The United States is at war. No, I don’t mean in Afghanistan or Syria; I mean right here in River City. Right here where our opinion-makers and political leaders are doing their level best to demean and discredit historical American values. A new film, Nebraska, that parodies our heartland, provides exhibit A.
Nebraska played at the Lincoln Center Film Festival in New York recently to an enthusiastic audience. Directed by Alexander Payne, whose body of work includes The Descendants, Nebraska speaks volumes about the country we live in. While one reviewer lauded the picture as a “nuanced portrait of small-town life” that “contemplates the loss of the stout Midwest that once formed America’s backbone,” I found it mean-spirited and insulting.
Only people who actually believe that Midwesterners are mute and moronic could think this movie portrays accurately or with sympathy the folks who live in between our coasts. Rather, the film paints small-town America as culturally deprived, small-minded and venal – inhabited by folks “clinging to guns or religion,” as Barack Obama so famously put it. It’s hard to picture Johnny Carson or Warren Buffet emerging from such a bleak landscape.
This is the great divide in the U.S. today. It is not between blacks and whites – or rich and poor; it is between the elites in California or New York and ordinary people who wouldn’t know a Wagyu beefburger from an heirloom tomato. The pundits who cannot imagine how anyone can live in Nebraska’s farm country also can’t imagine why anyone ever voted for George W. Bush; they do not and cannot understand the Tea Party. And, they are scornful of what they do not understand.
The elites do not celebrate the rich history of our plains states, the struggle to tame the frontier and to create the world’s most productive agricultural society. In their hearts, they also deride the assembly line workers who built our industrial base, the hard hats who kick back with Bud at the end of their shift, instead of cozying up to the New Yorker.
It is true that large corporations have bought up much of our farmland, leaving small towns in Nebraska and elsewhere abandoned by young people who need jobs. These forlorn communities are the victims of progress, but they are not villages of the damned. The people are not hateful. Most are older and have chosen to live out their lives in familiar surroundings. They tend to be conservative in their lives and politics; they also harbor a healthy skepticism of Uncle Sam.
It isn’t redistricting that has polarized the country, or our insane primary system – though both are problematic. It is that we are seriously divided on many issues – like religion, gay marriage, gun control, the environment and abortion. Most New Yorkers imagine that every right-minded person in America supports a woman’s right to abortion; they discard dissent on the topic as beyond ignorant. They would be shocked to know that opinion on abortion has barely budged in almost four decades of polling.
As of the last Gallup survey, 52 percent of those asked thought abortion should be legal under “some” circumstances, virtually the same as in 1975. Around 20 percent thought it should be illegal no matter what, roughly the same as 40 years ago, while 26 percent thought it should always be allowed, up slightly from 1975 but down from 34 percent in the early 1990s. When asked earlier this year whether we should overturn Roe v. Wade, only a bare majority of the country – 52 percent - said no. Democrats who push for abortion on demand do not speak for everyone.
Or take gun control. Last month, Gallup found that significantly more Americans (48 percent) blame our mental health system for “mass shootings” than any other factor, including “easy access to guns.” Almost a third of the country pins the blame on violence in movies, video games and music lyrics, but you won’t find Democrats in Hollywood looking to curb those outlets. Only normal folks don’t think their kids should be exposed to f-bombs on the radio or sex scenes in prime time. What do they know?
Campaigning in 2008, Candidate Obama promised he would “put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election.” He also vowed we were “one day away from change in America.” Unhappily, he could not possibly have kept both those promises. Much of the country isn’t looking for change; lots of people don’t want to move away from our traditions or overhaul our way of life. They believe in the promise of the individual; they believe in hard work and enjoying the fruits of our labor. Instead of envying success, they celebrate it.
Americans recently were asked in a Gallup Poll last May to list their priorities. Creating more jobs and helping the economy grow were top of the list, as they always have been. People want work; they don’t want welfare. Interestingly, “making the government more efficient” tied for third with “improving the quality of education received by American schoolchildren.” “Addressing the financial problems with Social Security and Medicare” was number 5. Does this list sound like the priorities of Democrats? Of President Obama? Some do, but these sound more like the kinds of issues that rally Tea Partiers and the sensible majority that recognizes something has gone totally haywire with our schools – and that our bloated entitlements programs are in jeopardy.
Only when we get way down the list do we find lowering health care costs, at about the same level of focus as reducing the federal deficit. Gun control and immigration reform are at the bottom of the dozen priorities ranked. Cleaning up the environment doesn’t even make the list. Nor does gay marriage, or abortion. But these are the issues that are the top of Obama’s list.
Nebraska is unlikely to hit it big at the box office. People prefer movies that make them feel good about their country, and about their fellow Americans – like Rudy, or The Blind Side. So do I.
This article was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2013.