Politics & Policy

The Search for the Real America

New trucks at a Ford dealership in Encinitas, Calif., in 2008. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
What the pick-up truck signifies

John Ekdahl set off an amusing storm on Twitter by noting that the three best-selling vehicles in the United States are pick-up trucks and asking journalists the seemingly anodyne question of whether they personally know anybody who owns one.

The responses were predictable: The sort of smug progressives who are proud of their smugness scoffed that pick-ups, pollution-belching penis-supplements for toothless red-state Bubbas, are found mainly in the sort of communities where they’d never deign to set foot; the sort of smug progressives who are ashamed of their smugness protested that it is a silly question (which it is — that’s part of the point) and made strained connections with pick-up-owning childhood friends back home in East Slapbutt; conservatives mainly said “Har har stupid liberal elites.”

Living in Texas, I have a rarefied point of view on this. Because I have decided today to be an unbearable cliché, I am writing this column at a Starbucks (America’s leading psych ward and homeless shelter, with pretty good coffee), about five feet from a Ford F-150 and with seven other pick-ups in my immediate field of vision.

But there are pick-ups and there are pick-ups. In the nothing-but-mansions Houston neighborhood of River Oaks (Molly Ivins grew up there after her family moved to Texas from California; her salt-of-the-earth act was developed at the yacht club), the residential streets are clogged during the day with white pick-ups bearing largely Mexican work crews who keep the sprawling faux-Tudor country houses and Rococo palaces spruce and spiffy; inside the garages are more pick-ups, $60,000 and $70,000 specimens that are never used to haul anything other than grass-fed steaks from Whole Foods and never go farther off road than the gravel trail leading to the weekend “ranch,” which is what rich Texas oil guys call their country homes.

 

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Pick-ups are a very weird status symbol in Texas. Most makers make a special Texas edition of their trucks, and Toyota makes a great deal out of the fact that its pick-ups are made in Texas by Texans. (If the traffic around Houston is any indicator, this marketing campaign is working brilliantly.) The essence of Texanness often seems to consist of a powerful fixation on being from Texas, even if you’re Toyota.

Pick-ups are taken as an emblem of American life outside the coastal metropolises, an indicator of heartland authenticity. In reality, a pick-up truck indicates about as much connection to the farming and laboring life as the plaid flannel shirt on a Seattle barista does to the world of lumberjacks. Perhaps it is in some part aspirational or affiliation-oriented, in the same sense that most people wearing North Face gear don’t climb mountains on the weekends but would very much like to be the sort of people who do, if life weren’t so full already.

Which is to say, this is about that most mythical of places: “The Real America.”

A pick-up truck drives in a homecoming parade in Grapevine, Tx., in 2008. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

A few years ago, Glenn Beck announced on his radio program that he was in search of a scenic barn. (I feel okay about picking on Glenn Beck: I am a big Glenn Beck fan, and my few personal encounters with him suggest that he is an extraordinary man.) He was working on a book to be called “The Real America,” and he wanted to take a picture of himself in front of a pretty, virtuous farmscape for the book cover. I assume this was good marketing (it would be easier to measure his book sales in tons than in units), and I get the emotional place this comes from. Farming America is, indeed, part of the real America.

But so is Broadway. So is Wall Street. So is Hollywood and Malibu and glorious Big Sur, and Chicago and Detroit and Miami and all the weird old places in America that don’t even feel like America at all, like New Orleans and Aroostook County, Maine. So is Muleshoe, Texas, and the campus of Harvard. America is a big, splendid place.

My parents and grandparents worked on farms, and I’ve done a (very) little bit of that myself. We have pick-up trucks and live in places where the economic indicators are corn and cotton prices — and, increasingly, oil and gas prices. We may be tied more directly into the physical world than are people who live and work in different environments: In the Texas Panhandle, a drought is a great deal more than an occasion to think about the nuances of climate-change rhetoric.

Russell Kirk, describing his “canons of conservative thought,” argued that to be a conservative is to appreciate genuine diversity, “the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” The Left is living up to Kirk’s expectations: The increasingly sneering attitude of coastal elites toward the more conservative interior, particularly for the poor communities there, is as undeniable as it is distasteful. But conservatives are not immune to these Kulturkampf tendencies, either. No, the whole country does not need to be Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It doesn’t need to be Lubbock, Texas, either.

Our diversity indicates more than economic health. It indicates a culture and a society that are genuinely alive and genuinely vital.

We instinctively understand that an economically healthy community has lots of different kinds of productive activities going on, that one-horse economies, whether in our state capitals or in Arab oil emirates, are almost always stunted in some way. And sneer all you like at Wall Street, nobody appreciates the value of effective financial services (especially commercial banking and insurance) more than an American farmer. The loan on his F-150 is hardly his most important financial obligation. But our diversity indicates more than economic health. It indicates a culture and a society that are genuinely alive and genuinely vital.

Our politics is less and less about using the clumsy machinery of the state to try to mitigate the effects of this or that problem, and more and more about what kind of people we are, what kind of people we aspire to be, and — not least, never least — what kind of people we hate: effete Santa Monica liberals who don’t know where their food comes from, small-minded prairie bigots who shop at Walmart and have never visited Europe. We have a keen understanding for the vices of those who are unlike us. Their virtues, less so. But the farmers and the bankers need each other.

It is a big country, and there is room for both.

A few years ago, there was a controversial Republican political figure who spoke to this under rather more intense circumstances: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” The election of 2016 was divisive, to be sure. It wasn’t Appomattox. The Real America has been through worse.

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