Bridging the red-blue divide

If progressives want to lead the country, will they first have to learn to love the places they left behind?

Published May 6, 2005 3:54PM (EDT)

Since last November, there's been plenty of speculation about a vast disconnect between Red and Blue America. Here's a new theory: Many urbane blue-staters are actually refugees from the red-state heartland, where they were once picked on as kids.

On a panel Wednesday night in San Francisco, celebrating the publication of the new AlterNet anthology "Start Making Sense: Turning the lessons of election 2004 into winning progressive politics," Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights argued that lefties won't be able to lead the country until they can learn to love the places they left behind. "We've almost gone through a divorce with our own country," he said.

Jones asked the crowd of several hundred filling the Swedish American Music Hall on Market Street -- who'd also come to hear from the likes of George "Framing" Lakoff and co-founder Wes Boyd -- how many of them were born and raised in San Francisco. A handful of hands went up. How about born and raised in California? More hands. But not that many.

Jones, who grew up in Tennessee, told the crowd that he'd felt out of place as a kid -- like many of them probably did -- and moved away. But over the years spent in more liberal places like the Bay Area, he somehow forgot how to talk to folks from his old hometown. He said that when he goes back to Tennessee for Thanksgiving and launches into a 10-minute monologue about politics, he's met by embarrassed silences from his relatives, the very kindest response being: "Well, that was a mouthful."

"How long are we going to let being bullied in high school run our lives and run our movement? It's time for us to have some kind of homecoming," he said, to vigorous applause from an audience apparently now eager to connect with long-lost red-state brethren.

Fellow panelist Adam Werbach, the former President of the Sierra Club, who now sits on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, offered this rallying cry: "We will dissolve junior high!"

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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