Why the twain is unlikely to meet

If you are a subscriber of the New York Times, you may read this, from native Iowan Robert Leonard:

One recent morning, I sat near two young men at a coffee shop here whom I’ve known since they were little boys. Now about 18, they pushed away from the table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” The other nodded.

They’re hard workers. As a kid, one washed dishes, took orders and swept the floor at a restaurant. Every summer, the other picked sweet corn by hand at dawn for a farm stand and for grocery stores, and then went to work all day on his parents’ farm. Now one is a welder, and the other is in his first year at a state university on an academic scholarship. They are conservative, believe in hard work, family, the military and cops, and they know that abortion and socialism are evil, that Jesus Christ is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be good for America.

They are part of a growing movement in rural America that immerses many young people in a culture — not just conservative news outlets but also home and church environments — that emphasizes contemporary conservative values. It views liberals as loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.

Who are these rural, red-county people who brought Mr. Trump into power? I’m a native Iowan and reporter in rural Marion County, Iowa. I consider myself fairly liberal. My family has mostly voted Democratic since long before I was born. To be honest, for years, even I have struggled to understand how these conservative friends and neighbors I respect — and at times admire — can think so differently from me, not to mention how over 60 percent of voters in my county could have chosen Mr. Trump.

Political analysts have talked about how ignorance, racism, sexism, nationalism, Islamophobia, economic disenfranchisement and the decline of the middle class contributed to the popularity of Mr. Trump in rural America. But this misses the deeper cultural factors that shape the thinking of the conservatives who live here.

For me, it took a 2015 pre-caucus stop in Pella by J. C. Watts, a Baptist minister raised in the small town of Eufaula, Okla., who was a Republican congressman from 1995 to 2003, to begin to understand my neighbors — and most likely other rural Americans as well.

“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.

“We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn — born again.”

He continued: “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.”

Mr. Watts talked about the 2015 movie theater shooting in Lafayette, La., in which two people were killed. Mr. Watts said that Republicans knew that the gunman was a bad man, doing a bad thing. Democrats, he added, “would look for other causes — that the man was basically good, but that it was the guns, society or some other place where the blame lies and then they will want to control the guns, or something else — not the man.” Republicans, he said, don’t need to look anywhere else for the blame.

Hearing Mr. Watts was an epiphany for me. For the first time I had a glimpse of where many of my conservative friends and neighbors were coming from. I thought, no wonder Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on things like gun control, regulations or the value of social programs. We live in different philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles.

In high school I read Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” for an English class, including such optimism as:

“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

I’ve never been part of that faith tradition. Had you asked me 35 years ago I might have answered that people are basically good, as Anne Frank claimed before she died in her Nazi concentration camp. Perhaps in part because of my line of work, I’m more likely to say that people are inherently bad than inherently good. But whether one or the other is correct, people are only their own choices away from being good or bad. That appears to be something liberals refuse to admit, and something on which compromise really can’t take place.

Watts’ view is one option. Another is the Progressive Era opinion that man is perfectible. That is false doctrine. Man’s basic nature has not changed in, depending on whether you believe in evolution or not, thousands or millions of years, and it’s not changing based on some government program the self-styled successors of Fighting Bob La Follette might devlse.

Whichever view you adhere to, people are only their own choices away from being good or bad. That appears to be something liberals refuse to admit, and something on which compromise really can’t take place.

 

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