In yesterday's Observer newspaper David Aaronovitch tried to get to the bottom of American conservatism by talking to Republican grassroots activisits. What he found were some interesting nuances and differences between economic neocons and traditional social conservatives.
Here is the article in full:
Heart of America
Uncaring, fundamentalist, extreme: it is easy to caricature the followers of George W Bush. But on the eve of the Republican Convention, a journey to the core of conservative America reveals 'those others' are not what they first appear
Sunday August 29, 2004
It wasn't until the Dodge Durango reached 9,000 feet that Radio KRKS, Denver Christian Radio, finally gave up the Holy Ghost. For 90 miles up Interstate 70, past the Coors Brewery, Buffalo Bill's grave and into the mountains, I had been listening to Pastor Rod and Rocky's prayer show. 'The spirit,' said Pastor Rod, 'is already moving a number of you to call our phone-in.'
First, there was Cheryl, who wanted intercession for her sister and brother-in-law, facing delays in moving to their new house. 'Dear Lord,' prayed Pastor Rod. 'We ask you to help Cheryl's sister in this difficult moment.'
Near Idaho Springs, the conversation shifted to teenage sex. A young author was on the programme advising teenage boys on how to turn away from internet pornography, as a first step to maintaining abstinence. Then, before any clammy-handed adolescents could call in, the road went through the Eisenhower Tunnel and the signal was lost.
Colorado, where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, is part of the United States of Otherness, the European's disturbing dream of America. Democrat America we like and know well; we visit its cities on the east and west coasts, and its pundits are always on our radios, shaking their heads over George W Bush. But this state is run by the other tribe. In 2000, its eight electoral college votes went to Bush. Colorado has a Republican governor, both its senators are Republicans, and so are five out of its seven congressmen. Here, if anywhere, you can find out who these Republicans are. Radio KRKS seemed to confirm much that a secular Brit had ever worried about.
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The local Republican chairwoman had invited me to visit her in the city of Leadville, 5,000 feet above even the Mile High City of Denver. Writers had been to this old mining town before. In April 1882, Oscar Wilde gave a lecture on art appreciation at the Tabor Opera House, later remarking that the miners had seemed to think that Botticelli was a drink. After the talk, Wilde was taken on a torchlit parade to the famous Matchless Mine, where he was let down to the silver workings in a bucket.
Huge fortunes, such as the Guggenheim family's, were made up here. And lost. The last miner was laid off from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine in the late Eighties. Since then, the residents of Cloud City had been relying on work in the tourist industry, mostly in the nearby resort of Vail.
But Leadville, sitting below Mounts Elbert and Massive, must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, gradually, wealthier people at the end of their careers have come here to live high up among the log pines. One of the first was Maryellen Thoren, vice-chair of the High Mountain Republican women. She came to pick me up from my bed and breakfast early on a Sunday morning and drove me round town in her large Lincoln. Now in her sixties, she looked like an older Sally Field and lived like The Archers 's Linda Snell on speed. There was hardly a voluntary organisation in the area she didn't help with or hold office in. When they were told I was meeting her, even the taciturn hoteliers I was staying with warmed a little. 'Maryellen,' they said, 'is a great lady.'
She didn't start life as a Republican. Her father was a blue-collar worker in Philadelphia, a union man and a Democrat. But as she went through college, Maryellen came to a different view. Having no money, she never attended college during the day, so she took jobs to keep herself and studied in the evenings. It was 1964. 'You know, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society turned me off. I believed that if you wanted things, then you worked for them. So I supported Goldwater, even though he was a little extreme.' Maryellen became a Republican because she disagreed with welfare - it sapped the incentive to get out there and achieve your dreams. 'We had multi-generational welfare families, where no one worked,' she said.
The logic of this might have been the pitiless one of leaving people to pull themselves up, but Maryellen was never a leaver. You should help people, she told me, but through charities and the churches, not government. Having worked for AT&T abroad, Maryellen came home determined to put her skills to good use. At 9am, I went with her to the modern Presbyterian church where she worships. There were 40 or so people in the simple, modern building (the normal congregation is around 70), and the sermon being preached by the plump woman preacher was 'Send me'. 'Here I am, Lord,' went the hymn that accompanied the text.
