Lisa in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has two Facebook accounts. One reflects her liberal politics; the other is for acquaintances and family members to whom Lisa shows only her cat photos. Christina, in Milford, Massachusetts, has a sign in the back window of her car proclaiming support for a Democratic candidate. But as soon as she parks in the company lot, she puts it facedown on the backseat. Byron has lived in the same small town of Pomeroy, Iowa—population 662—his entire life. He brings his partner to family dinners but has never actually said to his conservative sister that he’s gay.
Lisa, Christina, and Byron are “blues in red states”—liberals who live in conservative communities that exist in every state, Republican or Democratic-leaning, across America. They and people like them are constantly reminded they aren’t quite like everyone else: from the churches they do or don’t attend, to their purchases and media preferences, to their loyalties at the ballot box. On a daily basis, liberals who have made homes, formed friendships, and participated in the civic life of conservative towns and cities are confronted with unsettling reminders that they’re different, and they’ve found myriad ways to take that truth in stride.
On some occasions, it’s best to say as little as possible. Chris in Cincinnati, Ohio, is quick to talk liberalism—except when he’s hanging out with his ice hockey team. Spike in Sandia Park, New Mexico, and Dean in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, are both white men in their sixties who often hear off hand right-wing comments from people who assume they are conservative, and then have to determine whether it’s worth speaking up. Diane in Fairbanks, Alaska, occasionally talks politics with her neighbors but never lets it get too heated—she’s always mindful she might need that neighbor to dig her out of the next big storm. Some might call this strategy “passing”—going undercover, by conscious deception or simple omission, to blend into conservative surroundings, staying quiet through sticky moments, or deftly navigating around political minefields in one’s neighborhood or workplace.
But in some instances, it becomes too hard to stay quiet. Susannah in Kalispell, Montana, has had to interrupt the conversation of her quilting group when it’s veered too far to the right—whether debating government policy about wolves or discussing Native Americans. Rita, in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, mentioned to one of the members of her water aerobics club that the prayer before their post-practice lunch made her uncomfortable (at their next lunch, the women prayed while Rita was in the bathroom). Lenzi in Austin, Texas, asked her law school classmates not to use the word “retarded”—and was reprimanded by her professor as a result. Byron doesn’t like to stir up any controversy in his bar but found he had to say something as regulars muttered racial slurs. Coming out as a liberal happens when it’s important to stand up for liberal values even momentarily, in situations where remaining silent would feel complicit. Here and there, liberals living out of their element sometimes feel a need to lean into their politics—boasting a yard sign on a conservative block, offering a divergent point of view at a cordial meal—and then lean away just as quickly for the sake of civility and stability.
And at other times, there’s no choice but to make a scene. When Desmond visited a comedy club on a trip home to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was so stunned by the performer’s homophobic comments that he piped up in the middle of the set. Dan in Idaho Falls, Idaho, questions his children’s science teachers about evolution—letting them apologize for teaching “that theory” before he reveals he’s a scientist who is in favor of a reality-based curriculum. Such moments call for unapologetic pride in one’s political perspective. At these junctures, liberals living in conservative areas wear their true colors, launching the long-shot local campaign, marching in pride parades, striking up conversations to convince their conservative acquaintances, calling out homophobia, racism, or sexism, or even running for office. At the same time, liberals often cope with and find comfort in their conservative surroundings by seeking out their tribe. Dan of Idaho Falls has started an atheist society. Desmond discovered a local theater group while growing up in Tuscaloosa. Even in the most isolated moments, Joe of Brandon, Florida, can still consume progressive blogs and podcasts. Chris of Yankton, South Dakota, streams left-leaning radio shows daily.
However, whether they find their kindred spirits in small clusters or online, when these liberals walk out their doors, they come face-to-face with—and need to learn to confront, conform to, or otherwise navigate—their right-wing reality: TVs in local venues are tuned to Fox News. Co-workers can quote Rush Limbaugh. Anti-Obama comments are rife, made as a casual matter of fact, often ignorant and sometimes crossing the line to racist. Neighbors and colleagues assume that everyone attends church, and some are suspicious of those who don’t. The same assumptions are made about gun ownership.
In these settings, being liberal can be challenging and it can be frightening. As one woman in Oklahoma City confessed, before she found other liberals she could talk with who gave her confidence, she would have been too nervous to “come out of the closet as a liberal.” And this isn’t just liberal paranoia: a conservative Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, explained that she had become disgusted with the venomous rhetoric of the Republicans in her state and it pushed her to meet some liberals. When she finally did, she recounted in total seriousness, “The first thing I learned was that they didn’t want to kill babies.”
No wonder so many liberals, in such areas, feel out of place. But as many of them have discovered, they don’t have to give up their politics or give up their homes. Like all of nature’s creatures, they can adapt: they learn when to push their politics and when to put politics aside in order to form meaningful connections with neighbors despite differences. They learn to tap into values that run deeper than party affiliation. They find ways to share community happiness, which is key to daily survival, through a mix of coping, cajoling, and conquering, a balancing act of fight and flight, and knowing when it’s worth engaging, or when happiness relies on disengagement.
