My heart pumps midnight blue. Born in Massachusetts and raised in the flannel-clad core of anti-nuke, pro-womyn, organic-only Oregon, I spent my early twenties in the Bay Area, completed my edu-cation in Manhattan, and then lived in Santa Monica for more than 15 years. Prius? Check. Obama 2008 bumper sticker? Check. Lululemon yoga mat? Yep. Farmers’ market pilgrimages, Morning Becomes Eclectic playlists, Urth Caffé brunches, weekend hikes in Pacific Palisades? More, please.
I blissfully ticked every box in the Westside cliché handbook.
And in all my years frolicking around L.A.’s most beatific blue bubble, I never once met an openly Republican Republican or had a conversation with someone who disagreed with me in any fundamental way on political issues. I had found my tribe. Then, in the fall of 2017, I moved to a tiny town astride the tall-grass prairie of cardinal-red Kansas.
The why of that decision involved a host of factors. I had just turned 50, had been humping it up the career ladder for 25 years—to the exclusion of all else—and suddenly realized that another rung or two wasn’t going to make me any happier. I didn’t need to have more power or make more money; I needed to live better.
I had visited this Kansas town a few times because a friend whom I had served with in the Peace Corps lived here. Another Peace Corps pal of ours lived just a few hours away. The town rests on the banks of a wide, tumbling river dotted with centuries-old bur oaks and white-barked sycamores. The downtown main street, with its old brick buildings, wrought-iron streetlights, and faded Coca-Cola mural feels so vintage Americana that it could be a film set. There is one stoplight. One grocery store. One laundromat. And I could buy a nineteenth-century home on about an acre of land for a mortgage lower than a monthly Equinox membership.
But, yeah, Kansas. The last time a Democrat won this state in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And when I moved here, a year after the 2016 election, it was no longer the land of Bob Dole’s gentlemanly, small-government, big-military Republicanism, but the lock-her-up, build-that-wall kind.
Like many West Coast Democrats, I assumed that anyone who voted for Donald Trump was a white, straight, sexist, pro-gun, anti-immigrant, mouth-breathing racist moron. We aren’t entirely wrong about that, I’m sorry to say, but we’re also not entirely right either. The reality of small-town people is more nuanced and surprising than that. After four years here, I’ve had my prejudices challenged more often than I’ve had them confirmed.
“Nobody will be cheering on Marjorie Taylor Greene in the produce section while you’re grabbing Granny Smiths.”
For starters, I’ve never heard the former president’s name spoken in public. I’ve also never seen a red MAGA hat here, and, until the height of the 2020 election, I’d never seen a Trump yard sign. Even then, those were rare. Politics and religion are considered off-limits in polite conversation. The guy on the barstool next to you isn’t going to launch into a rant against Nancy Pelosi, and no one will be cheering on Marjorie Taylor Greene in the produce section while you’re grabbing Granny Smiths.
There are two main reasons for this. First, small towns, no matter their political stripe, rely on comity to function. In L.A., you can blare your horn at some idiot in the Whole Foods parking lot because you’ll never see that person again. Here, you not only know each other, but you’re also going to run into each other again. No one has the luxury of anonymity, so arguments and confrontations, when they do happen, are often resolved in short order.
Second, privacy and personal freedom are paramount values. When I moved here, I worried that I’d be inundated by one or more Gladys Kravitz–types, nosing around about everything from my marital status to which church I planned to join. Instead, people gave me my space and waited for me to introduce myself, and they were satisfied with whatever info I chose to share with them. These are people who mind their own business, thank you, and they expect you to do the same.
Privacy and personal freedom shape people’s national political views here, I think, far more than any single policy or particular candidate. Over the years, as I’ve tiptoed into conversations about everything from gun control to immigration to the George Floyd murder to climate change, the one thing that has struck me is how few of these issues actually affect anyone here.
Everyone either owns a gun or knows someone who does, and yet there hasn’t been a single murder or accidental gun death the entire time I’ve lived here. No one has died at the hands of police. (Two years ago, a local officer I know had to shoot a charging pit bull during a meth-house raid and still feels bad about it.) We’ve had no fires or floods. Immigrants won’t be streaming into this town anytime this century. No one is homeless. And in a town that is overwhelmingly white and predominantly working-class, the idea of white privilege seems absurd. The issues that the left agonizes over are abstractions here, at best, and have zero impact on the daily lives of the townspeople.
What does motivate them, what annoys and insults them and inspired them to vote for a horrible, horrible, horrible president, is the perception that Dems are constantly imposing solutions to urban problems on their rural lives. The way they see it, if California has a problem with gun violence or a racist criminal-justice system, Californians should fix those things. Here, they’ll mind their own business, thank you, and they expect you to do the same.
Right-wing media, of course, has weaponized the idea that snotty coastal liberals think flyover conservatives are stupid, but in that regard Fox commentators aren’t wrong, are they? The ugly things I have thought and said out loud about Trump voters over the last four years—hell, things I’ve said about them a few paragraphs ago—would be abhorrent if I said them about a racial or religious group. I’d always told myself that I was inclusive and accepting of others. I was a champion of diversity, after all, happy to wave the flags of every oppressed minority. But the one flag I had never waved was the actual American one.
I can only speak to my own experiences in my own town, but from what I’ve seen, there is a heart in the heartland. You won’t see it on cable news or at a Trump rally, but it is here, and, where it matters most, our values are the same. In Los Angeles, being a good citizen means being cognizant and considerate of differences. It means not assuming everyone celebrates Christmas and being aware of your own privilege. Being a good neighbor means standing up against injustice directed at someone who may not look like you or speak your language or worship like you. It means volunteering and donating and marching for what you believe in.
Here, in this little town on the wide plains, kindness and good citizenship are expressed quietly, person to person. About three months after I moved here, I went to Oregon for a couple of weeks. I got back to town late one night, around 1 a.m., and as I pulled into the gas station, a police car pulled up behind me. The officer jumped out and came over to my window. “Hey, welcome back,” he said. “A package was delivered on your porch a few days ago, and I didn’t want anything to happen to it, so I picked it up and put it in my trunk. Pop the latch and I’ll put it in the back for you.”
In hundreds of small ways, people watch out for each other, check in on each other. They don’t have big food drives once a year. They just privately drive food to people who need it. The grocery store hires local young people with mental disabilities as their frontline customer service reps. It’s not part of some organized program. They just do it. On any road in town, if you step into the street, drivers will stop to let you cross, and smile and wave as you do. If your car breaks down, chances are that the next car you see will stop to help.
Even when it comes to politics, people here would rather be kind than right. In early 2020, a woman in her sixties bought the property next to mine, where she lives with her mother and three dogs. As the nation roiled through the COVID pandemic and the election, we’d often chat between our backyards about neutral subjects: gardening, the new flock of finches that had moved into our shared tree, which local handymen could be trusted. We traded recipes and the occasional cookies or piece of pie. I knew, from passing comments she’d made, that we were definitely voting for different people, but we both avoided the topic.
A few months ago, on a warm, blue fall day almost exactly a year since the election, we were puttering around our yards, and she suddenly said, “You’re a Democrat, right?” I laughed and asked if it was that obvious. “No,” she said. “But someone told me that last year right before the election.”
She had been planning to put a Trump sign in her yard, but when she went to pick it up, whomever was distributing the signs joked that she was going to piss off her neighbor. She left the sign there.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have worried about that,” I said. “I know I’m surrounded. I’m the one blue dot on the block.”
She shook her head. “Nah,” she said, as she refilled the feeder for our finches. “You’re more important to me than he was.”
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