And here, Maryellen was, always ready to be sent. She was (unpaid) vice- principal of the local college. In 1996, she volunteered as an election observer in Bosnia. 'I will tend the poor and lame,' the hymn went on. 'I will set a feast before them', which Maryellen obliquely did, she told me, by getting Leadville connected to the fibre-optics highway so the local economy could diversify and the folks (many of them Hispanics) in the local trailer parks could get jobs.
The night before, I had watched a CNN report from Ohio, where workers who had just been made unemployed and who had begun the rapid descent towards trailerdom, were queuing at soup kitchens. For all its volunteering, Maryellen's can be a rough old creed.
But clear as she was about welfare, Maryellen was a moderate on everything else. She believed in Christianity by example, not by fire. 'It's about doing what you can to make a difference in the world. The question must always be, "Can you live with yourself?"'
She regarded such issues as abortion and gay marriage as none of the state's business. Warmly greeted by Maryellen's friends at the church, I was also granted a revelation: that this, rather than the tele-evangelism and Elmer Gantry fundamentalism that we enjoy shuddering about in Europe, was more likely to be the true Republican Christianity.
Just after her husband died two months ago, Maryellen's lobbyist son got her a ticket for a huge Washington dinner. She brought back a photograph of herself alongside George Bush. That association alone might be enough to consign her to perdition in the eyes of many readers, but if I were ever in trouble, I'd hope to be somewhere near Maryellen. She was a lovely woman.
Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Leadville by more than two to one. On Harrison, the main street, I found the office of Marcia Martinek, editor of the Leadville Herald Democrat (established 1879). Her political origins were similar to Maryellen's. She was a registered Republican and her late husband had been the Republican sheriff in Colorado's Arapahoe county.
'I became a Republican because I didn't like putting more and more money into welfare, where people got paid for every extra child they gave birth to out of wedlock,' Marcia said. And then, sounding like Gordon Brown: 'It would be better to provide daycare, so that single moms can work.'
But Marcia hadn't voted for Bush in 2000 and isn't about to in 2004. She didn't like the social stance. 'You know, it's hard to be Republican and to be a woman too,' she told me. She felt that some women were slipping back into traditional domestic roles, prevented from achieving more. And then there was Iraq. Her stepson, a strong Bush supporter, had been in Falluja with the 1st Infantry. Now he was coming home, but Marcia wondered why he had gone in the first place. 'What did the President know, what did the President not know about WMD? Was it justified?'
Iraq and security still seem to play for Bush. On the scenic train to Climax, built along the side of the mountain because a rival line had been built along the valley, I met Glynn and Connie, from Fort Collins. They were thinking of moving to the mountains because the foothills were getting too crowded. Glynn was very reluctant to talk about politics. 'Once, it was all quite simple, but it's all global now. Even the CIA doesn't understand the world, so how can we?' This same analysis made Connie want to stick by Bush. 'The world is a scary place, isn't it? I just think we should keep the man who's been through the fire. Right now, you don't want to change horses in midstream.'
While we were speaking, 500 runners had been taking part in an insane race. The Leadville 100 ('The Race Across the Sky') is a 100-mile trail run that takes a day and a night to complete. So next day, in the 6th Street gym, they were celebrating the achievement of the 196 who had finished within the regulation 30 hours. There was not a polyester moose in sight as Ken Chlouber, a former miner, current Republican State Senator and founder of the Leadville 100, handed out the gongs. Back in 1982, Chlouber was the first Republican elected here in 30 years. Now, in his stetson and shoelace tie, he is a local landmark. I told him I was a journalist from Britain and congratulated him on the race. 'Well,' he said politically, 'it's folks like you who make it what it is.' I told him I didn't think so.
Chlouber marked a trend. With the unions gone and retired people and second-home owners moving in, the political character of the area has changed. It's only 16 years since a Colorado senator, Gary Hart, was a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, before he was tripped up for premature Clintonism. It seems longer.
Standing next to Chlouber, with long grey hair, a print dress and the air of rosy purposefulness of a Liberal Democrat councillor, was the woman who had asked me up here, Merilee O'Neal, chairwoman of Lake County Republicans. As you read this, Merilee will be arriving in New York for the Republican convention, which starts tomorrow. Last Sunday, she was co-organiser of the Leadvillle 100. This evening, the Colorado delegates have all got Broadway tickets for The Phantom of the Opera .
Merilee was looking forward to New York. 'It's a great moment,' she beamed, 'being part of history. You know, David, I love George Bush, I love his parents, I love his wife. I respect all of them.'
Like Maryellen, she had been born into a Democratic family. Her father had been a small rancher in Gruver, Texas. 'He was a very conservative Democrat,' she told me, of the kind who no longer exists. She described herself, in what was to become a model formula, as 'fiscally conservative and socially moderate'. And she didn't like the Christian right, whom she felt had more loyalty to their own ideology than to the party. 'It does bother me,' she admitted, 'that there are single-issue party people who'd rather lose an election than compromise. But you know, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, David. They get the attention.' In fact, Merilee felt that she had much in common with some Democrats. She had watched their convention and thought that many of them had sounded just like Republicans!
So, as I headed down the mountain again, I listened to KRKS in a different way. First off, it's one radio station among dozens; then, how is the mom seeking advice on how to teach her 10-year-old daughter about purity and not flaunting her body, very different from a Muslim parent advocating the hijab? None of it necessarily means that the clock is about to be turned back to pre-feminism. These Republican women would never allow it.
Colorado is not just Republican, it's also the future. The state is growing rapidly. What they call the 'front range', the strip beside the mountains from Fort Collins in the north to Pueblo in the south, is seeing the highest population growth in the United States; 10,000 newcomers arrive to live in Colorado every month, drawn by the beauty, the climate, the trails and the rivers. In the middle is Denver and it is there, in its rejuvenated downtown, near Union Station, that I meet Mike Nelligan, chair of Denver Metro County Republians.
Mike is tall, rangy and shrewd, a semi-retired businessman who became politically active three or four years ago. And, another blow to prejudice this, he is absolutely delightful. 'Yes, Colorado is becoming more Republican,' he says. And adds, rather complacently: 'The people who come here tend to be more successful and more successful people tend to vote Republican.' Mike makes an easy equation of aspiration with Republicanism which, if the electorate believes it, could be lethal for the Democrats. But, in fact, a large proportion of the immigrants are Hispanic, who are not traditionally on the right. What does Mike make of them? 'Well, they either can't speak the language or don't vote. But if they did, they could change everything.'
We drive off. The mountains are on the right, so we head south, to a development called Highland Ranch, a new town of 75,000 inhabitants. 'It's the kind of place we call the "calving pens",' Mike laughs. 'It's a pre-planned development where the 25-50s come to have their kids. The schools are here, the shopping malls, the churches...'
Speaking of which, how important does he feel the Christian right is? 'You know, they're more adamant. They turn out to vote. Pro-choice people are more comme çi, comme ça - "Maybe I'll vote, maybe I won't". So it's a constant battle at the state level as to who is going to win the chairmanship and what's going in the policy platform.'
Mike is a business Republican - pro-choice and not that keen on guns. Earlier this month, Colorado Republicanism was convulsed by the struggle for the nomination for a vacant senatorial post between a local congressman who was backed by the strong fundamentalist wing, based in Colorado Springs, and a man they referred to as the 'alcohol magnate', multi-millionaire Pete Coors. Coors, a neophyte, won, but it was a nasty fight, in which he was accused of liquoring up the state's notoriously drink-prone youth, and of funding abortions through his company's employee health insurance scheme. Pathetically he announced an end to the health funding for abortions.
It is Coors we have come to see. His HQ is in Highland Ranch, as is the HQ of the Colorado Bush-Cheney campaign. There I meet Barbara DeGroot, glamorous, somewhere-over-50, chair of the Denver Bush-Cheney campaign and good friend of Mike's. It is Barbara who has procured the interview. Pictures of volunteers cover the walls and a halo of tinsel surrounds the notice that Beth Itchkawich is volunteer of the month. Young Corey, just out of college, shakes my hand. 'Are you really from London? Your Tony Blair, we think he's awesome. He stood by us and we will never forget it!'
I don't like to tell him that simply by repeating his words, I have probably cost Blair another hundred votes. James and Shirley Ball from Fort Logan are there to collect new yard-signs, he in his USS Lincoln baseball cap and she in her 'All-American Mom' sweatshirt. Their old Bush-Cheney signs have all been stolen. 'We've lived there since 1963 and we've never had any trouble until now,' says James. 'Things are getting a bit nasty.'
The alcohol magnate is Munster-tall, handsome, red-faced and courteous. I had seen one of his TV ads the night before. In 15 seconds, he had said: 'I'm Pete Coors and I'm in favour of low taxes, our troops and the family, so vote for me.' During the primaries, Coors had been forced to trim to the right to get the activist vote. Then he was accused of being woolly and uncomfortable; now he's more definite and even more uncomfortable, as though playing a role he is unsuited for. 'I'm pro-life,' he tells me emphatically and unconvincingly, 'and against gay marriage. I'm a tax-cutting, middle-of-the-road Republican.'
