Thursday, September 02, 2004

A Blue Stater Travels Through Red States, Conclusion

Our trip has finally wrapped up.

I wasn't able to post from Tennessee (no Internet access), but I did make a few notes that I'd like to share.

We visited the Smokey Mountains area of East Tennessee -- Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg. For those of you without an atlas handy, that's southeast of Knoxville, and due west of Asheville, N.C.

They call this area "The Beach without the ocean," a reference to Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- and in truth, the areas are remarkably similar. Another comparison is often made to Branson, Mo.

This is country music land. Nashville isn't far off. Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, and the main drag features various theaters with country "stars" like Louise Mandrell (Barbara's younger sister) as well as for various jamborees and "Dixieland" productions. Amid the theaters are Christian bookstores, all-you-can-eat chicken-and-catfish joints, and Nascar-themed mini-amusement parks.

This is red-state America.

My liberal cousins from Atlanta, who enjoyed seeing the various shirts the Marks had made, cautioned us from wearing them in Tennessee. "You don't want to mess with someone with a rifle," I was warned.

So Heather went with my aunt to a TJ Maxx in Roswell, Ga., and bought me three nondescript t-shirts to wear in Pigeon Forge. And, rather than get her upset, I dutifully said I would wear two of them, one for each day we planned to visit the area.

***

The funny thing is -- amid walking about Dollywood, touring the Ripley's Believe it Or Not Aquarium in Gatlinburg, feeding the exotic animals at the Deer Farm petting zoo in Sevierville, buying a Disney-themed book at a local warehouse, and scarfing down some delicious chicken and catfish at Huck Finn's -- we didn't see anyone with rifles.

What we did see was a lot of tourists, including at least three families from various parts of our home state of New Jersey. At Dollywood, we met (or overheard) people from Indiana and Virginia and Arkansas and North Carolina, but sporting fewer "W" buttons than we saw at Disney. A check of the parking lot there found a few Bush Cheney '04 bumper stickers, and the very occasional one supporting Kerry Edwards '04. Hardly the scary "redneck red state" environment I was worried we'd see.

Our one experience with one of our 12 shirts came at the Ripley museum in Gatlinburg. My three-year-old, Alexander, wore his "It's Time For a Real New England Patriot" shirt -- a "back-up," as he had dirtied his first shirt that day. It caught the eye of a Maine family, and prompted the mother to ask if we were from New England. When I said no, she looked confused, until Alexander turned to show off the shirt's back --"Vote Kerry/Edwards." She gave a disapproving "Oh," before moving on.

In other words, maybe the gap between Red State America and Blue State America isn't all that great.

Sure, you couldn't find Air America on the radio dial (although we could find Rush and the "Radio Factor," and plenty of regional conservative talk). And the local news coverage was "soft," to put it mildly, as the Republican National Convention got underway. (Although USA Today wasn't much better ...)

The question I've asked throughout this trip is, given a level playing field, how would America react to this President, and how would it vote this fall?

If the media nationwide offered context on such things as Kerry's voting record on weapons systems or the $87 billion funding for Iraq, and if Red State America newspapers were to relentlessly discuss locally lost jobs and wages, local factory closings, unfunded "No Child Left Behind" schools, unchecked corporate abuse of the local environment, etc., and connect the dots back to Bush Administration policy, how many voters in Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia would vote Republican, purely to fight gay marriage, abortion and assault weapon bans?

I traveled South with a basic theory -- that the GOP relies on an ignorant populace to gain power, and that as a result, Red State America votes against its own interests -- and came away more convinced than ever.

I don't think that Red Staters are all that different than Blue Staters. We saw big cities and rural areas. People of different races, religions and even sexual orientations (I saw an older lesbian couple when we stopped at a Wendy's in Martinsburg, W. Va.).

The one gap I found traveling in the various Red States was information. The radio dial offered no liberal voice, other than when I briefly found a Miami station broadcasting Air America. The local newspapers leaned conservative, and sometimes very conservative.

How is one to come to a "fair and balanced" perspective, given that environment?

Sure, the Southeast has produced Democratic candidates of national acclaim -- Clinton, Gore, Nunn, Carter, Graham, Edwards, etc. -- but those candidates had the advantage at the local level of having some say on the news cycle. Unless Kerry or Edwards is visiting Pigeon Forge or Richmond or Orlando or Wilmington or Savannah to drive the local news cycle, those in search of information on the radio dial, most of cable tv talk and local newspapers will be turned onto a conservative re-telling of the day's events.

And that's a shame, because in my Blue State eyes, the GOP has done as little for Red State America as it's done for Blue State America.

David

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