Greetings from the heart of "red" America, that vast swath of the U.S. interior that voted for George W. Bush in 2000. (And what a wonderful irony in that designation, given the staunch anti-communism of such late Mississippi leaders as Rep. John Rankin and Sen. James O. Eastland. Could it be that calling the Republican states red is part of the vast left-wing conspiracy of the liberal media?) Mississippi is the birthplace of the blues, but in our divided nation today, it's a veritable crucible of red. This gives me and a significant minority of other Mississippians the blues. Or, as that noted Democrat Willie Nelson might put it, it has our blue eyes cryin' in the rain.
'Cause it's not easy being blue in a red, red place. It's so red here, even a bluefish is out of water. Does it surprise you to know that the best meal in the capital, Jackson, is the broiled redfish at the Mayflower Cafe?
Not too long ago, my wife, Anne, put a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her car. Soon after, she stopped in a line of cars at a red light. A man in a pickup truck pulled up behind her and began honking his horn. He then sped around to her right, again blasting his horn and now waving a fist. When he passed on the right, she could see that his vehicle was emblazoned with a "W '04" sticker and bore a military veteran license plate. A few blocks farther up, he was in the left-turn lane when my wife passed him. Again this fine Southern gentleman blasted his horn and brandished a fist, albeit this time with one finger raised.
And that's how it is for us blue folks in one of America's reddest states. I know, I know, you're probably thinking, "How paranoid can you get?" But if you don't trust me, come on down, put on a Kerry-Edwards button, and we'll take a walk around town. Then you can tell me if it's just my imagination that some of my neighbors get a funny look on their faces when they see me coming. I don't think I've sprouted antennae, but sometimes it sure feels that way.
In 2000, Mississippi gave George W. Bush one of his biggest state majorities (57.6 percent). The last presidential poll publicized here showed Bush leading Sen. John Kerry by 61.2 percent to 30 percent, with 8 percent undecided. That poll was conducted in late April. No one bothers to conduct polls here on a regular basis. There's no need. Everyone assumes Bush will win the state. Why? He's a Republican. 'Nuf said.
Many citizens of our state who support the Democratic ticket are afraid to let the fact be known -- and not without reason. Recently, a resident wrote a letter to the editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state's biggest newspaper. After proclaiming all liberal arguments "seditionist," he declared: "I am as mad at the liberals as they profess to be at George W. Bush. I would jump at the chance to offer up all of them to the terrorists that enjoy beheading Americans." So even though Anne continues to sport her bumper sticker, a lot of blue Americans here spend most of their time in the closet. They think the Democrats are right, but when it comes to sticking their necks out to advance the cause, they follow Dick Cheney's course during Vietnam, deciding that they have "other priorities."
Mississippi is a state of extremes. We are usually first -- or last, depending on your viewpoint -- in state rankings on almost everything. And there's no in between here. If we're going to be a red state, we'll try to be redder than anywhere else. Even purple, that blend of red and blue, is unacceptable. We are, after all, talking about a state where it's not unusual for a political candidate to be defeated after his opponent denigrates him as "a known moderate." If you're not with us, you're against us. To be the "other" in Mississippi is almost unthinkable.
Well, as it happens, my family is composed of a bunch of "others." And we're not "known moderates." We are (gasp) liberals. Worse yet, we are white liberals. Worst of all, I am a white male liberal. Surely I must be some freak of nature.
Moreover, I don't try to hide my views. I write an occasional column for the Clarion-Ledger. But most of Mississippi's reds don't seem to appreciate what I have to say. Some direct their complaints to the top administrators of my college, who dutifully explain to these champions of freedom what academic freedom means. Others who don't like the way I sing the blues write irate letters to the editor accusing me of such sins as liberalism, divisiveness and un-Americanism. And who, after all, knows more about what is divisive and un-American than folks who display two decals on the rear windows of their pickup trucks -- one that reads "One Nation, Indivisible" and shows the American flag, another that boasts a Confederate battle flag?
The thing that bothers me most about the red-state worldview is that it seems to me to be something straight out of Wayne's World -- John Wayne, that is -- in which there are no ambiguities, no nuances: a world of black and white. A world that goes beyond "Shoot first and ask questions later," to "Shoot first and never ask any questions."
To understand where a majority of Mississippians are coming from, you have to understand that they are people of faith. Nothing wrong with that. It's just that they seem, from my blue perspective, to have placed the faith that only God deserves in a man and in a party. For too many of them, the locally popular bumper sticker that reads "God said it. I believe it. That settles it," seems to morph easily into "Bush said it. I believe it. That settles it."
Even so, many of our local reds are among the nicest people you'd ever hope to meet. As the saying goes, some of our best friends are reds.
It's not that we don't know what it's like to live in a blue state. I'm originally from New Jersey, though I've been living in Mississippi for more than 30 years. (Not that 30 years is nearly long enough to be accepted as a Mississippian. That privilege is reserved for those whose great-granddaddies fought the Yankee invaders in the War of Northern Aggression.) And we spent the month of June in Los Angeles. If Mississippi is fire-engine red, the part of L.A. where we stayed is cobalt blue. It was nice to be around so many people with similar views to our own, but I have to confess, there's also something attractive about being in the minority. There may not be voting strength in small numbers, but there's another sort of strength, a kind that comes from feeling like a besieged band of brothers and sisters.
And there are compensations for being among the blue residents of our scarlet state. You quickly get to know the small assemblage of wonderful like-minded people, including the bluest of our successful politicians, such as former Gov. William Winter and former attorney general Mike Moore, who famously led the state lawsuits against Big Tobacco. (Yes, quite liberal candidates can get elected here, as long as they don't let themselves get tagged with the "L" word. Ditto for lots of popular government programs.) And if you're a liberal here, you almost automatically get pulled into the orbit of notables like the late writers Eudora Welty and Willie Morris.
Still, our tribulations continue. Last weekend, only two days after we had put out our Kerry-Edwards yard signs, someone stole one and defaced the other, whitewashing the Kerry side, turning it inside out and writing "Bush-Cheney," "I'm proud to be a Republican," and "Democrats stand up for what they later should have believed in." We find that last one a little bewildering.
On the other hand, a few days ago a sixtyish man pulled up next to me at a red light. (Notice how much happens at red lights here? Even the local Kmart, with its blue-light specials, has closed.) He had a big "God Bless America" sign on his car. He motioned for me to roll down my window. I did, sighing like Al Gore and fearing the worst. But in the finest Mississippi inflections, he yelled, "I love your bumper sticker! I'm a 30-year military man, and Bush never should have gone into Iraq. We've got to get him out!"
It's the kind of incident that lifts the bluest spirits. So here I am, fighting the good fight. Come on down and, as the Fleetwoods sang, if you decide to call on me, ask for Mr. Blue.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Mississippi.