The Magazine

Smiley's People

Christopher Caldwell, political anthropologist.

Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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PROBABLY NO ARTICLE has traveled more miles on the Internet this season than the cri de coeur that the novelist Jane Smiley wrote for Slate 24 hours after the election. Using her supposedly Bush-supporting relatives in Missouri as evidence, Smiley chalked the election results up to the "ignorance and bloodlust" of red-state Americans, who "love to cheat," "have a taste for violence," and admire their "resentful, amoral, avaricious, and arrogant" chief executive. "The reason the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections is simple," she wrote. It's something about how "the big capitalists" are using religion, homophobia, racism, and kryptonite to wage war against workers and consumers. (Maybe I'm misremembering about the kryptonite.)

Since one copy of the article reached me under the header "FW: How Dems aim to keep losing," I'm assuming its pingers are mostly Republicans. They, too, think the Democrats' losing streak has a simple explanation--a bedrock contempt for the electorate, of which Smiley's brief is typical. (We keep telling them, "Vote for me, morons!" But they just--don't--listen.)

Such contempt is most visible in liberals from the heartland. Smiley's fellow Midwesterner, an Ohio cartoonist named Ted Rall, has sent out a communiqué deploring "militant Christianist Republicans" and "knee-jerk conformists" and warning that "the biggest red-blue divide is intellectual." Exhibit A is, once again, the author's kith and kin. And it was not the Village Voice that called rural Americans "rubes, fools, and hate mongers." It was the Stranger, an events paper based in the Pacific Northwest.

Hotheads like Rall and the Stranger editors pop up (or off) after any contentious election. But Smiley is a subtle, even elegant, thinker. Her books are non-Manichean, and some (Moo comes to mind) include narrow-minded small-town ideologues who are not Republicans. So what is responsible for the gap between the richness of the world laid down in her novels and the dialectical dogmatism of her political commentary?

It is that liberalism means different things to different people, and in small towns it has come to mean something rather weird.

The city neighborhood I live in is so monolithically liberal that Kerry won the local elementary school's mock election by 252 votes to 16. Yet there is diversity among my neighbors. You can have a level-headed (even stimulating) political conversation with a feminist from the Upper West Side or a Kennedy-loving civil-rights lawyer or someone who used to organize the janitors' union in East L.A. For them, liberalism is a belief. That is, among the narratives about what politics should do, liberalism is the one that seems to make the most sense.

But there are also people in my neighborhood who cling to their leftish views with a sputtering and tenacious bigotry, who think "flexibility" means lurching between smugness and anger. These are, by and large, the white liberals who hail from the sticks.

There are basically two kinds of people in small towns--those who assume, as Shaw put it, that the customs of the tribe are the laws of nature; and those who have sussed out that there is a big and varied world beyond Main Street. This division used to have little to do with politics. But small-town politics in its Norman Rockwell variant--all those democratic battles over school bonds and ousting the crooked sheriff--is not what it was. Now, all politics is national. Political ideology, for most people, is a matter of whether they prefer to have Bill O'Reilly or Diane Rehm console them for their impotence in the face of events happening elsewhere.

At some point, Democrats became the party of small-town people who think they're too big for their small towns. It is hard to say how it happened: Perhaps it is that Republicans' primary appeal is to something small-towners take for granted (tradition), while Democrats' is to something that small-towners are condemned for lacking (diversity). Both appeals can be effective, but it is only the latter that incites people to repudiate the culture in which they grew up. Perhaps it is that at universities--through which pass all small-town people aiming to climb to a higher social class--Democratic party affiliation is the sine qua non of being taken for a serious, non-hayseed human being.

For these people, liberalism is not a belief at all. No, it's something more important: a badge of certain social aspirations. That is why the laments of the small-town leftists get voiced with such intemperance and desperation. As if those who voice them are fighting off the nagging thought: If the Republicans aren't particularly evil, then maybe I'm not particularly special.

--CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL