The real disconnect between the GOP and Middle America became clear to me one evening in September, not long after the Republican Convention in Saint Paul. I was having a beer at Patsy’s in Washburn, Wisconsin on my way to the Lake (for those of you not from the upper Midwest, this means Lake Superior.) It was late -- around 11:30 -- when we walked in after a four hour drive from the cities (the Twin Cities) and the crowd at Patsy’s had been pounding the Leinie’s (Leinenkugel’s) for hours.
That night, as usual, there was a fight breaking out in back near the pool table (and as usual, nothing happened). A group of women were shrieking at each other in drunken delight near the bar. When my husband and I sat down on our stools, the dude next to me swiveled around to talk. He had a Leine’s and a shot of Jack D in front of him on the bar, and his bloodshot eyes suggested he had many more under his belt. He leaned back, scratching his grey hair under the baseball cap advertising his contracting business. Finally he lit a Marlboro, sizing me up as he spoke. “Are you a tree hugger?”
I always think of Patsy’s as a microcosm of the heartland. The clientele wears flannel shirts and baseball caps all year round, except in July and August, when they wear t-shirts and baseball caps. A bottle of pickled turkey gizzards sits on the bar, next to the pickled eggs. There are two kinds of Leinie’s and a couple of local microbrews on tap, and when you pick from the big refrigerated case of imported bottles, folks tend to point, and ask, "Which one did ya get?"
So I sighed. Here it comes, I thought. Like much of the midwest, rural Wisconsin and Minnesota run contrary to the politics of the cities -- rural areas tend to be pro-gun, anti-abortion, often more concerned about jobs than about environmental legislation. I’ve heard way too many lectures about my politics up here. And I really wanted to have a beer and get on the boat, so I shrugged, “I don’t know what that means.”
“Well, then you’re probably not.” He waved a hand at me. “You know what the problem is with this country?”
“No,” I said. Another big sigh. I was going to get the lecture anyway.
“Nobody’s really serious about going green.”
This made me sit up in surprise. He continued, occasionally gesturing with his Jack D to make the point. “We could run this entire country on wind energy and solar, except the government is in the pockets of big oil.” He took my silence as disagreement. “You don’t believe me, do you? Let me tell you,”
And there followed -- in as cogent a fashion as a fairly drunk dude in a bar at midnight could manage -- a lecture on how the United States had sunk into the mess we’re in, how wind power should be used on Lake Superior, the miniscule amount of money the U.S. spends on alternative energy, the superiority of green building materials, and most importantly, how the Bush government has allowed major corporations and foreign governments to take over our energy policy. He blamed the Republicans in general (who he had made the mistake of voting for in the last few elections) and said he was going to vote for Obama as a result.
When I told him I agreed with him he clapped my shoulder in delight. We ended -- as do all talks in bars anywhere in the vicinity of water-- by swapping fishing tales.
And I realized at that moment that the Republicans might have a harder time in the future than they realized. I know that my friend (I'll call him Carl-the-Contractor) doesn’t represent the entire rural midwest. But take it from me -- when the clientele at Patsy’s starts to talk about going green, then you know you’d better start listening. Maybe it’s why John McCain’s antiObama ads touted McCain as the alternative energy candidate, despite the fact that his “alternatives’ includes a big investment in nuclear energy.
My point is this: we always assume that all people in rural areas vote the same, that they all love Sarah Palin, that they are all lock-step in agreement with the GOP. But let’s remember as we talk about the decline of the Republican party, that they may be losing not only independents and conservative Democrats, but also their base. The GOP is so out of touch with the needs of "real" Americans, that they will need to get rid of the extremists in order to have any relevance at all.