Precede: From a divided state in a divided country, Pacific Northwest magazine is setting out to explore the gulf between us — the myths, the realities, the possibilities...

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From a divided state in a divided country, Pacific Northwest magazine is setting out to explore the gulf between us — the myths, the realities, the possibilities. We begin today with a personal essay from one of our own, a guy who thinks of himself as a muddling moderate stuck on one side of the gulf and wondering what gives. In the coming months, we’ll bring you stories from a variety of perspectives in hopes they’ll shed light on our collective situation. Look for the logo “Divided We Stand.”

Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m a loser.

Hi, Bill!

I’m here at Moderates Anonymous because of the last election. I feel like a “blue state” dinosaur staring at a swamp of Confederate red, as daunting in its expanse as that pan of desert in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

That’s called Heartland America, Bill.

And the noise. I can’t shut the pundits out. I’m astounded I’ve learned a word like “pundit” at all. I’m marooned on one side of the Cascade Curtain, watching disembodied talking heads from D.C. and Hollywood shout at each other as they vault over the real country at 35,000 feet. I just don’t get it. It’s not that my guy lost; I’m dumbfounded the other guy won.

Feeling a little too liberal, Bill? As in effete media elite?

I’ve leaned to Democrats, but I’ve voted for Republicans, too. I look for individual common sense, not party labels, because these days I get confused what the parties even stand for. The GOP of my childhood has become the party of record deficits, international adventurism and government intrusion into private lives. The Dems seem to be made up of Massachusetts millionaires, aging rock stars and cynical comedians. Three presidential candidates with the strongest military records — Carter, Bush Sr. and Kerry — got portrayed as wimps. The most anti-government candidates, Reagan and Dubya, presided over the biggest growth in the federal debt. The four-star general, Powell, is the only administration member who didn’t want a war. The folks who condemn abortion seem to be the ones who tend to support bombing campaigns and the death penalty, and vice versa. Left is right,
liberal is conservative, up is down.

Maybe you’re the one who is out of step, friend.

It seems like voters in the middle are being pushed into choosing between extremes. There was a time when “values” and “morality” weren’t the government’s business. State powerhouses like Democrats Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson or Republicans Dan Evans and Ralph Munro, could all represent the center. Now politicians don’t appeal for the head, they grab the heart. They drain people, like emotional vampires.

Legislation is boring. Sex, religion and character are not.

I didn’t even understand what the election was about. Vietnam? It was the guy who fought in a war he repudiated versus the guy who didn’t fight who wants a war now. Nobody had a persuasive plan for Iraq, North Korea, the deficit, job outsourcing, energy independence or global warming. Nobody had a clue where Osama bin Laden is or what he’s up to. All that was mastered was negative advertising. Boy, did I hate those commercials.

A lot of money was spent on those ads. It’s called targeting the truth.

It all just got so confusing. Abortion. Gays. Vaguely menacing foreign states, like France. Specifically menacing uppity women, like Teresa Heinz Kerry. I felt trapped in “Groundhog Day,” as if nothing can ever be resolved, no progress can be made. We just debate the same issues over and over and over again.

Moderates must learn that compromise is for losers, Bill. So is tolerance.Cooperation? Unity? In the 21st century it’s all radicalism, all the time.

It’s just hard to adjust.

Boo! Orange Alert! Gotcha!

People campaign on issues administrations don’t really tackle. Abortion, prayer, the flag salute, Internet porn: This used to be personal choice.

It’s called values, son, and people want to know where their leaders stand.

It seems like value voyeurism. But maybe it’s my fault. What I see as a Yale-frat-boy smirk, the heartland sees as a confident smile. What I hear as incoherence they hear as down-home determination. What I sense as cynical divisiveness they embrace as born-again values.

Admitting your problem is the first step to recovery, Bill.

I sensed something was wrong almost a decade ago, when a newspaper assignment took me to Las Vegas. At the time a series I wrote about “ecosystem management” was running back in Seattle. OK, I admit it was no “DaVinci Code,” but I hoped it might do some good. Imagine my feelings when I watched the swarms of people in the shopping mall of Caesar’s Palace, a fake forum with a painted sky where dawn and dusk were on hourly timers. No windows, no clocks, no trees, no air. I had an epiphany, because tourists loved it. My God, I thought: I’m spitting into the wind.

Some day, Bill, they’ll do away with the outdoors entirely.

Then I noticed that no matter how many elections the conservatives won, how many talk shows they dominated, or how many books they had on the best-seller list, the media was always supposedly controlled by a liberal elite. I was confused. Every reporter I know works long hours at marginal pay for rich guys who jump to cranky stockholders. The country’s been getting steadily more conservative since I got out of journalism school three decades ago. Union spokesmen hung up on me when I said I was from a newspaper. Liberal media?

That’s not the test. Do you drive an American car? Go to church? Shop at Wal-Mart? In other words, are you one of us?

My mini-SUV has a Ford engine in a Mazda body. Does that count?

Do you love NASCAR? Listen to people with names like Travis and Reba and Clint? Pick ribs over sushi? Disneyland over Europe? Golf over bird watching? Mel Gibson over Michael Moore? Laura Bush over Jane Fonda? Ann Coulter over Janeane Garofalo?

Who?

People don’t vote for ideas anymore, Bill. They vote for brands. We live in the fastest period of change in world history, be it science, technology, art or ideology. The world’s population has increased seven times in 200 years. Nobody can keep up. Nobody’s in control. People don’t want programs, they want reassurance. They don’t want opportunity, they want security. They don’t want the future, they want the past. Liberals yearn for the 1970s, conservatives for the 1870s. Think of it as Coke versus Pepsi.

That’s what Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot said was wrong: that the two major parties are too much alike. But Ralph seemed like a zombie, Pat like a brownshirt, and Ross like Yosemite Sam. They were creepy, like a movie co-directed by David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and John Waters. I felt trapped, a dull, fossilized moderate. I wanted to believe the ideologues, but common sense kept dragging me down.

You have the typical voter dream: Public servants compromising on critical issues without regard to personal advancement. Kill the fantasy, or you may need professional help.

It’s like extremism is the only way to be heard. I remember talking to environmentalists who positively despised Al Gore because he wasn’t green enough. Good grief, how many presidential candidates write a book on the environment? Didn’t count.

Conservatives count on liberals to push too far, too fast. Where would the country be today without the stampede to gay marriage, the challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance, or the shove-it-in-your-face striptease during the Super Bowl?

But all I want is fairness, equity, integration, inclusion.

Inclusion? Give me a break. Exhibit One: your own precious magazine. You have the Home issue, the Garden issue, the Wine issue, the Dining Out issue. And danged nothing about riding lawn mowers, recreational motor vehicles or buying in bulk. Urban snobbery, that’s what you stand for. Don’t you think the conservatives have heard the redneck jokes? Don’t you think they’ve chuckled at the television caricatures? Ha ha, very funny, but guess what? While city slickers were snickering, the Democratic Party of the common man became the party of the educated elite.

I’m a loser because we don’t have a Motor Home issue? How about a Hummer issue? A Big Hair issue?

The right has persuaded half the nation that every overbearing professor, every academic expert, every bicycle-riding, kayak-paddling, modern-art-buying, Shakespeare-quoting, Tuscany-vacationing twit, is the enemy. The intellectuals looked down their noses one too many times, and it was left to the country club to ally with the trailer park. Make no sense? Take another look at that electoral map, loser. The election wasn’t about the economy, it was about culture and style. It was know-it-alls versus gut instinct, relativism versus certainty, international dithering versus decisiveness. Who cares if it works? It feels good.

Wait, wait! This magazine isn’t about snobbery; it’s giving ordinary people ideas and aspirations! I can’t afford those houses or bottles of wine, either!

Bill, Bill. Are you, or have you ever been, a wine-sipping, brie-eating, book-reading, college-attending, fern-loving, PBS-watching, NPR-listening, girlie man?

Well, geez. I drink beer, too.

Microbrew, I’ll bet. Or imported.

I know there’s a culture gap. Just the other night I was watching “House of Sand and Fog,” a classy and tragic movie from a classy and tragic book.

You’re nailing your own coffin, Bill. You can bet that video is not exactly burning up the shelves at the Yakima Blockbuster.

And I’m actually buying gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, an Oscar-winning actress, as this down-and-out loser.

Reminded middle Americans of a liberal, when they watched it.

But then she comes in carrying a bag of groceries with a white plastic package with red and blue spots.

Wonder Bread.

And the spell was broken. I mean, look at her! Jennifer is at least a 12-grain woman — probably digs rice crackers and tofu, too. I didn’t even know they still made Wonder Bread. Then I read white bread still outsells whole wheat five to one and knew Kerry never had a chance. My God, could there not have been one photo op of him eating a 16-ounce steak at Black Eyed Pea?

You’re making fun again, but who can disagree? Kerry windsurfed too much and duck hunted too little. If only both of you had watched more Burt Reynolds movies.

I watched “Deliverance.” I just didn’t realize that would become the new dominant demographic. Look, I’m just a blue-collar kid from Tacoma. I’ve shot guns, gutted fish, framed walls, read the Bible, owned a pickup. I have a hick heritage with the best of them. I just don’t want a president telling me his swagger “is called walking in Texas.”

Too much Tom Hanks, not enough John Wayne.

But they’ve taken over Tom Hanks, too! What happened to the irreverent wise guy of “Bachelor Party” and “Volunteers”? He morphed into this American icon.

Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe he’s showing you The Way. Did it ever occur to you that America is tired of smart-mouth wit and idealistic programs that don’t work?

I’m so baffled. I don’t think people fit these cultural stereotypes very well. Where I live the vote went 50-50, neighbors posting opposing yard signs right across the street from each other. But Karl Rove, Bush’s strategy guy, seems to have our number.

Might want to visit Waterville or Walla Walla once in a while, buddy. Might want to ask them what they’d think of living in Fremont or Capitol Hill.

Since 1980, I’ve watched the richest people in this country accumulate more and more, while the poorest struggle with child care, credit-card debt, downsizing, offshore job loss, soaring health costs, loss of benefits and what I think of as needless colonial wars. And then these same people elect millionaire businessmen to represent them, people who are restructuring the tax system to favor the rich!

Because those same millionaire businessmen have learned to give speeches condemning the trashy crassness that infects American culture and annoys and frightens ordinary people.

But those politicians take contributions from the same giant corporations that create, distribute and sell that trash!

Bill, if you’re going to accept being a loser, you have to understand how the system works. Political contributors produce that trash so candidates can condemn that trash so they can get elected to give tax and regulatory breaks to the tycoons who make money from that trash. Have years of conservative victories reduced the coarseness of American culture? No, it’s gotten worse. Why? Because politics today depends on total anger, all the time. Monica, we miss you. O.J., you were a gift. Howard Stern, could you make another movie?

You mean conservatives don’t really want to repeal abortion rights or require prayer in schools or abandon evolution?

Of course they do, but get real. Repeal abortion? Come on. They’d start social war and lose re-election. Every four years they talk it up, like Lucy holding the football, and every four years the fundamentalists buy it like Charlie Brown, running up to kick. By jerking the football away, they achieve a new kind of balance: talking the talk without walking the walk. The right needs immorality to rail against like Luke needed Darth Vader.

But that’s so cynical.

You think the aging urban hippie side is any better? Is the tax system fair yet? Social Security solvent? Health care fixed? Superfund sites cleaned? Have the liberals reconciled feminist opportunity with the dilemmas of motherhood? Do environmentalists offer a plausible future other than opposing everything that comes down the pike? Have civil-rights organizations ever surprised us with anything but knee-jerk victimization? Didn’t liberals gleefully play up every conservative infidelity, torture Republican court nominees, and revel about Enron, Martha and Rush Limbaugh’s drug addiction? My goodness, it takes the government multiple weeks just to count election ballots! And you wonder why moderation is a loser?

I’m not defending the bureaucracy, but gosh, try getting something done in Italy or Mexico sometime. American civil servants don’t get credit for the good they do.

They’re never going to get it, either.

But I don’t get why people are voting for candidates who oppose their economic interests.

Because the economy isn’t paramount right now. Terrorism and morality are. Most people who vote are getting by. They’ve lost a job or two and been taught to be thankful for the lousier ones they have. So ordinary workers worry about their kids in a society that seems too permissive, too dangerous. They go to church, looking for community, and get told the biggest community, American government, must be at fault.

I’d think churches would like liberal programs that help the poor.

Not at the expense of suffering experts, or surrendering self-responsibility. The Protestant tradition was a revolt against church hierarchy, teaching that you don’t need a priest to reach God. This self-reliant righteousness marked American history and American attitudes toward government. Bootstraps, baby. Couple that with Catholic voters increasingly dismayed by modern society and you’ve got a big block suspicious of any liberal, no matter what church he’s in.

But why aren’t more workers angry?

If they hit a rough patch they just run up their credit-card debt. Then the system’s got them for years. OK, it’s not the best situation, but the Democrats have no clear alternative. Both parties talk in platitudes because neither can figure it out.

I’m not sure this support group is making me feel any better.

Look at it historically. We had a couple hundred years of enlightenment and scientific progress, and now we’re in for a spell of religious war, anti-scientific bigotry, blind optimism, insolvent financing, ceaseless campaigning, and the collapse of business and political ethics.

Why should that cheer me up?

Because if you invest in your own mass media, the next round of profit-making attack ads is less than two years away!


William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.