Thursday, April 3, 2008

Red, White and Blue in Kansas

Last Sunday morning, I heard an excellent radio program called "The Sunday Edition" on CBC Radio. Host Michael Enright left the snowy liberal bastion of Toronto for the proud Red state of Kansas to produce a report called, Heartland: the Mood of Middle America.

Being it's only real neighbour, Canadians are always very interested in America, it's history, culture and this year more than ever, it's politics. This report tries to get into the mind of "middle America," the America that is fundamentalist Christian, pro-war and anti-gay, and the one that wholeheartedly endorsed George W. Bush (twice). It's the America that is worlds apart from the the liberal Yankee/Hollywood sensibility that Canadians (and much of the world) are familiar with through pop culture and mainstream media.

Whenever we do think about red-state America, images of rusty pick-up trucks, goofy accents, and Bible-thumping come to mind. So what struck me about the show was how UN-stereotypical Enright's guests were. Emanuel Cleaver, a black congressman and preacher representing Kansas City, had some insightful and provocative things to say on topics ranging from Barrack Obama to the government and politics in general.

On Obama's slogan of "Change":

First of all we have to define change, and it has more than saying we're going to "change". Answer the question about how we're going to change. Change has become kind of the word we throw out there because someone's done polling and said that it works. And the American public unfortunately and tragically, falls for it! You just say change and people start cheering.

On the American system of primaries:

This is unbelievably stupid! We allow two of our smallest states to determine who becomes the president. ...It doesn't make sense. There's very little diversity in either Iowa or New Hampshire. There is no way that you can really separate the rural from the urban. It's all just one little block of voters.

But perhaps the most challenging statements he made were on race-relations in America if and when Obama becomes the first black president. He thinks that for many white Americans, voting for Obama will be their way of affirming that the US is not racist. But he worries that once that happens, the general public will just move on and lose focus from dealing with the ongoing struggle with discrimination:
I think for many white Americans they are looking at Barrack Obama and saying this is our chance to demonstrate that we have been able to get this boogieman called race behind us. And so they're going to vote for him. Whether he has credentials or whether he has any experience, I think that's all out the window. It's this country's opportunity to say, we've solved the problem, it's all over. And frankly that is causing many African Americans to tremble.

After November [with a Obama administration], any redress on racial issues will be met with rejection because we've already demonstrated that we're not a racist nation.

Another excellent interview had Enright talking to Kansas governor Kathlene Sebelius, a strong and level-headed Democrat, seemingly contradicting the idea of Kansas as the reddest of Red states. Asked how she got elected in such a conservative state, she replied:

I got more votes than my opponent... Kansans have been really willing to cross party lines based on what they see as leadership capacity and what kind of job you've done. Kansans are pretty pragmatic. They look at what you say you're going to do and whether or not you actually do deliver.

So maybe Kansans aren't just a bunch of hardline Bush-lovers. Here's what she had to say about the moderate Republicans and Independents that voted her into office:

Independents in Kansas are really independents. They're not filed as independents and masquerading as one party or the other. They really are folks who are not so closely identified with either party and they really are looking for the right person for the right job so theres a large block of voters, 30-35% depending on the election year who are registered as independents, see themselves as independents and are available to the best candidate.
And what do these sensible, middle-American folks think of the current state of American government?

A lot of them are just baffled with the direction of this new Republican party, which is opposed to anything involving government, opposed to a safety-net for poor or vulnerable citizens, opposed to public education, who see government immunization of children as an intrusion, don't want standards in daycare centres--a whole series of issues that are really so fundamentally different from the framework moderate republicans have about government, about the safety net, about the importance of public education...

They feel it's important to declare themselves no longer members of that party. They don't want any mistake, that they do not belong to a Republican party [that] is so anti-government that they're willing to essentially dismantle basic institutions that have always been the halmark of this country.

Granted, she is a Democrat, and her views probably don't represent every single person in the State. Plus, I haven't mentioned the other interview in the program, which was with a local right-wing commentator who a had more characteristic conservative views. Yet, even his opinions added depth to my shallow perception of the conservative media.

Overall, I found the program utterly enlightening about an America that we outside the US (and I suspect many inside, too) totally underestimate in terms of its diversity and complexity. Really, there is not one America, but many Americas, all coalesced within the country's borders.

The picture above is called Achelous and Hercules, by Thomas Hart Benton, 1947, and is featured on Emanuel Cleaver's website.

1 comment:

laurie said...

Hi, I enjoyed your post. I live in Kansas, have all my life and I'm a lifelong liberal Democrat. I'm amazed at how strong the Obama vote is going to be in this state on Tuesday. McCain will carry Kansas, barring some kind of miracle, but it will be closer than many people think. Gov. Sebelius is correct. Kansans are pragmatic and fair. They don't understand what on earth has happened to the Republican party and the hijacking of politics by the extreme religious right. Thanks for the post.