Denis Boyles, National Review Online EuroPress critic and author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese, has moved from France to red-state America in his latest book, Superior, Nebraska: The Common Sense Values of America’s Heartland. He talks about what’s so Superior with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: The media was fascinated when hapless midwestern Ohioans did as Rush told them and voted for Hillary? Who will they take their orders from next?
Denis Boyles: I don’t know, but probably not Air America. Ohio’s kind of a miniature U.S.A., isn’t it, with all those blue precincts in the northeast, around the big cities, while the rest is pretty red. The conventional view is that Rush pushed the robot button and his followers all went into action. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Ohio voters have put up with enough corruption and mischief from both parties that now all they want to do is have fun. That bodes well for Obama, as long as nobody takes him seriously.
Lopez: How might the November election look in the middle of the country?
Boyles: Well, Nebraska’s going to vote Republican, but everyplace else is up for grabs. Bush fatigue has swept the prairies, too. Midwestern conservatives are pretty fed up with W.
Lopez: So what’s so superior about Nebraska? Next you’re probably going to tell me that there’s nothing wrong with Kansas. I’m a native New Yorker, you know. So I may be a hard sell.
Boyles: One of the reasons I wrote this book was to help people who live in New York, New York, to understand a little about people who live in York, Nebraska, and in other small towns in the Midwest. I know New Yorkers who can direct you to their favorite cafe up some tiny ravine in Provence, but can’t find Concordia, Kansas, on a map. Yet there’s a lot to be learned from the Midwest. Actually, it’s too bad presidential candidates can’t go door-to-door in Nebraska — not only would the walk do them good, they’d also find the values of the Midwest useful in understanding how to speak to Americans everywhere. Out there (as most New Yorkers think of places like Nebraska), people appreciate common-sense solutions and policies, things that reflect qualities like self-reliance, tenacity, and resiliency, because those are the qualities that made it possible to settle and survive on those hard plains in the first place. Those are also the qualities that most of us like to think describes the American character, so if a politician can learn how to appeal to a Nebraskan, the chances are he or she will have gone a long way toward appealing to the rest of America — not those who live and vote in the deep blue areas of the country, maybe, but most other people in most other places. And obviously those are the voters any successful candidate is going to need to attract in order to win.
Lopez: What’s wrong with Thomas Frank?
Boyles: Nothing. I hope he’s the picture of good health. He’s a stylish writer and I enjoy reading him. The trouble is he just doesn’t seem to know Kansas once he leaves Kansas City (most of which is in Missouri anyway). His book What’s the Matter with Kansas? was loved by liberals who didn’t know much about Kansas, either — because it reinforced their view of all those rubes out there in what they like to call “Jesusland.” They needed to believe that wily social conservatives had “won the heart of America” by tricking all those poor peasant folk into voting against their best interests. And I know that when you New Yorkers fly over Kansas, the place looks red because it generally supports the GOP presidential candidate. But on the ground, things turn blue in a hurry.
The fact is, in Kansas, liberals are winning, while conservatives almost never win statewide races. For 35 of the last 50 years, there’s been a Democrat living in the governor’s mansion in Topeka. (Kansas has never had a conservative governor; the closest the state ever came to getting one was when they elected Joan Finney, a maverick Republican who had to become a Democrat in order to get elected.) Conservatives can sometimes win local statehouse seats and the state school board goes back and forth between conservatives and liberals, but the state’s current governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who would be considered liberal in Massachusetts, is very popular in Kansas. The last couple of Republican governors now serve in her administration.
There are several reasons for this. Partly it’s because “moderate” Republicans (it’s a Kansas conceit; a “moderate” Kansas Republican would be a liberal anyplace else in the country) will gladly vote for a Democrat, but would never, ever vote for a conservative Republican. Partly it’s because the state GOP is lazy, deeply divided, unimaginative, and largely ineffectual. Partly it’s because conservatives are seen as shrill and angry by the state’s press. Partly it’s because the media in Kansas gives Sebelius a great deal of cover, rarely asking difficult questions or reporting anything that might suggest just how out-of-place her politics are. And because coverage of state news is so incidental to most people’s lives, and because it’s covered so inadequately in the state, most Kansans just don’t know how liberal Sebelius is. She just seems nice, and in a Midwestern politician, nice is always nice.
