Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 17, 2005

A Blue Reporter in a Red Sea

Filed under: — Different River @ 10:50 pm

David von Drehle, a staff reporter for the Washginton Post Magazine, took a drive with a photographer and an assistiant though four “red states” to try to figure out who these strange beings were who voted for George W. Bush.

Though most of the article practically drips with condescension — the condescension of a 19th-century anthropoligist describing the religious views of rain-forest cannibals — it’s still worth a read — perhaps more for the writer’s reactions to the content rather than the content itself (read it like it’s written by a literate rain-forest cannibal).

A few notes from this field encounter with the cannibal of the Washington Post:

Though the author lives in Washington, DC, he grew up in a then-rural area of Colorado and took long car trips with his family to visit grandparents in Kansas. I’ve long had this theory that childhood car trips across the American heartland give one a perspective as an adult that practically no one without that experience has. This article shows that that perspective is not completely diluted even when one grows up to become an urban-dwelling liberal reporter who can’t quite remember what people in that heartland were thinking.

A couple of times, the author’s clear liberal bias shows through. For example, on page 2 one Nebraskan extols the virtue of living in a place that’s practically crime-free, where people can leave their doors unlocked without fear — and the reporter “hears” a “fear” of “diversity” and goes on to explain how nearly everyone in that county is white and US-born. Note here that it was the reporter, not the Nebraskan, who assumed that crime was the necessary consequence of the presence of non-white people.

He does, point out — sometimes intentionally, sometime perhaps not — that rural folks are not all idiots, and are not all ignorant, and are not all provincial. Many are well-read and seem well-educated, with or without college degrees. Many have travelled, and know what they are “missing” living where they live. He asks a Nebraskan if he’s ever been to New York City, and hears that the fellow has been “to the airport” — changing planes on business trips to Europe! And, he finds that many are quite reluctant to talk to a reporter from Washington, DC. Not out of distrust as such, but because they are in fact quite acutely aware of how “the media” views them. They watch the same TV as everyone else — and read the same internet as everyone else — and they (we?) are watching when the urban-dwellers on TV talk about them in a derogatory fashion. They know they are looked down upon for their religious views, their political views, their professions (farming, e.g.), and above all their social views.

And, they even speak coherently:

Unemployed, burdened by student-loan debt, raising young kids — and voting for Bush because of “his morals and his ethics.” Mark Pack seemed like a perfect person to ask about Thomas Frank’s theory of deranged hicks who cannot make mental connections about their own best interests.

“Mao said basically the same thing when he talked about religion being the opiate of the masses,” Pack answered. “And wasn’t it Lincoln who said you can’t fool all of the people all of the time? Bush got 54 million votes, and I don’t think they were all from blatant idiots. I think we get really carried away by generalizations in this country.

The most interesting part of the article is (on page 3) where Von Drehle notes that there is a social divide between the states where most adults are married, and the states where most are not:

For all the bluster and hand-wringing over the exit polls and the so-called values voters, the real demographic story of the 2004 election, according to Democratic poll-taker Stan Greenberg, was the pronounced victory by Bush among married people, both men and women. The old “gender gap,” in which men voted for Republicans while women favored Democrats, has turned into a “marriage gap.” Before I started this trip, I did some fiddling on the Internet with census data and election returns, and I found some striking correlations. Consider:

There are 30 states — including all the Red Sea states — in which married couples form a majority of all households. Bush won 22 of the 30, by an average of 21 percentage points. The eight that went for Kerry were very narrow victories, an average of five points. Utah, with the highest percentage of married folks, gave Bush his largest ratio of victory: 71 to 26.

In nine states, there are equal numbers of households headed by married and unmarried people. Sure enough, Bush and Kerry split them evenly, four for Bush and five for Kerry — and by middling margins, too: an average 16 points where Bush won, 11 points where Kerry won.

Of the 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, where married couples form a minority of all households, Kerry won seven, by a jaw-dropping average of 24 percentage points. Bush won five, by the relatively skimpy average margin of nine points. The District, with the lowest percentage of married folks, gave Kerry his biggest win: 90 to 9.

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