Friday, December 24, 2004

Notes from a Red State

Whenever I'm at my parents' house in northern Idaho, I love to read the local papers. This morning I came across two items that hint at how a progressive political movement could sustain itself even in one of the reddest of red states. The spectrum of American political beliefs is more of a circle than a line, and northern Idaho and western Montana are places where the extreme ends of the spectrum literally and figuratively share common ground.

The only truly local daily paper in Sandpoint is the Bonner County Daily Bee, one of a string of local papers owned by Duane Haggadone, a mining-turned-tourism magnate who has almost managed to turn at least one Idaho city--Coeur d'Alene--into a company town. This morning's Bee featured a typical mix of news on its front page: in the right margin two stories of drunken mayhem among the region's un- and under-employed, and a large center feature with color photo about caring for orphan buffalos during the holidays. A story about Christine Gregoire coming out ahead in the Washington vote recount is on page 6; more fighting in Fallujah, page 7.

Better news coverage comes from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington daily owned by the Cowles family, perhaps as rich in land and influence in Spokane as Haggadone is in Coeur d'Alene. The Spokesman-Review is trying to become a regional paper by publishing a 'Handle' section in its northern Idaho editions, and opening an office in Coeur d'Alene. This morning the Handle section published a letter to the editor from one Aaron Kin of Moscow, Idaho, titled "Apologies for being me":

It occurred to me, being a white conservative guy living in Idaho, that there is probably a lot of things that I am guilty of that I am totally unaware of. ... I'm sorry I voted for Bush. I really should have voted for the opportunist and gun-control liberal from Massachusetts, because nobody knows what's good for you like someone who will give all your rights to the government. ...I have a lot of apologies to make. That happens when you are politically incorrect and offend every liberal in town, which I do a decent job of. Thank you, and God bless.

What struck me about this letter was not its less-than-coherent recitation of backlash cant, but two other things: First, it amazed me that a conservative in Idaho could somehow muster the feeling of political alienation required to write such a letter. I suppose there are liberals to offend in Moscow--it being a university town, perhaps Mr. Kin doesn't have to look that hard for them. But Kin's letter shows the strength of the backlash, even deep in red country. I also noticed the apparent glee Mr. Kin took in believing he was offending people. This is something I've noticed from encounters with other male Republicans--that it wasn't enough for them to hold Republican political beliefs, they had to go out of their way to offend liberals. They liked being offensive, they liked feeling like they were sticking it to someone.

Part of the appeal of the backlash is that it gives its believers ready access to a rudimentary, bullying form of masculinity. While I do not believe this form of masculinity should be co-opted, to have a broad appeal a progressive message must incorporate some concept of manliness--not in the sense of traditional patriarchy, or juvenile swagger, but rather in the old artisan or cowboy sense of moral, independent, and self-sufficient manliness. The 'Metro v. Retro' politics is exactly the opposite of what's needed, because its version of manliness is centered on consumption and snobbishness.

A small regional weekly, The River Journal, features a column on politics by Montana state senator Jim Elliott in its December 8-17 issue. Under the headline 'Corporations and Democracy,' Elliott gives a capsule history of corporations from the 1600s to the present, emphasizing the historical novelty of the 'personhood' of the corporation, and the departure from their traditional role of fulfilling a public good that neither government nor individuals could easily provide. His concluding message speaks well to both conservatives and progressives:

Today we have a world governed not by nations, but by
international trade agreements drafted by international
corporations, governed by international corporations, with
international trade disputes adjudicated by international
corporations. None of these corporations, by the way, was
voted into power by you or me. Our elected representatives
have ceded control of our lives and livelihoods in the name
of 'world trade.' I believe it is time that elected governments
resumed control of our destinies. At least you can fire them
if you don't like what they do.

These themes of responsibility, accountability and a muscular democratic nationalism are vitally important to progressives and true conservatives alike. A political movement that made them its centerpiece could draw on support from both the left and the right.


christian_left said...

Isn't it funny how we go back to the "Reddest" states in the country for the holidays? Here in Nebraska--along with Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, one of the four most pro-Bush states in the country--it was initially kind of a shock just to see so many Bush bumper stickers all at once. I do agree with ambivalent_maybe that the potential is there for a stunning political rapprochement (sorry for the French word) with disaffected rural and working-class voters, if we can craft with them a strong economic populist program. On a related theme, I just got back last night from spending the evening with my father's extended family, during which time I had a lengthy argument with my cousin who works in the U.S. Trade Representative's office. While I think she still views herself as a liberal (perhaps morphing neo-liberal), I see our disagreement as one symptom of a persistent rift between left-liberal populism and more corporate-friendly liberalism. It could easily fracture on the basis of disagreement over whether business leaders and other elites know what is best for everyone else in the world. Personally, I'm ready to join ambivalent_maybe is trying to figure out how to build coalitions with the disaffected and less powerful.

Anonymous said...

I agree that "metros," "latte liberals" etc are easy targets for people of the likes of Mr. Kin and that a "muscular democratic nationalism" is a more powerful (not to mention flattering) image of a liberal but I wonder if this is really a matter of "self-represenation". No liberal (i know) has ever aspired to the label "metro" or "latte liberal," afterall.

Aaron Kin said...

I am impressed that you fine folks on the other side of the political fence dug that far into a regional paper to find my little rant.

I thought I was the only one who cared what I said, but apparently not. If I was wrong in that respect, then imagine where else I have erred.

Nice of you guys to play the truth and the light today.

Have a good one!