Like everybody else I know in New York, the celebrated and normally unflappable pillar of the media Establishment who called me just after the election sounded like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. And he now felt free—eager—to express his contempt for our losing candidate, the haughty, dissembling preppie stiff the Democrats had run against George W. Bush after failing to beat him the first time with another haughty, dissembling preppie stiff. “The wrong Kerry was running,” my friend finally said. “I think Bob Kerrey could’ve won it.” It seemed plausible. Here was a fresh flavor of coulda-shoulda counterfactual regret to taste and savor. And, of course, the unspoken win-win bonus of a victory by the president of the New School: A New Yorker would have become president of the United States. Because, of course, whenever we can make it a New York City story—politics or history or economics or culture—we do.
The aftermath of September 11 was, for a while, all about us. But after saluting the heroism of our martyred cops and firefighters and our collective civic pluck, America had one big depressing, possibly disingenuous question on its mind: Why do they (Muslims) hate us (Americans)? In the aftermath of this election, the same question has a much more parochial focus. By they, we now mean not pious, permanently pissed-off, culturally marginalized anti-Americans from Tangier to Jakarta—since we invaded Iraq, we think we know why they hate us—but pious, permanently pissed-off, culturally marginalized Americans from Charleston to Boise. And by us we now mean us: urbanites, sophisticates, New Yorkers.
For me, the equivalence between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism seems plain. For me, both are unfathomable and scary. But, of course, to Evangelical Christians in South Dakota or Tennessee, my own New York godlessness and casual acceptance of wholesale perversion (homosexuality, pornography) as well as mass murder (abortion) are equally unfathomable and scary.
Which is to say, our great bright-blue metropolis has more in common with red America than we would probably prefer to think. They march in lockstep, close-minded and self-righteous? Us too, dudes.
We can now revel in our minority-taste decadence, like West Berliners during the Cold War.
If New Yorkers were to hold a referendum to choose the city’s core values, “tolerance” and “diversity” would surely be among them. We flatter ourselves that we are a gorgeous mosaic, that we welcome misfits and quirks of all kinds. Yet when it comes to social conservatives and true Republicans (as opposed to Giulianis and Bloombergs), New Yorkers are as intolerant of dissent as any rednecks. Like them, we prefer to live among our own kind, thanks, and don’t really want our ideological orthodoxies challenged. In fact, the reddest of red states are actually less politically homogeneous than New York City. In the five boroughs, 74 percent of the votes went to Kerry, and in Manhattan he got 82 percent. Out in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, however, Bush got only between 68 percent and 71 percent of the vote. Even in the small towns of Texas, taken together, no more than 71 percent of the electorate voted for their fellow Texan. And of Evangelical and born-again Christians, 77 percent voted for Bush, a smaller majority than Kerry’s among Manhattanites. As a political matter, New York City is tolerant and diverse the way Fox News is fair and balanced.
This is a place where everyone in polite company is obliged to agree about certain issues—for starters, abortion, free speech, gay rights, secularism, and George W. Bush. Is that stifling and cultish, or warm and cozy consensus? All of the above. But for my part, I am already nostalgic for the one recent intellectual opening, a bracing moment of real disagreement that occurred just before and after the invasion of Iraq—our War Spring, if you will. I watched dinner parties digress into shouting matches. I saw a restaurant meal in Tribeca become contentious as a discussion of Iraq turned into a debate of U.S. policy toward Israel. Those were the exhilarating days.
But then the compelling reason for the war in Iraq proved to be a mirage; the dumbfounding mismanagement of the occupation became obvious; and all of us enlightened New Yorkers were required to default to our customary popular-front position and support the dud of a Democratic nominee.
During these last two weeks of bleak muttering, New Yorkers have e-mailed each other little satires ridiculing the majority of our fellow citizens—a map of the U.S. divided between “America” (blue states) and “Dumbfuckistan” (red states), a diatribe titled “Fuck the South,” a chart purporting to show an inverse correlation between a state’s average IQ and its vote for Bush. (Extra added self-serving bonus: Three of the four highest-IQ states were Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.)
Of course, it is backlash against precisely that kind of smug, automatic disdain for the primitive, boring American provinces that sinks the Democrats. Life really is like high school, and the anti-Bush unanimity of the cool kids—the Meryl Streeps, the Tony Kushners, the Bruce Springsteens, the Jon Stewarts—surely reminded a lot of middle- and working-class Americans that they have more in common psychographically with the president than with his antagonists. Our self-regarding sneers alienate even our allies. I know a down-to-earth liberal woman in a small town who worshipped Maureen Dowd—but then, just before the election, heard her on NPR and was shocked by her “rich, snotty, smarty-pants” tone of voice.