How pro-life is he? 'Life starts at conception. The unborn are unable to speak for themselves; we have to speak for them.' Then, glibly, he bites this sound. 'Abortion is elective surgery, like a facelift, except involving life.' And there are other options, such as adoption. His brother adopted five children from other countries. The successful businessman delivers himself of an embarrassing inanity. 'We don't know who the next great scientist, the next Einstein, is going to be. It could be someone who is about to be aborted.' Or it could be the next mass murderer or the next nudnik. Double-doh.
Despite this insulting nonsense (does the candidate really believe that women have abortions for essentially cosmetic reasons?), I don't think Coors has the stomach for banning terminations. For one thing, his firmest supporters simply don't agree. After the interview, Mike, Barbara and I drink iced tea at the Cherry Hills Country Club, looking across a sunny golf course towards Mount Evans.
I ask Barbara about Coors, whom she likes. 'You know,' she replies diplomatically, 'I do think people need to have a choice.' Mike adds: 'Yes, what if a child has a severe handicap? Sometimes, you can't tell 'til late.' And Barbara drops a bombshell. Her 24-year-old daughter is pregnant, but: 'She was on drugs, you know, David. She's 23 weeks into the pregnancy and if she finds that the child is affected... well it's her choice.' Well, not if her candidate for the Senate has his way, but she doesn't expect him to. His professed certainty collides with the way people really are, and Republicans are about the way people really are.
That same day, in Iowa, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay, distanced himself from Bush's stand on homosexual marriage. 'Freedom,' said Cheney, 'means freedom for everyone to enter into the relations they want.' Also that day, the Republican policy committee, headed by Colorado governor Bill Owens, drew up its draft platform seeking to prevent gay marriage. Mike's view was that you said these things to get the Christian activists onside and then, once elected, found reasons not to do them. Mike and Barbara understand that rugged individualism sits badly with moral determinism.
The following morning, we drive through the suburbs, taking note of one low, beige building in a lovely location. It's a school and a boy sits outside, basking in the sun. Later, it's on to a meeting of the Denver Young Republicans in a Mexican restaurant south-east of the city. There are 50 youngish Republicans there and the main speech, given by a state senator, and all the talk, is about economic issues - taxation, education spending and health finance. In addition to the presidential and senatorial elections, November will see contests for state representatives. David Sprecace, dark and intense, is standing in District 3. His manifesto declares him to be a 'social mainstream, fiscal conservative'. So what does he make of the current national budget deficit? 'I hate it.' So what will he do about it? 'What can I do? Write to my congressman?' In any case (they all say), it would be worse under the Democrats.
Even so, fiscal conservatives like Sprecace are increasingly worried by Bush. There's not just the deficit, there's also No Child Left Behind, Bush's New Deal-type policy of more money for schools and more federal intervention. There are anti-business ideological stances like that on stem cell research, where countries such as Britain look set to make up for what they have lost over genetic modification. One man I speak to, who recently held the GM portfolio at the US embassy in London, is very miffed at this thwarted opportunity.
And for some, there's the problem of the state powers garnered by Attorney General John Ashcroft as part of the war on terror. One young Republican tells me that he is, for the moment, prepared to put up with all this statism. 'At least,' he tells me, 'I feel secure from terror here in Denver.' I contemplate reminding him that, out here in the Midwest, the threats come from elsewhere. That beige building I had seen earlier was Columbine High School.
Judging from Colorado, the Republicans, though they may seem set to inherit the future, are in just as awkward a coalition as the Democrats, though sometimes more disciplined. The Christian right and the numerically greater economic Republicans will only coexist if the former don't push too hard. There are plenty of contradictions and one remarkable problem. In this gathering of Republican youth there is not one single black or Hispanic face. And although there are nearly as many women as men, this does not stop one of the officers making a speech referring to 'young Republicans, their wives and girlfriends'.
Mike, a clever, insightful and humane man, sees it. He says the election will be tight and turn on swing voters in key states, few enough that the politicians 'know them by their first names'. And they are up for grabs. Back at the hotel, I tune into public-service channel C-Span and see John Kerry make a speech in New York. To my European ears, it's a good one.