The Death of a Red State

A close race in one Republican stronghold suggests that the politics of bigotry may finally be over


Posted Oct 30, 2008 1:00 PM

Driving down a rainy Colorado highway in October, I can see the misty white outline of the Rockies out one window and the arid brown flatlands of the Great Plains out the other. Overlaying it all is the faint but unmistakable stench of cattle.

I follow the smell.

I have come to the 4th Congressional District in Colorado — a massive territory encompassing virtually all of the state north and east of Denver — to cover the re-election campaign of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave. Musgrave was Sarah Palin before Sarah Palin, a turbocharged born-again supermom who went into politics because she couldn’t stand all the naughtiness. Her first political gig was on the school board in Fort Morgan, where she devoted her energies to blacking out — literally blacking out — passages in sex-education textbooks. Later, as a state legislator, she pushed a concealed-weapon law that would have allowed guns on school grounds. She was a preposterous caricature of an evangelical politician, an Anita Bryant with a beer gut, but like Palin she was already on her way to a Major Elected Office by the time anyone thought to stop laughing. Her first act upon making it to Congress in 2003 was to introduce an amendment to ban gay marriage. She declared unequivocally — after 9/11 and the launching of two wars — that the union of same-sex couples is “the most important issue we face today.”

Musgrave was re-elected twice by a 4th District that since 1972 has been among the most solidly Republican territory in America. Her grandstanding against buggery and other forms of extra-biblical recreation has helped earn her a 100 percent rating and a top spot on the American Conservative Union’s list of the most right-wing members of Congress. She’s a living symbol of the Era of Rove, when all a politician needs to do to get elected is go to church, make freckled babies and whine about how things are going to shit because some minority group is queering the deal.

That strategy has worked for a long time — but now, suddenly, things are different in places like the 4th District. Not only does the torch-bearing evangelical Colorado of Ted Haggard and James Dobson appear poised to turn its nine electoral votes blue for a nonwhite presidential candidate, but the congressional seat belonging to one of America’s most celebrated gay-bashers in this once-impregnable Republican stronghold is also up for grabs. If Musgrave is ousted in November, as polls suggest she’ll be, it’s worth asking just what exactly is going on. Has there been a sea change in the electorate? Is there a place on the American map where you can actually see the country outgrowing the politics of bigotry?


In the city of Greeley, a small group of Democrats gathers on a Friday night to hold a fundraiser for Musgrave’s opponent, Betsy Markey. It’s a mostly middle-aged group, a lot of Sixties survivors, some Hispanics and a Native American, even a pair of married Peace Corps vets and their daughter.

Like Barack Obama, the up-ticket candidate whose coattails she hopes to ride, Markey is a prototypical modern Democrat — young, attractive and not overtly ideological. Markey is a reminder that the days of the Democratic congressman being whichever Irishman or Italian the relevant unions decided to back are long over.

Those days ended in most American towns when the factories that made steel, cars or, in Greeley’s case, beet sugar (the town’s huge Great Western Sugar factory closed in 2002) moved abroad or shut down. As organized blue-collar workers have disappeared, there has been a struggle to figure out just what constitutes the base of the Democratic Party.

It’s not an easy question to answer, which is one of the reasons the Democrats have been such an embarrassment for so many years. In the days of FDR and JFK, the party was a bunch of rich people whose bread-and-butter platform was a sort of noblesse-oblige advocacy for the voter-rich underclass. The party that sent Al Gore and John Kerry to the electoral gallows was made up of the same rich people — only now all they did for poor people was talk.

The Republicans, meanwhile, weren’t doing anything for the rank and file either, but at least their candidates were speaking the right language. They understood that in the absence of results, the average voter would settle for seeing someone in the White House who doesn’t make him feel bad about himself. The Republicans cannily targeted voters — and there were plenty of them — who don’t want to be talked down to by some Washington suit acting all smart and shit. And so for a long time the GOP won the battle of cultural preferences, sending to high offices all across the country a succession of blunt underachievers who didn’t aspire to anything that the ordinary American couldn’t achieve.

But even as Republicans were winning that battle, there was another shift taking place. Gay people started walking around in even the most remote parts of the country. Women became bosses, mayors, senators. Some of almost everybody’s best friends really were black. Next thing you know, even the most backward dickhead is quoting Dave Chappelle’s Rick James skit. So what the Democrats lost in their base, they gained in the form of a generalized tolerance that seeped unconsciously into the brains of a whole generation. They became more of a demographic than a political party united by common interests.

