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Progressives in America

Gary Younge

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Following a concert at the Salt Lake City international jazz festival in July the city's mayor, Rocky Anderson, took some musicians and visiting mayors out for dinner. Some of them had beer; Anderson paid some of the bill.

In a week when John Roberts was confirmed as supreme court justice and Tom DeLay, House of Representatives leader, was indicted, this passes for front-page news in Utah. Here, in the home of Mormonism, no city employee is allowed to pay for alcohol with public funds when entertaining. "I truly feel like we're in the middle of a Kafka novel sometimes," says Anderson, who was unaware of the no-alcohol policy, and rescinded it on Thursday. "With a little bit of Taliban thrown in."

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And then, as if on Kafka's cue, a yellow-naped Amazonian parrot, perched in the corner of his room, let out a squawk. "That's Cardoso," says Anderson, as though introducing one of his most trusted aides. "Don't worry. He won't repeat a word we say in here." The strangest thing about Anderson is not that he has a parrot in his office, but that he is in office at all. In the state that gave the highest proportion of its votes (72%) to George Bush last year, the mayor of the only major city in Utah is more liberal than most you will find in New York or California.

Anderson, who was re-elected for his second term in 2003, supports gay marriage, opposes the war in Iraq and is a strong environmentalist. He is converting his city's fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles in order to honour his commitment to meet Kyoto's standards on greenhouse emissions by 2012. Two weeks ago he extended benefits to non-married domestic partners of city employees, effectively giving health insurance coverage to gay and cohabiting couples on his payroll. In August, when Bush came to town to bolster support for the Iraq war, Anderson emailed activists calling for "the biggest demonstration this state has ever seen". Two thousand people showed up, making national headlines.

But if Anderson's vision for Salt Lake City is an anomaly in conservative Utah it fits right into the political geography of America. For the mental picture we have of a nation where liberals hug the coasts and northern borders, while Republicans dominate the interior heartlands, is defective. The split of blue states for Democrats and red states for Republicans accurately reflects the votes cast by the electoral college. But the lived reality is more of a blended, purple nation where the division exists not between different states but primarily between the cities and rural areas within them. All of the 32 cities in the US with populations over 500,000 voted Democrat in 2004, even though more than half are in Republican states. On the night when anti-gay amendments were passed all over the country, Dallas in Texas elected an openly lesbian, Hispanic, Democrat as sheriff.

Indeed the Democrats are essentially an urban party. Without thumping majorities in Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Portland in 2004 they would have lost the states of Illinois, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oregon - almost a third of the electoral college. It is no mystery why cities lean liberal. Most urban areas are home to the Democrats' most reliable base - African-Americans and unionised blue-collar workers. Gays and lesbians tend to flock there to escape isolation and find a critical mass of like minds, while those who move in from out of town are more likely to settle in cities, offering a counterweight to conservative local mores. Salt Lake City (population 181,743) is the only part of Utah where Mormons comprise fewer than half the inhabitants.

Navigating this diversity on a daily basis makes bigotry a harder sell - in Europe fascist parties usually perform best in suburbs and smaller satellite towns where people fear diversity but do not live it. Cities also demand the kind of public investment for transport, culture and the environment that sits uneasily with the case for small government.

But cities like Salt Lake offer a few lessons beyond political demography. First, they show that the tendency for coastal liberals to write off as rednecks those who live in "fly-over states" is not just patronising and counterproductive - it is flawed in fact.

Second, they suggest the understanding of the US as a nation riven by a binary divide between Democrats and Republicans is in desperate need of nuance. Not that there isn't some truth to it. But because that truth is limited to the very narrow field of party allegiance rather than the broader sense of how people understand their lives and their politics. Gena Edvalson, a lesbian whose partner Jana is pregnant, says her neighbours in Salt Lake City couldn't be nicer. "They're going to have a baby shower for us," she says. "But that won't stop them from legislating the hell out of us." That is depressing (two-thirds of Utahns voted for a gay marriage ban in November). But it also suggests potential.

Which brings us to the third, and most important, lesson. If those coastal liberals decided to drop in rather than fly over once in a while they might actually learn something. Rather than duck tough issues because of the hostile political environment, progressives here have tried to reframe them in a way that resonates with potential allies. "We don't talk about gay liberation in Utah," says Anderson. "We talk about healthy families and strong communities and say that in the most intimate aspects of our lives the government ought to butt out. You have to stand up even at the risk of losing races - some things are more important than winning a race."

They've lost many battles, but by moulding their message to their principles rather than the other way around, there is still a chance that they might win a war worth fighting. The success of conservatives over the past 10 years has not just been a product of big money and a compliant media - they helped but they have always been there. It was fuelled by the very forces that the left most covets - a bottom-up, workingclass, grassroots insurgency with a heartfelt belief that they were doing the right thing.

Standing opposite the main federal building Tom King holds a sign saying: "Make levees not war", along with four others on their weekly Thursday antiwar vigil. "At the beginning people threw open bottles of soda, half-eaten hamburgers and raw eggs at us," he says. But in the 15 minutes I stood with him only one man shouted: "Get a clue, you bunch of morons", while far more people beeped their horns in support and waved. Last week thousands turned out for an anti-war rally in town.

"We're here in the trenches," says Lorna Vogt, director of Utah Progressive Network. "They should learn from us because the rest of America is becoming more like Utah, not the other way around."

With liberals elsewhere concerned about a theocratic putsch in Washington, Troy Williams, a producer on the local, liberal radio station, points out the short distance between the Mormon headquarters and Utah's state capital. "The separation between church and state here," he says, "is only two blocks."


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