Finding Common Ground

I live in a blue town in a blue county in a blue state in the bluest region in the country.

South Brunswick, N.J., has backed Democrats for president in each of the last three elections, has an all-Democrat Township Council and what amounts to a nonfunctioning Republican Party.

It is located in Middlesex County, which has not seen a Republican elected to its Board of Chosen Freeholders in more than a decade and where the GOP appears to stand for Ghost of a Party.

New Jersey has backed the last four Democrats to seek the presidency and is part of a Northeastern Region that has become one of the few reliably Democratic in the country.

And yet, the state is about to witness a down-and-dirty gubernatorial election that could send a Republican to the Statehouse -- which would mean that five of the last gubernatorial races have gone to the Republicans.

So what does all this mean?

Well, election results are like an abstract painting. No two viewers see the results the same way.

Over the last month or so, we've been subjected to a host of analyses offering takes on the national results, most simplifying the decisions of 120 million voters to meet a rather pat script originally written four years ago.

But does the script represent reality? According to the experts, there are blue states and red states and never the twain shall meet. The blue states, generally the states along the West Coast, the Northeast and New England, are liberal bastions where the residents are educated and elitist, the story runs, while the red states -- the broad swath of America -- are socially conservative, Christian, straight-talking folk without pretensions. The liberal blue states support government programs; the red states are for small government. The blue states are suspicious of the military; the red states support it wholeheartedly.

I'm not going to argue with the broad outlines, though I have to say I don't drink lattes or drive a Volvo even though I voted for Sen. Kerry. It's not that the broad outlines are wrong, but that they turn reality into a cartoon.

For instance, Colorado went for George W. Bush this time around so, in the formulation of the pundit class, it is a red state and must demonstrate the basic red-state characteristics. Voters there did back a state constitutional ban on gay marriage, but they also sent a Democrat to the US Senate to occupy a seat formerly held by a Republican and they did hand both houses of the state legislature over to the Democrats. Red state or blue state?

Nevada also sent a Democrat to the Senate, though it backed the president with 50% of the vote -- and it also endorsed a Republican-opposed minimum wage hike with a remarkable 68% of the vote.

Two other states carried by President Bush -- North Dakota and Arkansas -- backed Democrats for Senate and one Kerry state -- New Hampshire -- backed a GOP Senate candidate. So, which state is red and which is blue?

There are other examples. Florida, which gave President Bush a respectable 52% of the vote, also backed a state ballot initiative boosting the minimum wage in a landslide -- a full 72% of the state's voters endorsed the hike.

Then there are Oregon and Michigan, both of which supported Sen. Kerry, making them blue states under the current media narrative. Both states endorsed state constitutional bans on gay marriage -- Oregon by a 57-43 margin and Michigan by 59-41 margin.

There seems to be a lot more nuance here than the broad stereotypes we've allowed to grow into an accepted narrative would indicate.

The trouble with this simplification is that it exacerbates the cultural and geographic divide that does exist. As I said, the broad outlines of the narrative being pushed by the television pundits have some validity -- the South, for instance, is more culturally conservative than the Northeast, but not to the degree that the talking heads seem to believe. And the Northeast may be a bit more culturally liberal -- though not nearly as much as I might like.

By allowing our political story to be defined by easy stereotypes, we are creating a climate that makes finding common ground between the folks in Kansas and the folks in New Jersey exceedingly difficult.

After all, what could we latte-sipping, Volvo-driving elitists living up here in the Northeast have in common with those narrow-minded, Bible-toting gun nuts down in the Deep South?

A lot more than anyone wants to admit. And that's what progressives need to underscore. All of us are facing the same kinds of economic pressures. All of us have mortgages or rent payments, all of us pay utilities, worry about education and security and jobs. What has happened over the years, as Thomas Frank's great book What's the Matter With Kansas? makes plain, is that the Democrats have abandoned regular working folk. They no longer can talk to them in a language they can understand.

And that has given the Republicans a chance to redirect the debate, to turn their attention toward cultural issues. Frank's thesis is that red-state voters have tended to vote against their own economic best interests at least in part because the Democrats have walked away from them and the GOP has mastered the language of American mythology -- of easy patriotism and religion.

This is where progressives come in. What we need to do is force the focus back on the misdeeds of corporate America and make clear that working-class conservatives are making their own lives more difficult every time they vote for Republicans like Tom DeLay and George W. Bush.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in New Jersey. Email

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