to raise a successful crop, so we depend on the moisture stored in the deeper soil profile from late fall rains, winter snowstorms and early spring downpours.

I often think that Red America serves as that same sort of reservoir for the rest of the country, supplying the moral perception and practical instincts, the life-giving moisture of good citizenship, that are necessary to the long-run survival of our nation. The deep soil profile is never as impressive as good black topsoil, and there is much less organic activity down there. The top layer of soil is where most of the life is located. But a good charge of moisture in those deeper, more stable regions saves us time and again during the scorching days of July and August.

Our nation is enduring a fierce heat wave right now. And in its midst I, for one, am very glad to have a group of men and women drawn primarily from the "less sophisticated" and "unchanging" midlands of our country leading us to our destiny.

  MAY 2002
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