Meanwhile, Kansas is the late-term abortion capital of the world, a place where the government owns gambling casinos, and where millions and millions of dollars from the abortion lobby, the gaming lobby, and the fetal stem cell research lobby have swamped the state and have had a huge impact on its politics. One example: After a local TV station ran a story about rats in the hallways of one abortion clinic, the state legislature passed a bill requiring health clinics to meet minimum standards for hygiene. Sebelius vetoed the bill.
Democrats and liberal Republicans run Kansas (and its newspapers) and always have. You have to live a long way from Topeka to believe Kansas conservatives have “won the heart of America.” Frank’s complaint seems to be that conservatives just won’t shut up. A better question, especially after Torricelli, McGreevey, Menendez, and Spitzer is “What’s the matter with New York and New Jersey?” Or anyplace where liberals apparently have won not only the hearts but also the minds of voters who seem to have lost the ability to reason on their own. Midwesterners have no problem voting for a liberal Democrat like Bob Kerrey, but there’s no chance New Jersey or New York will be sending a conservative Republican to Washington any time soon.
Lopez: Are “self-reliance, responsibility, and honor” unique to small-town America? And good “wheat, weather, and common sense,” too?
Boyles: Good weather isn’t, that’s for sure. My wife says there’s a spot on the map in Ohio, about ten miles west of Columbus, where civility in America begins. She has a point; the kids working in Burger Kings and Wendys out there actually say, “Thank you” to their customers. It is a different America. In my book, I have a photo taken in Cuba, Kansas (pop. 200 or so), by National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson. It’s called “City council fixes the sidewalk.”The photo shows a city councilman pouring cement out of a wheelbarrow into a hole in the ground. The mayor’s standing alongside, beer bottle in hand, looking down at the sidewalk.
The photograph says everything about what “government” means in small towns everywhere. It’s you, on your lunch break, fixing the sidewalk — or taking your turn on the school board or doing a term or two on the city council — because if you didn’t, your town would blow away. In small towns everywhere, you are your government. In places like New York, or St Louis, or Kansas City, “government” is an abstract thing, a purveyor of goods and services, something that’s supposed to magically materialize, but that has nothing to do with you, personally. In small-town America, the relationship between a citizen and the government is much different than it is elsewhere.
Lopez: How is Superior going to vote? What do they like to hear from pols?
Boyles: Superior’s located on the Republican River, literally and figuratively, so they’ll vote for McCain. But Nebraskans are capable of playing practical jokes in the election booth. For example, Chuck Hagel.
Lopez: Kansas is not full of “red-state creationist hicks?”
Boyles: I read recently that about half of all Americans were creationists, so there must be some blue-state Darwin-bashers out there somewhere. In Kansas, the population’s evenly divided, too, which is why conservatives and liberals play badminton with those meaningless state school board seats. In the last round, it should be noted, conservatives didn’t advocate teaching “creationism” or even intelligent design in the classrooms (and if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered to the 300 school districts in the state, each of which decides what will and won’t be taught in their local schools). They did advocate suggesting that evolution as a way of explaining creation was controversial. The result was one solid year of media-propelled controversy.
Lopez: Speaking of Kansas, that’s quite the case Phill Kline has there with Planned Parenthood, isn’t it? And not just a Kansas story.
Boyles: Not a Kansas story, but with a Kansas twist. The issue in Kansas has never been about banning abortion — the state’s laws are about like those in other states, where common-sense limits restrict extreme procedures, such as late-term abortions, and there are statutes in place that enable the prosecution of those who prey on underage girls and those who coerce women into having unwanted abortions. The issue in Kansas is enforcement of those laws.
