Visit to the Heartland

A Trip to “Bush Country” Reveals a Surprising Attitude Towards the Political Establishment

I just returned from a long family road trip through the American heartland, i.e., a slice of the so-called “Red States.” Homecomings after a lengthy absence are always reason for at least a little trepidation and a trip through five western states including such Republican bastions as Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico is reason for concern for any “bleeding-heart liberal” such as myself. But given today’s political climate, it’s safe to say that I felt more than just little apprehension as the date of our trip approached.

I prepared myself to meet a fair share of political and social drones, kept docile and ignorant to the outside world through a diet of sitcoms and incessant messages of “staying the course.”  Although I have followed Bush’s steady decline in opinion polls, I expected that any voiced discontent I would encounter in places such as Joseph, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; Riverton, Wyoming or Gallup, New Mexico would be attributed more to the public’s general political disenchantment (see the Congress’ similar decline in polls) than to any coherent rejection of the current administration and its policies.  And so I briefed my Austrian wife not to get into politics with people, to keep her views to herself and just accept the differences of opinion as differences in culture.

Looking back, my uneasiness at the prospect of reuniting with my fellow countrymen is more than perplexing.  As an American living in Austria, I have spent the past seven years arguing with my hosts about American values and ideals.  I have had to correct uninformed misperceptions about American society and its people and too often I have been insulted by the simplistic caricatures of the same in Austrian media.

So you can imagine how baffled I was to realise that I had unwittingly adopted many of these same negative stereotypes.  Years of bias and selective news reporting had left its mark.

We began our journey on the West Coast in the city of Portland, Oregon – my home town.  Traditionally, there is no love lost between conservatives and the citizens of this growing Bohemian metropolis, a city with more restaurants, cafes and bars per capita than any place on the globe.  For this reason the universal condemnation of Bush and “his war” came as no surprise. But then we set forth to tackle the Oregon Trail in reverse, heading eastward into what I had thought was “Bush Country.”  To our surprise we soon discovered that although the twang in people’s dialects changed, the message remained the same.  It was the same anger at an unpopular president and “his” war.  Sure, there were the obligatory (Hillary) Clinton jokes at the various rodeos we visited, but the applause and laughter seemed subdued.  In fact, at a rodeo in Wyoming, the rodeo announcer actually called upon all visitors (be they Democrats or Republicans) to put aside their different opinions about the war in Iraq and to come together in a show of support of our troops.  Quite a moving moment indeed.

And so we traveled further East through Idaho and Wyoming’s frontier towns and Indian reservations and the posh ski resorts of Colorado that reminded us of St. Anton.  It soon became evident that we would not be able to avoid political discussions.  Be they Idaho cowboys, Oregon bartenders, New Mexican artisans, Wyoming store keepers or Durango lawyers, average Joe’s from all walks of life and political party affiliations asked us for our opinion on the war in Iraq and about George W. Bush.  They were truly interested and concerned to find out what people back in “Old” Europe were thinking.

What we received in return for our diplomatically timid answers, were not only emotionally charged testimonies of years of disappointments but stirring battle cries for change.  To sum it up: people are pissed-off and the mood is one of grassroots revolution.  The anger is universal and the sense of betrayal goes deep through all strata of society – one Vietnam vet with a MIA flag in his backyard, for example, shared with us his colorful, albeit somewhat disturbing ideas of what he would like to do with “those guys in the Whitehouse.”  Perhaps it’s not the sixties all over again but damned if I remember the last time I felt energy so charged with change.  Nothing I have experienced in the decades I have lived in Europe compares even closely to that.  The rejection of the political establishment in general and the Bush administration specifically seems almost universal.

In the six weeks we traveled the West, we saw one lonely pro-Bush bumper sticker (reading: “This is Bush Country,” on a car with Texas license plates, go figure).  Besides that one lonely show of support, however, the streets seemed plastered with a myriad of variations on one of three messages: those showing support for the troops, those condemning the 43rd. president (“Fermez la BUSH,” being the most creative) and those calling for peace.

The impression my wife and I came away with from those weeks on the road was that this is by no means a country in a state of denial or ignorance.  It is a country at war.  It is a country where many small communities are praying for their sons and daughters in harm’s way or mourning those already fallen.  It is a country trying to find its way again, and by all indications, in the process, it is redefining itself, as it has so very often in the past.

Of course this travel report is as subjective as it is brief.  I could mention many more observations about the changes in American society that I witnessed in the brief time I spent back home (such as, for example, the wholehearted debate about climate change that is sweeping the nation).  And of course I am biased – I was on the look out for signs of hope.

But then again, all the TV programmes, books and articles that have been written or produced about United States in the past seven years have been equally biased.  My point is, form your own opinion by visiting the United States next summer.

You might be surprised.

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