Is the electoral fault-line between red states and blue states a thing of the past?
Barack Obama vows to take his message of post-partisan unity to red markets in Virginia and North Carolina. John McCain is counting on maverick credentials to help him in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in the true-blue northeast.
Yet a glance at the map shows that the electoral gulf is still very much in place. All the quixotic talk about bridging it seems to be intended, not indeed to bridge it, but to appeal to swing voters in those purple states (notably Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio) that are not yet firmly in either the red or the blue camp.
If this is so, Sen. Obama, when he envisions a “project of national renewal” grounded in “our communal values,” isn’t really buying into the fantasy that the red-blue division will blur and America will become a post-factional Greek polis. When he says, in the Audacity of Hope, that he finds red-state politicians to be, in fact, human (“I find the President and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else [and] recognize in them values I share”), he isn’t reaching for the mantle of bipartisanship.
Instead, conscious that no blue-state Democrat has won the White House since JFK nearly half a century ago, he’s signaling to swing voters in purple-land that he’s a less stereotypically bluish pol than Michael Dukakis or John Kerry, the last two blue men atop the Democratic ticket.
Obama, in this reading, is not a post-partisan idealist but a brilliantly partisan realist. He knows full well the depth of the divide between blue states (molded, David Hackett Fischer demonstrated in his classic history of American folkways, Albion’s Seed, by the cerebral culture of New England) and red states (shaped by a Backcountry fightin’ faith of guns ’n grits ’n God). That ditch couldn’t be bridged by the high communitarian oratory of Pericles himself.
Is Obama right, then, to bet that his post-partisan communal-values rhetoric, however meaningless it is as a governing philosophy, will convince purple people that he’s different from the repudiated blue-state partisans of the past?
Or, conversely, has McCain been the shrewder tactician in dusting off his red-state credentials and telling blue-blooded America to take its hoity-toity hauteur and shove it? In emphasizing his red-state warrior heritage and choosing, as his running mate, a backcountry girl, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain is betting heavily on enthusiastic reddish constituencies in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and southern Ohio showing up at the polls and making the difference in a close election.
Critics of the strategy contend that whatever gains McCain makes among energized reddish voters will be offset by losses among independents turned off by red meat.
If McCain’s strategy works, it will be in part because Obama’s efforts to cast himself as a new kind of blue-state pol aren’t working. Obama has so far been unable to close the electoral sale because, though he comes from the midwest, he hasn’t broken with a bluish style of leadership that drives much of the rest of the country crazy.
According to Professor Fischer, the New England civilization that molded the culture of the blue states valued learning, piety, and high moral seriousness. The Massachusetts Bay Colony man didn’t “kill” time, he “improved” it. He didn’t crack jokes, he reflected on “how displeasing it must be to God . . . to play the fool.” The New England virtues, though in many ways admirable, tend to degenerate into the self-righteous preachiness that gave the Puritans a bad name.
Sen. Obama, with his books, his learning, and his eloquence, seemed at first to resurrect all the promise of the New England tradition. Here was a Harvard man who recalled the best traditions of the university, not the holier-than-thou arrogance of the political-correctness seminary that fired Larry Summers for failing to tow the line.
But when, in San Francisco, Obama mocked backcountry folk who cling to guns, religion, and racial revulsion, he revealed the flip side of the New England ethos, its conviction of its own superiority.
Obama made things worse with his sermon on the moment (coincident with his victory in the primaries) “when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” The words revived memories of New England’s penchant for dubious millenniums—transcendentalism, Brook Farm utopianism, the assorted liberation theologies of the Ivy League today, which variously condemn capitalism, the U.S. military, the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and books composed by dead white males as the root of all evil.
If Obama badly needs a little rouge in his persona, the high-brow verbal mugging to which his harpies in the press subjected Gov. Palin only accentuated his blueness. The criticisms of Gov. Palin were as petty as the gossip at a convocation of the Daughters of the American Revolution in its prime.
The hick from Alaska was in a beauty contest! She doesn’t have a graduate degree! (I forget where Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan got theirs.) She has shot a gun and hit a target! (Blue bloods are fond of poor shots like Adlai Stevenson, who once, when demonstrating the use of a rifle, accidentally killed someone.)
The high-brow condescension of the Obama bluestockings was reminiscent of the prim accents of Columbia’s Richard Hofstadter, who in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life traced the origins of stupidity in America to the backcountry penchant for evangelical religion.
It’s not clear, at this point, how Obama revises his too-blue image. He can keep saying “folks” and possibly adopt other words uncharacteristic of the Harvard idiom. He can go out and grab a .22. But like earlier visits to bar and bowling alley, such attempts at cultural camouflage will be met with disbelief.
America may be tired of a red-state president whose coterie is accused of arrogance and self-righteousness. But Obama has so far failed to show that he can curb the zealotry and intolerance of those who possess the Puritanical blue gene.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.