Allegiances aren't easy to predict, but there are signs
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
If Brian Mann has it right, predictions that this year's midterm elections will shift House and possibly even Senate control to the Democrats are probably myopic.
Like the early exit polling in the 2004 presidential election that suggested a John Kerry win, prognosticators who see as decisive the voter discontent from the Bush administration's Iraq war and Republican congressional scandals may be asking the right questions but in the wrong locales.
In "Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution," Mann says the real divide in America is the cultural chasm between urbanites who vote Democratic and country folk who go Republican. The deck is stacked for the latter. The suburbs are a mixed bag.
According to Mann, 50 million white rural conservatives constitute America's most powerful minority, living in such places as Alaska and Wyoming as well as rural patches of other states. They have given the Republicans a clear advantage in many low-population states and an 11-seat Senate edge while representing 4.5 million fewer Americans than their Democratic colleagues. The presidential voting by the Electoral College likewise boosts the influence of those low-population states.
"These 'homelanders' -- as I've unceremoniously dubbed them -- are demanding that we talk about things that most urban Americans thought were comfortably settled a long time ago, from abortion to the public role of Christianity to women in the workplace to evolution," he writes.
Running the gamut
His own sympathies run elsewhere. He acknowledges spending "a glorious season in Manhattan" at National Public Radio, where he still contributes national pieces while working for North Country Public Radio and living in New York's rural Adirondack Mountains.
But he has a brother who lives in an exurb of St. Louis, and they spent a week driving through southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas, Oklahoma, and part of New Mexico, talking to people in "the undiluted heart of red [state] America."
The book is about the author's effort to understand both the homelander phenomenon as well as his brother Allen, a devout Christian and gun owner who avoids cities and listens regularly to Rush Limbaugh. It's the story of that gentle soul that humanizes the book.
"It turns out that in a very nonmetro way my brother is an idealist. He thinks there's a better, more decent America out there, a country that somehow got tangled up in niggling multiculturalism, derailed by political correctness, and deformed by tax-and-spend social engineering."
About gay rights, for example, Allen says: "Homosexuality isn't something I have any interest in being involved with, or being around, but I don't actually see how it's sinful either, especially if two people are in a committed relationship. But you can't dispute that it's there in the Bible. It's forbidden. That's just the way it is."
That, Mann writes, is where most "metros" tune out. The cultural divide is just too vast.
In a kind of response to Thomas Frank's 2004 book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Mann says the urbanite analysis that tries in supercilious fashion to diagnose his brother and others like him as stupid or neurotic or reactionary and weirdly misguided is destined to miss the point.
"In rural America," he writes, "the dominant cultural force isn't change, it's tradition."
A wide course
Like a zigzagging trip across the country, the text wanders and backtracks a bit, and some sights in each chapter look a good bit like earlier ones.
But there are gems of perspective along the way, like the 16.6 billion Kansans paid to the IRS while getting only 14.2 billion from the federal treasury before George Bush was elected president. By 2003, they were paying 14.4 billion, while receiving 18.2 billion. That, contrary to Frank's analysis, looks "more like sheer cunning" than oafishness.
"The most generous Americans, in real dollar terms, live in California, Illinois and New York," Mann writes. "Metros lose an average of twenty-five cents out of every dollar they pay to the IRS. Because their economies are enormous, the total outflow is astronomical."
The stakes are high. The timely look through Mann's windshield and rearview mirror shows where we've been and just maybe where we're still headed.
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