I’m going to be pulling several snippets out of this but it does make for interesting reading in its entirety. This is a book review but the analysis of the reviewer is also helpful.
It’s not like angry divisions are a new phenomenon in American politics. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was plagued by intractable disagreements, whose resolution, as Brian Mann points out in his book “Welcome to the Homeland,” has directly contributed to today’s problems. In our great-great-grandparents’ time, the nation pretty nearly destroyed itself, fighting a bloody civil war whose bitterness has not quite faded after 140 years. Bryan’s 1896 presidential campaign was a full-fledged populist rebellion, pitting the people of the Great Plains and the West against the moneyed Eastern establishment. Franklin D. Roosevelt may be an untouchable icon of pop history today, but during his 13-year presidency many Americans viewed him as a pseudo-socialist tyrant.
Even if our contemporary political schism is just an old one duded up in new clothes and endlessly blabbed out over the airwaves, that doesn’t make it any prettier. Sure, there was a middle-ground liberal consensus that dominated American politics in the postwar years – if you’re willing to skate past the Red Scare and a couple of near-misses with World War III – but in retrospect its reign looks very short indeed. By the mid-'60s it was crumbling, by the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972 it was fatally undermined, and by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it was gone for good.
What happened? Well, one could say that old fires of tribal hatred (country vs. city, populace vs. elites) were rebuilt and carefully tended by politicians who could benefit from them. In that sense, what has happened in America in the last quarter-century is not altogether different from what has happened in the Balkans, the Middle East, Rwanda, Sudan and countless other exotic locations. The modalities of conflict are different, for the most part, and that’s something to be grateful for.
Neither side in America’s cultural and political wars – Brian Mann calls the two camps the “metros” and the “homelanders” – can quite get what they want. Homelanders have controlled Congress for 12 years and the White House for six. They’ve packed the federal judiciary with right-thinking conservatives who view our constitution as a form of Talmudic writ whose interpretation requires reading the minds of those bickering 18th century farmers, the ones who got together in Philadelphia to figure out how to govern a rural nation of 13 states with a combined population smaller than present-day Arkansas. Yet big government has done nothing but get bigger, abortion remains a legal and (in most states) commonplace medical procedure, HBO programming includes the word “fuck” every 38 seconds, homosexuals show no signs of melting away in shame, fewer and fewer people go to church, and undocumented immigrants have shown up in virtually every corner of the country, where they work hard at the jobs nobody else will do at all. On the other hand, the metropolitan liberals and moderates whose values seem to dominate the texture of actual American life can do nothing to stop a governing party that starts overseas wars for bad reasons, punishes poor people for living in the path of a hurricane, encourages environmental destruction and eagerly hands over as much power as possible (except that of the police state) to big corporations.
This mutual discontent can lead to a fury and frustration, an air of permanent grievance, that makes both ends of the political spectrum seem unstable. Once, seven or eight years ago, I had to get up and leave Christmas dinner after a relative began to speak, with tears in his eyes, about the noble and indeed Christ-like mission of Kenneth Starr. But I also don’t want to hear anyone I otherwise admire launch into any more conspiracy theories that connect (or even mention) the 9/11 attacks, the Ohio vote count, Hurricane Katrina and Judith Miller.
“Welcome to the Homeland” is no mild-mannered exploration of the common ground between Brian and Allen Mann’s visions of the world. It’s a full-on metro jeremiad against Allen’s people, the homelanders, whom Brian describes as a tiny cadre of right-wing rural revolutionaries who have hijacked the party of Abraham Lincoln, hypnotized the media and convinced many of the rest of us that they represent the truest and most virtuous aspects of our national character. Brian can’t help believing that his brother’s right-wing views are “troubling, ugly, and morally wrong.” (Allen, naturally enough, feels the same way about him.)
Mann’s book was conceived in part as a riposte to Thomas Frank’s bestseller “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” and might also belong on the shelf next to “Kingdom Coming,” former Salon reporter Michelle Goldberg’s recent treatise on the rise of right-wing Christian nationalism. (Given the timing, Mann cannot possibly have read Goldberg’s book before finishing his own.) Where Frank sees a class war inverted and subverted by powerful economic elites who control the Republican Party and convince the exurban lumpenproletariat to vote against its own interests, and Goldberg sees an irresolvable, almost apocalyptic collision between those who see America as a secular republic and those who see it as the kingdom of Christ, Mann sees geography.
What was Ronald Reagan’s legendary 1984 “Morning in America” commercial but this mythology cooked down to its essence and mainlined like heroin into the body politic? What else can explain why Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the smallest, whitest and most rural states in the country, play such a decisive role in presidential politics? We apparently believe that standing in a corn field with some monosyllabic hog farmer, or confronting the frozen yokels in some Granite State diner at 6 a.m., will strip the metropolitan veneer away from our candidates and compel them to reveal their genuine plaid-flannel souls.
Some of this mythology stems from the roots of the American republic, which did indeed begin as a society of white, male landholders spread thinly across a rugged continent. Whether this is a grand plan hatched by Karl Rove or just a fortuitous historical irony, the homelander revolution capitalized on the rural bias inherent in American federalism. As a result of the Constitutional Convention’s historic compromise between delegates from larger and smaller states, rural states are dramatically “supersized” (Mann’s phrase) in the U.S. Senate and, consequently, in the Electoral College.
If the allocation of electoral votes were based simply on population, Mann observes, then Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming would get no more than one vote apiece. Instead, those states have 12 electoral votes, with 9 of them pretty much hard-wired to the Republicans. One may be tempted to shrug this off; 12 electoral votes is still fewer than middle-size states like Georgia or New Jersey command on their own. But as Mann demonstrates, the cumulative impact is dramatic.
California has a population of about 36 million and commands 55 electoral votes, far more than any other state. But the 12 inland states of the Great Plains and Far West (all won by Bush in 2004), with a combined population of 23 million, account for 59 electoral votes. Those 13 million extra Californians must not be real Americans after all, since their votes counted for so much less (.00000153 electoral votes apiece) than those of Arizonans, Nevadans, Idahoans or Nebraskans (.00000257 electoral votes each). Similarly, the 44 Democrats in the current Senate actually represent more citizens, and received more votes, than do the 55 Republicans.
He also significantly underplays the importance of evangelical Christianity in the American right and society more generally. Mann refers several times to a Barna Research poll suggesting that evangelicals are only 8 percent of the U.S. population, without explaining that the poll used a strict doctrinal definition of the term, counting only people who held specific theological beliefs. Other polls have suggested that 23 percent of 2004 voters self-identified as evangelical Christians, with 14 percent identifying themselves as belonging to the “Christian right.” Similarly, Mann seems to think that only a small core of fundamentalists reject evolutionary theory in favor of the six-day creation described in the Book of Genesis. Polls have consistently indicated that nearly half of all Americans hold such a belief.