The American imagination

The American imagination

Rose Aguilar looks for change on Red Highways

By Amanda Witherell

If you’re one of the 200,000 San Franciscans who voted for Barack Obama, maybe you’re staring at that map of red and blue states wondering, “How could 56 million people vote for John McCain? Why is there still this incredible swath of crimson belting our country?”

Similar questions have been burning in the minds of liberals since the 2000 election. In 2005, San Francisco resident Rose Aguilar turned them into a quest: “One night, after spending several hours online, sending articles to friends who were probably sick of me barraging them with e-mails and practically falling over political books and magazines I had yet to open, I realized it was time to leave my comfort zone. I needed to turn off my computer and get out into the streets to find out why people vote the way they do and find out if we’re as divided as we’re led to believe.”

Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland (PoliPoint Press, 221 pages, $15.95) is the result of Aguilar’s six-month road trip through reliably red states to ask people why they identify with one party over another, or vote for certain candidates, or don’t vote at all.

Aguilar, the host of Your Call, a public interest radio show on KALW, kept her mic keyed up and conducted hundreds of interviews as she and her boyfriend, Ryan, traveled by van through Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Montana. Some of these talks are with the hotel employees and restaurant owners one might typically encounter on a cross-country road trip. But Aguilar and her partner also venture to places they wouldn’t normally go — places that are mainstays in the lives of many Americans. Malls and churches provide the setting for much of the narrative, but the duo also attend their first gun show, chill out at a water park, and take in a bull-riding event. Nearly every experience is charged with politics — even at Oklahoma’s Bullnanza, Aguilar discovers riders who are heavily sponsored by the US Army.

Aguilar’s easy prose style, no doubt fine-tuned by her daily radio conversations, makes this part-travelogue, part-political inquiry a quick read, with a fine balance of visual observation, first-person anecdote (she outlines the challenges of roadside dining when you’re a vegan), and political fine-tuning. Aguilar discovers that most people like to talk about politics, but feel they shouldn’t. In Kerrville, Texas, she meets two closet Democrats, one who is a registered Republican because there are never any Democrats on the local ballot.

The phenomenon of closeted politics recurs as Aguilar travels deep into red state territory. She also criticizes the media for failing to adequately portray America’s nuances. “We breathe the same air, we live under the same political system, we’ve probably seen the same television and news shows, and most of us grew up going to public schools,” she writes. “Yet because we might vote differently once every four years, we find ourselves stereotyped in the national media and separated by red and blue borders.”

While exposing the impact of political peer pressure, Aguilar also encounters jarring social inconsistencies — billboard advertisements for strip clubs compete with signs for mega-churches throughout Dallas. With an awareness of such juxtapositions, she seeks a deeper truth in her talks with gay conservative environmentalists in Montana, Republican funders of local Planned Parenthood chapters, and a pro-war Texas vegan. Their tales make her book an important piece of evidence on America’s political complexity. Red Highways uncovers a country full of fierce individuals prone to herd mentality.

Aguilar finds islands of unquestionable compassion. Speaking with churchgoer Bob Bartlett after a service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in Austin, she asks him: ‘I noticed that this is a progressive church. What does that mean exactly?

‘It means we’re open to everybody’s thoughts and we’re open to everyone, no matter what your nationality is or what your religion is or what your sex is. We like all of it.’

“CNN or MSNBC should send a reporter here to challenge stereotypes by doing a segment about religious Republicans who attend progressive churches in conservative-leaning states. This one wasn’t hard to find. There must be others,” she concludes.

In a Sept. 29, New Yorker article revisiting Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays written more than 50 years ago, Louis Menand wrote, “A key perception in The Liberal Imagination is that most human beings are not ideologues. Intellectual coherence is not a notable feature of their politics. People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness.”

Menand goes on to point out that such assumptions need critical attention. Perhaps now, as the country decompresses from two years of campaigning that resulted in the election of the first black president to lead this diverse, complex, and deeply wounded populace, as people who voted Republican are already speaking about their pride in this historic moment, and as political commentators are already talking about the “purpleness” of the country and blurring of hard lines between states and political stances, writers and reporters like Aguilar will start to look more closely at who we really are. Red Highways deserves a place in the library of modern political Americana.

Originally published November 12, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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