Requiem for a Red State Road Trip

Reflections on two-week reporting odyssey through under-covered swath of US, a month before presidential election.

I’m sitting in Nashville’s Centennial Park on the steps of an exact Parthenon replica, as I write the last piece from my journey through the conservative Middle American states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee.

During drives through virgin terrain, I’ve come to realise how much this reporting expedition focused on political activity taking place in scattered urbanised cores of the south-central region of the US.

From Kansas City to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, to Little Rock, Memphis and Nashville, my route led me through highly-developed patches, as well as centres of higher learning like Lawrence and Fayetteville. Though none resembled Manhattan, many were comparable to my hometown – between one and two million people in each metropolis.

As an American city boy with a deep blue state background – raised in Baltimore, Maryland, schooled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and matured in New York, New York – I was bound to spend the bulk of my time in these blue dots within red states.

Naturally, the largest concentrations of people discussing the election and engaging in the discourse lie in metropolitan hubs, but perhaps I could have dug deeper in rural locales.

Yet, the election will neither be lost nor won here, as all four states are virtually guaranteed to vote Republican by a large margin. This is precisely why I chose to document under-covered election issues in places far from the mainstream press frenzies.

I became intensely aware that the national campaigns neither spend nor raise much cash in these largely-ignored corners of the country. They spend literally every waking minute – as November 6 approaches – in the handful of battleground states like Ohio and Florida.

US political complacency

In Oklahoma, the state Republican Party sells Romney-Ryan yard signs for $2, because the national campaigns allocate lightly to states not in play. One notices few political bumper stickers, banners and TV ads for the race to the White House, since resources are invested elsewhere. Meanwhile, locals often pay more attention to statewide or municipal races.

Despite the obvious polarisation of voters into two camps that often seem diametrically opposed, I’ve also been struck by the moderate majority’s political indifference. When they wake up the morning after, most people will come to terms with whoever wins.

And that’s exactly how it should be, since few citizens want to start a revolution over a quadrennial election. The longevity of the US political enterprise is a testament to the stability of the electoral system.

Part of the media’s job is to overstate the amount that Joe the Plumber cares about voting. But the reality is that life goes on in most places, irrespective of which party wins.

While I’m drawn to cover the fault lines of the culture war and the cyclical clash of civilisations within American life, I also strive to transcend the politics of divisiveness.

We may stereotype red states for their emphasis on family, faith and fatherland, but these priorities are not limited to Sallisaw and Siloam Springs.

‘Purple’ state domination

NBC first used the two-colour scheme in 2000, and ever since, red has stuck for the Republicans, and blue for the Democrats.

This chromatic paradigm is a media construct not displayed on any map of the US interstates. The lines are constantly shifting, blurring – and will fail to stand the test of time.

Within every red state, there are populous spots of blue where liberals dominate. But within every blue state, there are also rural spots of red where conservative voices hold sway. While in the swing states, a mix of “purple” defines the political landscape.

We create this model to explain certain voting behavior across demographic groups and reduce the election to a simple binary split of America into universes far more similar than they actually are different.

Nonetheless, due to my educational and social background, I have ideological biases that influence my stories. So I try to be conscientious about the context of my writing, and provide a balance of perspectives – the opinion and the other opinion.

‘The American people’

My network of bi-coastal contacts was of limited use in the heartland, and I only saw one familiar face in the 13-day, one-man-band experience.

Some readers were offended by my surprise at the new 52-story skyscraper in Oklahoma City and at the existence of vibrant Muslim communities in places like Lawrence, Kansas. This is where my Eastern Seaboard lens has required sharpening, to enhance my awareness of the flyover states.

In one of Mitt Romney’s campaign speeches, he stressed national values found in all regions of the US – “hardworking, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people”.

President Obama’s election victory speech in 2008 credited stunning diversity for his win: “Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled”.

And he concluded that Americans had “sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals – or a collection of red states and blue states”.

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