At the fundraiser in Greeley, the assembled Democrats look like a college discussion group — it’s a crowd where you’d worry more about a game of Trivial Pursuit breaking out than a revolution. But in truth it’s people like this, in places like this, who are on the front lines of one of the great cultural showdowns in our history. It’s a showdown that has been brought into stark relief by Obama, a contest between those who embrace the multicultural future and that segment of white America that is still holding its breath, waiting for the Earth to start spinning backward and erase all the unpleasant changes.

In Greeley, as in most of America, those two groups are defined by their racial attitudes — fault lines that these days are most visible in the battle over immigration. Immigrants comprise the bulk of the workforce at the local meat-processing plant owned by Swift and Co. The plant, which contributes to the town’s heavy cape of death-shit smell, was raided in December 2006 by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who arrested 265 workers and drove a deep wedge into the local political scene.


Ever since, the city has been divided over the charges that the raid was unduly harsh and led to split families and abandoned children. When then-mayor Tom Selders went to D.C. and gave a speech about the ICE’s policies, local anti-immigration forces responded with savage, Swift-boat-style fliers. One, a model of racial subtlety, accused Selders of being a friend to “gangs.” The smear campaign worked, and in as perfect a metaphor for American politics as you’ll find, the professorial Selders was ousted in favor of Ed Clark, a hulking, shiny-headed retired police officer who ran on a get-tough-on-immigrants platform.

Everyone at the Markey fundraiser agrees that the anti-immigration sentiment expressed by Clark — what one woman calls the “frothing-at-the-mouth guys” — is a key reason this district has been a GOP stronghold since 1972. But the district might turn blue next month, and it’s no accident that it’s happening in a year when the presidential race has forced long-simmering racial issues out into the open. For all the fuss about the economy and terrorism, the battle between Obama and McCain is ultimately about bigotry and how much of it we’ll tolerate.

If you’re skeptical about the extent to which it always comes back to race, just listen to the arguments that conservatives are making about the causes of the financial crisis. Turn on any conservative radio station today and you can hear somebody blaming the entire crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which forced banks to make credit available in low-income neighborhoods. Through this bit of rhetorical gymnastics, conservatives have now pinned one of the most outrageous cases of fiscal irresponsibility in the history of rich white people on what Rush Limbaugh calls the “approved Democrat constituent.” They’re saying that the entire financial system has gone Krakatoa because poor black people didn’t make their payments.

Once you grasp that, you’ll understand that there isn’t anything on Earth these motherfuckers won’t try to pin on lazy minorities. And you’ll understand why this is more than just a presidential race. This is about an America that is steaming toward an uncertain future and has yet to decide whether it wants to face its problems or curl up in a ball and blame all the changes on Mexicans or blacks or whatever other “approved Democrat constituent” happens to be handy.

The day after the fund-raiser in Greeley, several hundred scruffy students gather for an Obama rally at the University of Northern Colorado, mulling around on a small rectangle of green lawn between two concrete high-rise dorms that look like some architect’s idea of a prison on the moon. Many of the students happily quaff beers, indifferent to a strong afternoon showing by the Greeley shit-wind. The stage is occupied by a bunch of white kids with dreadlocks offering an attempt at Obama-inspired bourgeois white-person protest reggae. “Change,” they sing, “is what we nee-eee-eeeed. . . .”

It’s a touchingly earnest scene — one that would probably win John McCain 10,000 votes an hour if broadcast live on cable stations around the country. After all, the Republicans want nothing more than to tell Middle America that Barack Obama is going to turn their kids into Ziggy Marley, or some even more sinister betray-your-race archetype, like Cat Stevens or John Walker Lindh.

If you think it’s silly to make a leap from digging Obama to supporting terrorism, consider that at this very moment, just south of here at Centennial Airport in the suburbs of Denver, Sarah Palin is about to make news by telling supporters that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” when he served on a charity board with Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers. The Republicans have made Ayers a central figure in the campaign because he was a white college kid who spent time trying to be black, dreaming as he did of forming a “white fighting force” to help a “Black Liberation movement” overthrow The Man.


All across America, if you scratch the surface of the current political jousting between the blues and reds, you’ll find race underneath. In America it’s always about race. Vietnam ended decades ago, but the civil rights movement never had a declared end — at least not according to conservatives, who have been running against it for 40 years, camouflaged in dog-whistle catchphrases like “law and order” (Nixon), “welfare queen” (Reagan) and “border security” (every Republican today). There isn’t a half-literate white person alive who doesn’t know what Palin is talking about when she says about Obama, “This is not a man who sees America as you and I do.”

