James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Observations on a small, conservative city

It's beginning to seem that America's right wing nuts hate themselves almost as much as they despise everybody who isn't them –- which is to say white, dogmatically religious, and proudly ignorant of other places, other cultures and other points of view.

How else explain the fact that supporters of the extreme political right continually, actively, even vehemently fight against their own interests? How explain that they apparently adore politicians and the tiny minority of fabulously wealthy people who, with the help of right-wing politicians, take and keep everything they can from the rest of us?

Such thoughts were inspired by a long drive around St. Cloud, Minnesota, and its little metropolitan area on Monday, Oct. 13. There's no science to this, only observation:

St. Cloud is the core city of central Minnesota, a town of roughly 67,000 at the center of a little metropolitan area that has a population of about 185,000. About 40 percent of its residents have some German ancestry, according to the most recent census figures, and a very large chunk of the population –- 66,000-plus out of a membership for all churches of a bit more than 105,000 -– are Roman Catholic.

It also has a long history of racist and antisemitic incidents, mostly centering on St. Cloud State University. And it is a center of antiabortion activity.

It was one of the few areas in Minnesota that gave a solid majority of its votes to George W. Bush in 2004, although John Kerry topped Bush statewide.

Near the golf club, most of the McMansions display McCain lawn signs, of course. They're the homes of the early middle aged, sort-of rich second-level corporate executives and lawyers who, at least until a few weeks ago, erroneously fancied themselves as on their way to joining the rolls of the masters of the universe.

Oddly, I spotted only a couple of lawn signs for Michele Bachmann in the neighborhood. She's the outrageously silly, far-right Sixth District first-term congresswoman who is best known for embracing George W. Bush at a public event and not letting go. Don't know what to make of that lack of visible support among the people who are to large degree responsible for disgracing my state with her presence in Congress.

In St. Cloud's solidly middle class neighborhoods, lawn signs for the presidential candidates are unusually sparse. By my observation, Obama signs outnumbered McCain signs by a clear but not overwhelming number.

I'd love to know what that combination means –- relatively few signs, but a majority for the Democrat –- but I doubt that a poll would tell us. It's one of those situations that invites lies to pollsters: Folks in a heavily Catholic, historically very conservative town who are leaning toward a pro-choice, black Democrat may not want their neighbors to know where they stand. Other residents may not want to admit to all and sundry that they won't vote for a black man under any circumstances. Like that.

I saw very few signs in support of Norm Coleman, the Bush-backing senator who is desperately trying now to pretend he's an “independent thinker,” and none for his Democratic opponent, comedian Al Franken, who is greatly despised by country folks for his irreverent and sometimes foul-mouthed humor, as inaccurately presented to them by the Republican party.

The “What are these people thinking?” moments of my drive came in the hardscrabble neighborhoods, and there are a lot of those in central Minnesota and north.

They are places where little, old frame houses, quite a few in poor repair, sit next to warehouses and light industrial buildings, and places where a neighborhood six or seven blocks long and four or five blocks deep is completely surrounded by more warehouses, cheap retail outlets and heavily-used roads.

There are more political signs in those neighborhoods than in the vicinity of the country club, and they are overwhelmingly McCain/Palin signs. In fact, I don't recall seeing a single Obama sign in the several low-income neighborhoods I drove through.

It is not logical, but I've seen the same thing in poorer, mostly-white neighborhoods in Minneapolis. The people whose jobs are most at risk, who have the hardest time getting reliable health care, whose pay has been stagnant for years as prices rise and the rich get enormously richer, whose schools have become run down and overcrowded -– those people are passionately for the politicians who are deliberately tearing down their lives and blocking any chances they or their children had for economic improvement.

I think it is to some degree a testament to how successful the right has been in dumbing down our educational system and creating a class of low-level workers too ignorant to recognize that they are being exploited. They're angry and they hate, but the negative emotions are turned 180 degrees from those who are the source of their problems.

In the case of St. Cloud, the support among the relatively poor for those who will do them the most harm almost certainly also has a strong religious element. St. Cloud, in my experience and observation, still fosters the kind of Catholicism that says the priests and bishops are the undeniable holders of moral truth, and the priests and bishops are immovably against birth control and stem cell research and freedom for gays, and they have made abortion virtually the only issue that matters in the eyes of many of their faithful.

Ergo: One cannot vote for a Democrat without real risk of being condemned to Hell.

It's not only the Catholics who cling to such views, of course. Many of the more rabid evangelicals hold to the same beliefs, and there are lots of small true-believer churches around St. Cloud.

But what's more puzzling is that the same pro-right views seem to be at the very core of what even the non-religious hold dear in places like St. Cloud and some of the poorer blue-collar neighborhoods of cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul and, no doubt almost everywhere across the country.

There are only two things I can come to in explanation.

One is the success of the far right in preaching simple-minded, pro-war “my country right or wrong” jingoism, with powerful undertones of racism, religious bigotry and fear of all things “foreign.” The right has been pushing those views for decades, and the left hasn't even tried to make a counter effort. The Democratic Party, the organization, is stuck in the 1940s, assuming despite massive evidence to the contrary that its positions are so obviously correct that it doesn't have to sell them.

Hell, much of the time it doesn't even fight for equal time, or stand up to the election fraud that the Republican Party has made a routine part of its campaigns.

The other thing, and I admit I'm on very shaky ground here, is drawn from many conversations over the past few years with people in places like St. Cloud and Alexandria (another, smaller city northwest of St. Cloud, with a more rural outlook). And that is that a lot of people seem to dislike themselves for not being richer and smarter. Especially richer. Yet they also and more openly despise most people who are different from themselves, especially those who are highly educated –- the much hated “intellectual elite.”

Maybe they draw some comfort by associating themselves with the views of the corporate big shots and mock-populist pols such as George Bush, Newt Gingrich, et al.

I'd like to have a roomful of shrinks chew that over for a bit.

If Barack Obama does become president –- still doubtful, I think, given the likelihood of massive electoral fraud by the Republicans, not ACORN -- and even if the economic meltdown brings the Democrats substantial majorities in both houses of Congress, we probably will see more of what we've had over recent years. The political right, though a minority, will choose the topics, pick the battles, get the headlines, shape what the country believes and continue to spread their power over a growing army of the ignorant. The odds are that a Democratic government, if it comes, will be short-lived.

And we will continue on our road to becoming a backward, third world mess of a country fighting a cultural civil war rather than working toward a common good.

How desperately we need a progressive political party, and how unlikely it is that we will get one.