Memo from Red-State America: We're Not Stupid!

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Robert Wuthnow, a native of Kansas, teaches sociology and directs the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books about American religion and culture, most recently "Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s" (Princeton).

If Newt Gingrich were to win the 2012 Republican nomination for president, historians would argue that January 19 was the turning point. That was the evening when CNN’s John King asked him to comment on stories about his marital infidelities. Gingrich shot back, “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” The audience roared with applause, chanting “Newt, Newt, Newt.” Two days later, Gingrich won the South Carolina primary by a wide margin.

Why did the audience respond so explosively? Is it just that people in red states hate the “liberal media” that much?

Maybe. But why?

Kansas history provides some interesting clues. Kansas has voted Republican over a longer period and by wider margins than any other state. If Gingrich were to deliver a similar retort in Kansas, I suspect the response would be the same.

Kansans have battled the media for a long time. In 1896 William Allen White, the Emporia Gazette editor who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his essays, observed, “Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her.” That was when East Coast newspapers were bashing Kansas populists Sockless Jerry Simpson and William Alfred Pfeffer.

In 1927 pundit H. L. Mencken blamed Prohibition on “the votes of the simian peasants of such backwaters.” Kansas and Mississippi were the backwaters he had in mind.

When Kansas native son Alfred Landon ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, the press took delight in quoting labor leader John L. Lewis who described Landon as a “quavering, quaggy dummy.”

Karl Menninger, the renowned Topeka psychiatrist, wrote a few years later that the state suffered from an inferiority complex. “Air just full o’ slander darts from the busy Eastern marts,” complained a Kansas poet in the early 1950s.

True, many of the attacks came from the “liberal media,” but not all. The ones against populists in the 1890s did not. And consider this example.

In 1964 Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Railing against big government, Reagan singled out for ridicule, of all places, my hometown: Lyons, Kansas. We had voted for Republicans by huge margins for as long as anyone could remember. Reagan implied that we were welfare chiselers who did not understand big government’s assault on us. The live audience in Los Angeles roared with laughter and gave Reagan a long round of applause.

Stigma that lasts for decades and that seems to come from all sides is hard to overcome. In 1969, when faculty and fellow graduate students in California asked me where I was from, my stock reply was, “the Midwest,” hoping they would maybe think Chicago and not ask exactly where.

In researching Red State Religion, my research assistants and I talked to several hundred Kansans about politics and religion. Nobody apologized for being conservative or pro-life or devoutly Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic. They were embarrassed about the state board of education’s support for creationism against evolution. They knew it made the state seem dumb. They were proud of their schools.  Kansans who opposed the board’s actions voted the conservatives out—several times. And the board’s supporters argued that theirs was the reasonable side. Let all theories be heard, they argued. Give common sense a chance.

“We’re not that dumb” was the implicit message. And to their critics, they were saying, “You’re not that smart.”

Common-sense realism is the prevailing ethos in red-state America—and probably in blue state America, too. Asked what they do not like about the federal government, Kansans told us that the bureaucrats in Washington did not use common sense. They liked the local leaders who did. 

South Carolina is very different from Kansas. And yet, I think the voters who applauded Gingrich in Charleston that evening were partly saying, “We’re not stupid.” They appreciated a candidate willing to put the cocky, fast-talking CNN moderator in his place. They wanted the debate to focus on issues that mattered.

Red-state voters can stand being called conservatives. They are used to conservative candidates criticizing the “liberal media.” That in itself does not bring standing ovations. Even rhetoric about the elite media being anti-religious has become old-hat. But condescension—implying that people are stupid—is deeply offensive.

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