And that, folks, is why Obama’s candidacy is so important. He is a living referendum on the civil rights movement — one might even say he is calling the bluff of the civil rights movement. He has been everything white America said it wanted from black America: Stay positive, work hard, go to Harvard, be more Martin and less Malcolm, and all obstacles will be cleared.

It’s happening because on college campuses like the University of Northern Colorado and every other place where progress has been allowed to penetrate, there now lives a whole generation who have been raised to believe implicitly in the virtue of a multicultural society. The election of Obama will prove once and for all the futility of using racism, camouflaged or not, to win elections. If Obama pulls this thing off, it might be a long time before you see a white candidate making transparent, panic-stricken appeals to “you and I” in the weeks before Election Day.

Two days after the Obama rally, I attend an “Old- Fashioned Political Rally” sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the fairgrounds in the town of Loveland, hoping to catch Musgrave live. Rumor has it that she’s toned down her act, that she’s no longer gay-bashing in the year of the Greatest Depression.

Only four years ago, a Republican like Musgrave could run on a wedge issue like gay marriage. One of the great traditions in American politics is the sudden arrival of a minority-baiting ballot initiative that drives the frustrated residents of swing states to the polls just in time to keep the map red. In 2004, it was gay-marriage bans offered in 11 states that helped turn out enough defenders of traditional “values” to sink Kerry. Two years later, a similar initiative in Colorado helped Musgrave beat her opponent by 7,000 votes.

At the Loveland event, I listen as a woman named Jessica Peck Corry stumps for this year’s race-baiting Trojan Horse ballot maneuver, a little thing called Amendment 46. This one actually calls itself a “Civil Rights Initiative” — which naturally turns out to be a law banning all forms of affirmative action.

Peck Corry, representing “the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative,” tells voters that affirmative action no longer makes sense. “There’s been a twentyfold increase in the number of interracial marriages” — leaving the races too mixed up to sort out who’s entitled to government help. She adds that, while her group “accepts the inevitable,” it doesn’t think giving preferential treatment to anyone is the right path for America after “getting it wrong on race for 200 years.”


Even worse is Donna Gallup, a GOP candidate for the state House. A stocky, anti-communist schoolmarm, Gallup gives a speech opposing “laws that blindly give criminals the opportunity to molest the innocent in public restrooms.” It turns out she’s referring to a bill that protects gays and lesbians from discrimination. Afterward, I ask Gallup what the hell the bill has to do with molestation. “If you’re perceived to be gay,” she says, “then you can go into a public restroom without any hostility toward you, according to this law.”

Only in America can a bill making it safe for gay people to take a piss inspire fear of “criminals” molesting the “innocent.”

After this show, it’s a letdown when Musgrave takes the stage. The district’s headline Republican has abandoned the rhetoric that made her famous, not once mentioning gay marriage or any social issues at all. She seems nervous, and her rants against Wall Street and the congressional bailout sound flat, like John Kerry trying to act religious.

But when you listen to Musgrave’s supporters, you still hear a lot of the railing against them and those people that Republicans like Peck Corry and Gallup are feeding the crowd, and which Musgrave herself rode into office years ago. “If we all have to follow the law, they should too,” says one Musgrave supporter at the rally, a former Air Force sergeant, in reference to illegal immigrants. When I ask about Sarah Palin’s claim that Obama doesn’t see America as “you and I” do, the 70-year-old agrees. “They don’t appreciate America,” he says.

This is why the makeover of someone like Marilyn Musgrave might be too little, too late. Racism and prejudice have festered at the core of the political identity of a generation of Republicans; you can’t simply excise those qualities from them overnight. Back them into a corner and they always produce a Willie Horton or a Bill Ayers or some other contagious graduate of the “University of Negroes and Communists” (as Jesse Helms once called his home-state school, UNC) ready to infect that never-was paradise of white culture with “crime” or “irresponsibility” or whatever the code word happens to be this week. They’re trying it even now, with the McCain campaign running ads showing Obama next to photos of a former Fannie Mae chairman who happens to be black but was never an adviser to Obama. “Shocking,” says the ad, as shots of the two black men fade to a picture of an aggrieved elderly white woman.

These tactics almost always worked in the past and have carried more than one man into the most powerful office in the world. But they were a house of cards all along, with no substance behind them, and when they are at last put to a vote next month, they’ll blow away forever. That’s what happens with weak ideas: They don’t die a slow, lingering death but lose their power all at once, like a broken spell.

[From Issue 1064 — October 30, 2008]

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