A few blues in red states ultimately find they cannot exist comfortably as lone outposts of liberalism and choose to leave. They pick up from their conservative settings and find their way to college towns and state capitals, coastal metropolises and diverse big cities, where many liberals feel more naturally at home. But for the many liberals who stay put, the key to happiness is not in choosing which type of liberal to be—but in developing a rich array of coping mechanisms, “code-switching” among all the approaches. Knowing when to escape inward and when to escape outward, when to find strange bedfellows, or when to let good fences make good neighbors, helps even the most true-blue liberal survive and thrive in deep-red pockets of America.
In an increasingly crowded, urbanized, and multicultural country, blues in red states provide lessons in coping and civility that can benefit all of us. How can we talk meaningfully and respectfully to our neighbors, even when they differ from us? How can we find common ground sturdier than daily turmoil? How can we communicate thoughtfully and share our values, one conversation at a time?
We live in an era when Facebook and other social media increasingly tell us what we want to hear and share with us content that affirms—rather than challenges—our beliefs. More and more of the media we consume is nationally accessible— conservatives in Vermont can listen to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity as easily as liberals in Texas can find Amy Goodman and Rachel Maddow. Whether one clicks over to the Drudge Report and RedState or to Alternet and Daily Kos, Americans can choose online news and opinion that make them feel at home.
And yet, the virtual world has its limits—and we find ourselves interacting on a daily basis with people whom we can’t always choose as easily as we click on a link, and can’t shut out as quickly as we close a browser window. Liberals in conservative areas forge relationships with people of different political views all the time. Sometimes, they are able to persuade someone to accept a more progressive perspective. Sometimes, they find common ground over lifestyles or values that run deeper than politics. And occasionally—though rarely—they even find themselves agreeing with a conservative point of view.
These liberals keep up the pressure for progress in the most intimidating surroundings. They voice unpopular but necessary views. They live side by side with many Americans who don’t strongly identify with any political label and are the most potentially persuadable. And they also put a friendly face on “liberalism”—making it harder for conservatives to demonize them, just as liberals need to remember not to demonize those with politics at the other end of the spectrum.
My own life geography has been solidly blue: I was raised in a Democratic small town in New Jersey; attended college in Cambridge, Massachusetts; then made my life in New York City. I live close to independent bookstores and movie theaters, our neighborhood has curbside composting, and my wife and I belong to a food co-op. I’m a white, heterosexual male. It’s been easy being a liberal.
Then a little more than a decade ago, a friend and I started a club called Drinking Liberally. It was 2003, during the dark days of the Bush administration. Our nation had just entered a war we shouldn’t have been in, Americans were being warned by the White House to “watch what you say,” and there was a sense that we lacked liberal leadership and liberal community. So we started gathering at a bar each week to talk politics with fellow progressives—to learn, share, vent, and organize.
The idea took off and within a few years Drinking Liberally was everywhere. It quickly made the leap from progressive areas, where it was a fun social networking opportunity, to conservative areas, where it was a lifeline for liberals who otherwise felt politically isolated. It has grown into a network of hundreds of chapters. As exciting as Drinking Liberally was to my friends and me, it was even more critical to folks in red states who needed to know they weren’t alone.
Over the decade since, I’ve had the chance to visit the more than seventy-five chapters of Drinking Liberally, which now exists in almost every state. From thousands of conversations, I’ve seen that, despite regional differences and habits, there is a core to liberalism that runs nationwide. Those who call themselves liberal in America today believe that we’re all better off when we live for one another than we are when we live only for ourselves. That’s the simplest value at the center of our politics—and it resonates as clearly with self-identified liberals in rural Kentucky as it does with those in the Boston suburbs.
It’s also the central value that has the potential to define our politics, strengthen our society, and create a better future. If we’re going to spread that liberal value, we won’t do it by talking only with other liberals. We’ll do it by talking with conservatives, moderates, and the large slices of regular Americans undefined by political leanings, in Texas, Idaho, Montana, South Carolina, and Arkansas—one conversation at a time.
We’ve heard about red states and blue states so often that we accept the division as fact. And it’s true: an increasing number of states have one-party control over both houses of their legislatures. There are fewer toss-up Senate and congressional seats. Even on a local level, as detailed maps of recent presidential elections show, every American is most likely to live in a solidly Democratic or Republican neighborhood.
And yet, in most places, the story is more complicated. Montana can elect a Democratic governor, and Massachusetts can elect a Republican. A woman in Grapevine, Texas, can be attacked by conservatives when she runs for town council—then work as a private citizen with those same conservatives to enact government transparency laws. A coalition in Pawleys Island can unite the left and right over sensible development and planning. Democrats can help elect a Republican mayor of Idaho Falls, then work with her to push for expanded nondiscrimination laws. A group of hard-core progressives and hard-core reactionaries can sit down in Waukesha for “Détente Dinners.” A liberal retiree who spent his life in the air force can spend years in a regular book club with Republicans, Libertarians, and Green Partiers. A state legislator in Arkansas can help Democrats elect an insurgent Republican head of the state assembly in order to pass Medicaid expansion. A man in Yankton can belong to a church where he supposes he knows the politics of fellow parishioners but never asks—and then is surprised to run into them at a political gathering for a cause they share. These stories are among the many I heard in a series of conversations that took place in 2014.
The truth is more like what a certain keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston noted: “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. . . . But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.” As then–U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama summed it up, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
Excerpted from “Blue in a Red State: The Survival Guide to Life in the Real America” by Justin Krebs. Copyright © 2016 by Justin Krebs. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.