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The Red Sea

"I like driving where I am the only one on the road," said Paul Kern. We found him next door to the lounge, scraping the mud from his boots outside the Waco post office. He is a big man, a Lutheran minister, a native of Milwaukee.

"I like being able to shout and have nobody hear me. I like to be able to throw a snowball as far as I can and not hit anybody or anything. See, I was raised in a city with houses on each side of ours just five feet away, and an alley, and a -- aw, what's the word? A curb! The inner city. My father wouldn't let me have a dog because he said it would bother the neighbors. Out here I can have a dog and a cat. In fact, I have four cats."


Pam Sackschewsky, left, Merv Ocken and Allen Stuhr in Waco, Neb. (Greg Miller)

He volunteered this as a way of explaining why he voted for George Bush.

It wasn't love. Not in Waco, anyway.

"The lesser of two evils," said Allen Stuhr of Bush.

"People thought he jumped too quick" into Iraq, added Merv Ocken. "And if he gets his way, he'll find another war to get into. But I think the public will hang back a little harder next time."

It wasn't strictly partisan, either.

"We've had good Democratic governors and good Republican governors," Ocken said. "I don't think it makes much difference whether you put an R there or a D there as long as they can get stuff done."

Nor was it religion -- though down the road we saw this change.

"I'm not sure people are any more religious or Christian around here than they are anywhere else," Ocken said.

The decision to vote for Bush instead seemed wrapped up in the age-old city vs. rural dichotomy, change vs. tradition, theory vs. horse sense, new vs. familiar.

Open-minded vs. closed-minded, offered Pam Sackschewsky from behind the bar at Hunters. She's a Kerry voter.

Terry Kloke, the Waco postmaster, is a Democrat, too. He said the election result was not complicated at all. "They don't like that same-sex marriage. That's what my rural-route carrier told me she decided on."

I couldn't help noticing that among the people Paul Kern won't likely hit with a far-flung snowball are black people, openly gay people and people born in foreign countries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, York County, Neb., is 97 percent white and more than 98 percent U.S.-born. One of the area's distinctive entertainments is, Kern said, "watching a ballgame where all the kids on both teams are white, if you can believe that.

"Not that there's anything wrong with the other!" he hastened to add. "But just to show you how it is around here."

Kern returned several times to his belief that cities have become dangerous, expensive, disorderly places, in contrast with the safe and dependable countryside. And he seemed convinced that there is some causal link between the unpleasantness of that other America -- the one beyond the Red Sea -- and the variety of people who live there. The idea of diversity appeared to be meshed in his mind with the specter of change, and change is clearly something he prefers to avoid. Monochrome Nebraska, as he put it, is "the last frontier. Where else do you have a place where you don't have to worry about crime, about juvenile delinquency, where you can leave your doors unlocked?"

The sameness of a place like Waco is not limited to race and ethnicity. Religious diversity consists largely in the difference between Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and Missouri Synod Lutherans. Most people you see appear to be of roughly the same economic class. Homes are all modestly scaled; on a random day near Christmas, of 62 houses for sale in the nearby city of York, only one cost more than $200,000. The stories Nebraskans hear of members of Congress struggling to live on $150,000 a year in Washington simply astound them. "I'd own this whole town with that kind of money!" Kern marveled. "I could live like a king."

I wondered if all this sameness created a pressure to conform to prevailing political views.

"Not at all," Democrat Terry Kloke answered. "I find people value your opinion here. I don't think they mind at all if you tell them what you think. The fact is, you see pretty much everybody every day, so there are not many secrets in a place like Waco. Everybody pretty much knows everything about everybody. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know."

Concordia, Kansas.

A town of low buildings and right angles.

Two young men loitering outside the convenience store. One of them, Jonathan Dolan, 19 -- the quiet, reflective one -- just got fired by the boss inside over some baroque scheduling dispute. Keeping him company was Neal Chaput, 21, detached, ironic, wearing a punk sweat shirt.

Shoulders hunched on account of the chill. Dragging cigarettes chain-style.

Chaput: "People tend to vote the way their parents voted." (In Kansas and Nebraska, voting Republican goes back more than a century.)

Dolan: "It's like religion. If you're raised a Catholic, you're probably going to be a Catholic."

Chaput [snorting]: "That's a good parallel, politics and religion."

The same pattern applies to the choice of a vocation.

Dolan: "Most of the people I know are doing the same things their fathers did because they don't think they can do any better."

Chaput: "Unless you have a background in agriculture or construction, you can't make more than eight bucks an hour around here . . . I have an associate's degree, and I'm a convenience store clerk . . . Me, I'm just saving up to get my ass to Seattle."

Dolan: "As a child you grow up thinking you can do anything. Then you get to about our age, you get settled, and you just stay."

They voted for John Kerry.

Chaput: "They were both lying bastards. I just figured anybody had to be better than Bush."

Dolan: "There weren't really many differences between them. They just made it sound like there were."

Across the street from the convenience store was the Concordia Auto Mart. Inside, tapping at a calculator, wearing a cheerful sweater, was Elaine Bowers, a Bush voter.

She met her husband, Charlie, at the local community college -- the same one that Neal Chaput attended a generation later. Within a moment of meeting Bowers, it was clear she was the upbeat antithesis of bitter and ironic Chaput, with his dreams of escape to Seattle.

"There's almost too much to do" in Concordia, Bowers announced -- and there will be even more come spring, when the new movie theater opens. "Four screens," she marveled, "that's pretty good!"

There is a truism in American politics that the presidential candidate who best reflects optimism generally wins.

Bowers, mother of four, said she voted for Bush based on "family. Morals. Responsibility." She paused between the words as she thought about each one. It wasn't a checklist; she wasn't pushing any particular agenda. For example, Bowers said she is a Catholic but does not attend church regularly. She's proud that her daughter, Haley, 13 -- "an extremely good shot" -- joined Charlie on a deer hunt this year, but she is even more pleased that Haley couldn't bring herself to squeeze the trigger. "I thought, 'Oh, good. She's still a girl.'" Instead, Bowers seemed to treat her voting categories more like labels on the mental boxes in which she stored certain impressions.


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