Last Thursday the Washington Post had a big feature article–on the front page, no less–about Washington, Oklahoma, which is just down the road from where my wife’s father and brother live. The article was focusing on Oklahoma as a Super Tuesday state and as one of the most consistently Republican states in the union, voting for George W. Bush at a rate of 65.6% and for John McCain at the exact same rate of 65.6%. The little town of Washington, population 600, was targeted, I guess because it has the same name as our nation’s capital, and it was presented as exemplifying “the conservative life,” whatever that is.
The stereotypes and condescension abound, presenting the folks of Washington as an exotic tribe, as in a National Geographic special. But the reporter, Eli Saslow, has a way with description, and his details made me nostalgic for my own Oklahoma roots growing up:
What you see is Sid’s Easy Shop opening downtown each morning at 6, where Sid will sell you gas, rent you a movie, make you a new set of keys or bring your soda to one of the classic red booths preserved from the 1950s. The post office, its roof painted red and white to reflect the stripes of the American flag, opens for business a few hours later. Next door to that, Casey operates her coffee shop with the help of her husband and five kids, who take turns working the register, Yes Sir and Yes Ma’am, and sell T-shirts imprinted with the phrase “Make God Famous.”
What you see is a parade of several dozen well-wishers lining the street and stretching out their hands to the bus every time one of the varsity high school teams leaves to play a road game, and a few hundred people gathering for community workdays to fix up the Little League field so Washington doesn’t waste money on parks and rec. Almost all of the houses in town are single-story ranchers, and more than 70 percent belong to married couples — few Hispanic, fewer black, none Muslim and none openly gay.
What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.
And yet, the article itself has details that show the folks of Washington are more complicated than he lets on. The town has no diversity, with few Hispanics and Blacks and no Muslims, the article complains, but it turns out that the rancher being interviewed is Chickasaw, whose ancestors came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. I suspect the same could be said for many of the other Washingtonians. So Native Americans don’t count in the diversity requirements?It also turns out that the rancher, described riding his pickup to check on the cattle, went to college, worked in St. Louis, and now telecommutes with a financial company. The preacher in the story with the alarmingly conservative congregation turns out to be from Chicago.
As for Oklahoma being so Republican, the fact is, just a few decades ago, Oklahoma was purely Democratic. When I was growing up, there was not even a Republican party organization in the county. All local elections were decided in the Democratic primary. I don’t think I ever saw a Republican, except on TV, until my cousin married one. (There were some in the family who thought such a mixed marriage would never work, and we were all surprised to learn what a nice guy he was.) Back in the 1960s, Oklahoma was famous for its “Yellow Dog Democrats,” meaning that people would vote for a yellow dog if he was a Democrat.
The people condescended to in this article used to be the base of the Democratic party. Judging from other liberal rhetoric, I thought “the conservative life” was represented by “the 1%,” the rich, the corporate oligarchs. The people presented as primitive and retrograde in this article are closer to poor. I thought liberals championed the poor. Why are they making fun of them?
The Democratic party would do well to ponder why states that were once solidly in their pocket have gone Republican. The hints are in the article. The people here are zealously against abortion. They worry about moral values. Their families are central to everything they do. They know about family breakups, their teenagers using crystal meth, and crime problems from bitter experience, and they hate the breakdown in social order that these represent and that have reached even Washington, Oklahoma. But they are proud to be Americans, volunteer to fight their country’s wars, are fiercely independent, and are ardent in their faith. There was a time when you could be a Democrat, a liberal even, and hold to all of this.
Why has Washington, Oklahoma, become so strange, so alien, regarded as both scary and comical, to today’s liberal establishment?