This is another thing that hard-core blue-staters and hard-core red-staters have in common: stereotypical views of each other. We think they lead dull lives in bleak places, with Stuffed Crust Pizzas and church and hunting and Extreme Makeover their only solace. They think we are rich, snotty smarty-pantses. We think they are homophobes awaiting the End of Days and the Rapture—and maybe 15 percent of them actually are. They think we are left-wing Jews and homosexuals—and at least 15 percent of us New Yorkers actually are. Like most caricatures, both are essentially true. (By the way, if it is a coincidence that 74 percent of New Yorkers and 74 percent of American Jews and 77 percent of all self-described gays voted for Kerry, it’s an uncanny one.)
And some of us are like them in deeper ways. The biggest reliably Republican voting bloc consists of people statistically almost identical to the elite (that is, the Democrats) who run our media-entertainment-industrial complex: In this presidential election, large majorities of very affluent (63 percent), white (58 percent), married (57 percent) men (55 percent) voted for President Bush. Surely the special antipathy that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity seem to feel for people like Al Franken and Michael Moore derives from a sense of race-class-gender betrayal. And so tens of millions of men must similarly find Franken and Moore—and all the well-off white liberal men who run the media—faintly, viscerally contemptible, the way people on the left feel toward (traitorous) black Republicans like Clarence Thomas and Condi Rice. Well-to-do white liberal men are triply traitors to their demographic.
In What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank makes the neo-Marxist case that working-class Middle Americans have been hoodwinked by the Republican rich to care more about “moral values” issues than their own obvious class interests. Maybe so. Probably so. But weren’t all the Democratic voters with household incomes over $200,000 voting against their own economic interests as well? And shouldn’t we presume, therefore, that the $3 million-a-year Manhattan executive’s support of Kerry was no more or less irrational than the $24,000-a-year Kansas truck mechanic’s support of Bush? Thus, another thing we New York freaks have in common with red-state freaks: false consciousness, as Herbert Marcuse used to call it.
So what is it that makes us so different from other Americans of our race, age, income, gender, marital status? The data point to one answer: the city. The factor most decisively distinguishing me from an almost-sure-thing Bush voter is that people who live in large cities tend to vote Democratic. In other words, it is this giant city that makes us weird and irrational.
Or anyhow keeps us weird. Those of us who emigrated from the provinces are here in large part because New York is “out of touch with the mainstream.” When I moved from Nebraska (67 percent for Bush), bourgeois bohemianism was not yet a huge nationwide phenomenon abetted by public radio, the national New York Times, Comedy Central, dozens of ersatz Sohos, and thousands of Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, and Targets. Would-be hipsters were obliged to leave Omaha. But the comforting Bobo illusion of the past decade or two has now been definitively reality-checked. On November 2, we learned that the diffusion of stylish, civilized taste is not the same as progressive hegemony.
For New Yorkers, this massive dark cloud does have a silver lining. We can now feel special again, and revert to full-bore smugness: We choose to live in New York because we are superior, and we are superior because we live in New York. We can revel in our minority-taste decadence and sophistication, like West Berliners during the Cold War, hunkered down in an island of freedom and enlightenment amid a nation of militarists and squares. And we still control media and the academy: So, Winston Churchill’s truism notwithstanding, at least this history, for the moment, is being written by the losers.
But back to the original question: Should we hate them? A few of them, sure. (Tom DeLay, for instance.) Do they really hate us? Some of them, undoubtedly. (Ditto.) But not most, I think. They don’t understand how we can bear to live in New York (same back at you), but they are fond of us the way they are toward their eccentric, “creative” brothers-in-law and aunts. They don’t hate us: They just don’t entirely trust us.
So is this sectional schism—us (and the other blue-staters) versus them—merely a current version of the age-old, worldwide conflict between urban cosmopolites and rural people? Or the beginning of something more serious? Is it tragedy, like 1860—or farce, like the 1960s, when Norman Mailer ran for mayor on a jokey utopian platform that called for seceding from the State of New York?
Closer to the latter, I think. The chatter about moving to Canada or Tuscany or New Zealand is not serious. But the resentment and confoundedness between their half of the population and ours is deep and reciprocal. And it could get much uglier over the next dozen years, when the blue-state Democratic presidential nominees in 2008 (Hillary Clinton) and 2012 (Barack Obama) are trounced.
A dozen years before the Civil War, Northerners and Southerners mistrusted each other, but secession was unthinkable. We had just fought our first imperial war, invading Mexico preemptively because, the administration claimed, the Mexicans were about to attack us. Impoverished foreign immigrants were pouring into the cities. We were coming off an economic boom and manias for transformative new technologies—railroads, the telegraph, photography. The country was vibrating with the effects of a 25-year-long Evangelical Protestant religious revival—and Protestant zealots were leading the great moral struggles of the day against personal moral laxity and slavery. The right of individual states to define civil rights was becoming contentious, on the verge of a crisis.
Plus ça change. One hundred and fifty years later, the blue states are still mostly blue and most of the reds are still red. Now, though, there are all the new Western states as well, all but a few of them red, and this time it’s the red states, not our blue ones, that have Christian moral fervor on their side. Here in this secular old northeastern city in the chilly late autumn, that is unnerving.
Kurt Andersen’s “Studio 360” is broadcast weekly on public-radio stations nationwide, including WNYC.