David Starkey is a professor of English at Santa Barbara City College and the editor of Living Blue in the Red States. He served as Santa Barbara’s 2009-2010 Poet Laureate and is Director of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College. His poetry has appeared in many journals and in seven full-length collections, most recently Like a Soprano, an episode-by-episode revisioning of The Sopranos television series. His textbook, Four Genres in Brief (Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2017), is in its third edition.
Living Purple: An Assay
The genesis of Living Blue in the Red States, the essay collection I edited for the University of Nebraska Press, was in the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election. Although I had moved back to my home state of California after living for seven years in the Deep South, when George W. Bush was reelected, I felt the pain of my liberal friends still living in conservative parts of the country. Another four years of GOP rule was going to be difficult for them, and I wanted to hear what was on their minds. The result was—if I do say so myself—an outstanding gathering of creative nonfiction from a wide variety of viewpoints.
However, by the time the book was published, in 2007, the mood of the country was shifting. The questionable real estate and banking transactions that many economists had been warning against were beginning to reveal themselves for what they were—sophisticated Ponzi schemes—and by the following year a full-blown and worldwide financial crisis had erupted, which turned out to be a perfect opportunity for a charismatic young senator from Illinois.
The occasion for Living Blue in the Red States, therefore, quickly, and happily, came to feel outdated. Barack Obama was elected President, and some of the red states represented by authors in the book—Ohio and Iowa and Florida—were suddenly blue, and blue again four years later when Obama was reelected. Even GOP strongholds Virginia and North Carolina swung into the Democratic column. Healthcare was, for the first time ever, at least theoretically accessible to all Americans, and same-sex marriage was legal. From a progressive perspective, things looked pretty good.
Of course, there was plenty of push back from the right. Obama’s first midterm election was something of a disaster, marked by a swelling of white populist resentment. Whether these new conservative activists were part of a national grassroots movement, or willing puppets of the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Tea Party became an increasingly powerful force in Republican politics.
And then, in June 2016, reality television star and businessman Donald Trump announced his candidacy for Presidency in a nativist, hate-filled speech that many mainstream Republicans thought would doom him from the start. That didn’t happen, of course, and now I sit here typing this blog on the third day of his Presidency, feeling far more worried about the future of the country, and of the world, than I ever felt when W. was in charge. Whatever liberals might have said of the forty-third President, no one would have accused of him being a Manchurian candidate for the Russians.
If America seemed fractured and fractious and partisan in 2007, the past ten years have made the divide much worse. To give some perspective, Living Blue in the Red States was published the same year Apple released its first iPhone. Twitter—Donald Trump’s current weapon of choice—was just barely past the startup stage. People were argumentative, certainly, but the level of discourse was positively Augustan when contrasted with the almost complete lack of civility one finds now on news site comment boards.
The day after the 2016 election, my mother-in-law, a die-hard Republican—albeit one who claims she did not vote for Trump—kept telling my wife and me to “Get over it.” I thought that was ironic, considering the fact that Republicans had spent the previous eight years trying to thwart Obama at every turn, and yet “Get over it” has become a mantra of right-wing commentators. In the words of Sean Hannity, Trump’s biggest supporter on FoxNews: “Loony liberal crybabies need to get over themselves and accept the fact that Donald Trump will be our next president.” “Loony liberal crybabies” is hardly the language of compromise—but then compromise seems so old fashioned these days.
And that brings me back to Living Blue in the Red States. In “Running in the Red,” her superb contribution to the book, Utah State University English professor Jennifer Sinor talks about how her colleagues refused to teach a class in multicultural literature because the students “are too conservative; the evaluations they have received are too poor.” Then she remembers something her husband said: “if I want to change the way the world works, the values in which it trades, the language it chooses to use, I need to find a path my students can walk down.”
Finding that path turned out to be a major theme of Living Blue in the Red States. When I was soliciting essays for the collection, I imagined it would be much more politically radical than in turned out to be. In fact, most of my contributors talked about trying to make an uneasy peace with neighbors and family who did not share their beliefs. They were, in essence, “living purple” in the red states.
Right now, though, trying to find common ground with those from the other end of the political spectrum looks very hard, if not impossible. When I think of the participants at Saturday’s Women’s March in Santa Barbara trying to have a civil conversation with the participants at a Donald Trump rally in, say, Ohio or Alabama, I can’t imagine where the conversation would begin, or how long it would last once it got started. We are two countries now: Blue America is urban, affluent and educated, while Red America is rural, working-class and, to quote Trump at one of his rallies, “poorly educated.” Each “country” believes that it represents the real America, and each is utterly skeptical of the good intentions of the other side.
And yet as bad as things look today, they may get much worse. Even many of his fans would acknowledge that Trump is a loose cannon—that’s what they like about him. But a President who is a loose cannon could misfire at any time, and who knows what he’ll hit. All of us—Red and Blue alike—may be in bigger trouble than we know.
There is, though, a chance that relations between Red and Blue could become somewhat more purple. As challenging as it may be, we can start—like the contributors to Living Blue in the Red States—by listening to those with whom we disagree. And, in fairness, they must listen back. It’s a tall order to try and understand the perspectives of those we believe in our very bones are wrong. However, the cost of avoiding this conversation may be far worse than listening to what we don’t want to hear.