Reclaiming the Red States

Garrison Keillor argues that old-school civics holds the future of the Democratic Party.

The left used to be dismissed by the right primarily in satirical terms: as unevolved hippies or hairy-legged women's-studies professors. But recently the charges have gotten even more vicious (or less passé): we Kerry-voting, Seattle Weekly–reading, blue-state liberals have been credited with nothing less than a desire to destroy Western civilization. Few are more qualified to contradict such silliness than Garrison Keillor. In Homegrown Democrat (Viking, $19.95) the radio host and novelist patiently outlines how his passionate liberalism resulted naturally from a perfectly ordinary small-town childhood—just the sort the right celebrates, or pretends to—of home-canned produce, Thanksgiving with Aunt Eleanor, and rooting for the Anoka, Minn., Tornadoes. "The politics of kindness" is the phrase Keillor likes to use, which rings a lot truer than "compassionate conservatism." This slim memoir (or long-form essay) is presented in Keillor's usual straightforward yet lyrical prose style—which doesn't prevent him from being smolderingly livid about, say, the current administration's unashamed upward transfer of wealth (so much for the Eighth and Tenth Commandments); the cynical, compassion-free Bible-thumping intended to distract us from said transfer; or the downright sadistic drug laws that Democrats (Keillor mentions) didn't have the balls to oppose. He doesn't take aim at all Republicans—he has admiring words for Teddy Roosevelt and Alan Simpson, and goes out of his way to point out Nixon's virtues ("the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor"). Instead, he saves his contempt for the Rovean strain of right-wingery now ascendant, the screechers who, crazed with fear and loathing of the different and a pathological sense of entitlement, outshouted (perhaps once and for all) the tolerant, genteel, chamber-of-commerce conservatism of Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and Gerald Ford. Keillor's main thesis is that, anti- gummint hot air to the contrary, there really is such a thing as a civic common good, and Democrats are the party keeping that banner aloft. In the book's most telling anecdote, he compares the city-run paramedic team in his hometown of St. Paul, which can reach a house in four minutes, to the privatized service in the gated-community suburbs, which takes dangerously longer. (Do we possibly sense natural selection restoring an ironic Darwinian balance? Remember how dangerous those luxury SUVs are, too. Even if red-staters do have a higher birthrate, everything will come out even.) The book's an acid-edged valentine to the sort of pull- together populism that the right scorns in favor of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. Homegrown also makes one think of reconciling the "two Americas" of John Edwards—who, whether he's running for the White House in '08 or '12, might well find his next speechwriter in Lake Wobegon.

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