IDEOLOGICAL CONCERNS: Red, blue divisions of America get blurry
And some of these values (conservation, land stewardship, growing your own food) were originally also red-state values that blue areas of the country tend to forget they didn’t invent.
Nearly 20 years ago, Barack Obama insisted that we are one people. In the Pledge of Allegiance — which I found myself reciting for the first time in my life every morning before class in Kansas — we say we are one nation. But lately it can seem the red and blue are not only two different worlds but also doomed to an ever-warming cultural war. These days, I travel several times a year between the Bay Area — where I’m raising a family of my own — and Kansas, sometimes spending a month or more on my parents’ farm, surrounded by wheat, soybeans, alfalfa and corn. And I’m here to tell you our divisions are not so much hardening as blurring — rural and urban America are not as divided as many people think.
The possibility of this country, the promise, is based on a union mutually beneficial even as it contains multitudes of difference. What we might think of as blue-state values (environmentalism, support for LGBTQ communities, internationalism, racial and cultural diversity) are also valued by people living in red states. And some of these values (conservation, land stewardship, growing your own food) were originally also red-state values that blue areas of the country tend to forget they didn’t invent.
On my block in Oakland, neighbors have turned their front yards into vegetable plots. A few doors down, chickens hunt and peck. Some of my neighbors long to do what my parents did — “blow up the TV,” as John Prine sang, “go to the country,” “plant a little garden” and find a slower pace nearer the land.
While Kansas and rural areas across the country supply the cities with things like wheat to make bread and energy to fuel all that hustle and bustle, the cities produce ideas and values that increasingly infuse rural communities, much more so than when I was in grade school in the 1990s. The fact that people like Kansas’ attorney general, Kris Kobach, are trying so hard to curtail advances like trans rights betrays how much change is afoot. There are 509,000 registered Democrats in Kansas and 546,000 people who registered and refused to affiliate with any party. That’s at least a third of the state’s population. In the past two decades, voters have picked two women in favor of abortion rights for governor. And it’s not as though all these people in Kansas, Texas, Ohio or anywhere else in the heartland can afford, or even want, to pick up and move to California or New York. These so-called red states are their home, and many of them will raise families there. And so their values are part of the state’s future. Kansas was, after all, the first state to reject — resoundingly — an effort to roll back abortion access after Roe was struck down.
The problems this nation faces — revanchist racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, climate change, economic injustice, the destruction of small-scale farm culture, too many assault rifles — are enormous, and the gap between worldviews out there is mind-boggling. But the truth is not, as Gertrude Stein wrote, only that “the difference is spreading,” but also that difference is spreading. While our enclaves seem more polarized than ever online, in these United States we may actually be more and more intermixed, more and more differently human together, than we’ve been led to believe. Put another way, we may feel more polarized than we actually are.
Nathan is a poet and teaches literature at the University of California, Berkeley