There’s a reason why women from all over come to Kansas for a late-term abortion. It’s because when it comes to abortion in Kansas, anything goes; laws simply aren’t enforced because monitoring the practices of clinics is impossible. The Democrats, including the governor and the attorney general, along with almost all “moderate” Republicans, want the abortion clinics left alone. With the help of a compliant press, they’ve tricked the controversy out as a battle for patients’ privacy. So far, the clinics are winning. One official close to the struggle told me he thought the enforcement of Kansas’ laws was still probably five or six years — and another couple of election cycles — away.
Lopez: Midwesterners are often complaining about their local liberal rag of a newspaper (I love you all! Thanks for running my syndicated column!). Are the papers in the midwest nearly as bad as the Gray Lady? Worse?
Boyles: They’re the same, really. The same criticisms that people have about the Times they have about the regional dailies — failure to report fully on sensitive issues, a reluctance to cause their political favorite any embarrassment, not observing the proper standards of fairness (The Salina Journal once lumped school board conservatives in with Wichita’s BTK serial killer as examples of bad Kansans), twisting facts, all the usual stuff. I think Midwesterners are as appalled as most Americans by the behavior of the media; hence most Midwestern regional dailies are losing money, readers, and advertising. The Midwest’s weeklies and small-town dailies, however, are fairly healthy.
Lopez: Which red states are most inexcusably turning purple and what can be done to stop the color change?
Boyles: Kansas is most at risk for Republicans. The state party needs to shed its liberal wing and give more prominence to independent and truly moderate Republicans, since liberal Republicans are the ones who insure the election of Democrats, yet who win local and statehouse elections by running as Republicans. In the book, I describe how most of these blue Republicans never run as Democrats, since they know that if they did, they’d lose. Readers of What’s the Matter with Kansas? will be surprised to learn that it’s not at all improbable that Kansas could start going to Democrats in presidential races. Remember, Vermont used to be safely Republican, too.
Lopez: How does a nice Kansas boy wind up in France?
Boyles: Actually, I spent the most glorious part of my childhood in Kansas, then, when my parents moved farther west, I spent nearly every summer there until I was an adult. My family — my many cousins, my uncle and my aunt — all live fairly close to my grandparents’ original farm just south of Superior, which is located on the Nebraska border. But I was educated in Baltimore and I’ve been going back and forth across the Atlantic for most of the last 30 years. At the moment, I’m directing The Brouzils Seminars, a writing and creative arts program for graduate and undergraduate students (and for more mature writers, too), in association with Fort Hays State University in Kansas. I wrote a book criticizing the French ruling elite — Villepin, Chirac, those types — called Vile France. But my target wasn’t the French people, whom I quite like, or France as a whole, where I enjoy living — even more since Sarkozy’s triumph over the French establishment, Right and Left.
Lopez: How different on the ground, in everyday dealings, are Frenchmen from Nebraskans?
Boyles: In Paris, the difference is as great as it is in New York or San Francisco, but I’ve always lived in rural areas in France, where people are just as pleasant, polite, and civil as they are in Superior, Nebraska. Until quite recently, both Kansas and France were ruled by elites who were more concerned with personal political power than with vision or even ideology. Sarkozy’s election changed that in France. Kansas needs to find its own Sarko, I guess.
Lopez: What should John McCain bear in mind about Superior and the heartland? What’s his biggest challenge there?
Boyles: Republicans like hero candidates, hence Bob Dole and John McCain. The trouble is, these guys tend to run with a sense of entitlement; they seem to think they deserve to be elected without having to actually do the hard work of convincing anybody or advancing any new ideas. Taking the Midwest for granted is a dangerous thing for any politician to do, now more than ever.
Lopez: You’ve done France. Now Superior. Where are we packing for next?
Boyles: Back in time! My next book, for Knopf, is about the creation of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11), one of the most respected reference works ever published.