Friday, October 28, 2011
Driving in Red-State California
Heading north and inland from the San Francisco Bay area, you can see the landscape change abruptly. At Vacaville, Highway 505 branches off to provide a shortcut for northbound travelers between I-80 and I-5. Genentech has a big complex at that junction, but once past it, you’re in a different country.
It’s not just that the landscape is open and sparsely settled. The signs along the road reflect the fact that the culture has changed as well. On a recent fishing trip that took my son and me through that area, we saw signs defensively proclaiming the importance of farmers and agriculture in general; signs, some with gruesome drawings, asserting that Jesus had died and shed blood for our sins; Tea Party signs, and others of similar provenance. A year ago there were a few “Produce the Birth Certificate” signs, but none were in evidence this year.
Politically California is about as blue a state as you’ll find, but the blueness predominates in the urban areas near the coast, where most of the population lives. The farther inland and closer to the mountains you get, the more it feels like a red state.
More than a decade ago I took a driving trip through the northeastern part of the state and southern Oregon a week before the presidential election. I literally went three days without seeing a single campaign sign for Al Gore, but there were hundreds for Bush/Cheney. Gore carried both states, but not the parts of them that I was driving through.
People who live in small towns and rural areas, tend, and this is a generality, to feel that they are misunderstood by the great majority that lives in urban and suburban America. Some politicians — Sarah Palin comes to mind — do a terrific job of pandering to that resentment. And, as with most resentments, there’s a kernel of truth behind the feeling.
But a lot of the suspicion is extrapolation and exaggeration of some reasonably held positions. I don’t know anyone, among my liberal friends, who hates farmers and agriculture. Most of them, in fact, are highly supportive because they feel farming protects open space while providing a valuable and essential commodity — our food. That many of those same people believe, as I do, that farmers should go easy on mass-produced chemical pesticides and should provide their field workers with decent wages and working conditions is by no means a slam on agriculture, though it seems to be taken as such.
Misunderstanding goes both ways. Many people in the cities abhor guns and hunting, not fully understanding that in small, economically distressed areas, killing a deer and eating its meat is a key part of the winter food budget. Many people in the country, who use a gun in that fashion, don’t seem to comprehend, for their part, that it’s not a good idea to have a lot of drug dealers and gangbangers running around with concealed weapons in a highly populated urban area.
People who live in the less populated parts of the country are our last Jeffersonians. There’s a strong streak of self-sufficiency, a suspicion of elites and government (the greater the remove, the greater the suspicion), and a belief that community cooperation can take care of most problems. Jefferson felt that way, but he was quick to admit that his philosophy would work only to a certain scale; that once a society became too highly populated, too urbanized, and too industrialized, small government would no longer work. In most of the country, that time has passed, but north of Vacaville, the spirit lingers on.