Been There, Done That

Geography and Demographics Responsible for Red/Blue Divide

By RICK MELLERUP | Dec 06, 2017

When I last wrote a “Been There, Done That” column, I was telling the story of 10-year-old Ricky Mellerup and his mom, dad and faithful canine companion “Cookie” taking a month-long camping trip across the country in the summer of 1965.

I left you after zooming in on a small part of the journey – back-to-back visits to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana and Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Now I’m going to take a wide-angle look at the entire trip.

A panoramic view is necessary to understand the U.S. because it is huge. At 3.797 million square miles, ours is the third largest country in the world, behind only Russia and Canada. Even if the giant state of Alaska and the island paradise of Hawaii were to be removed from the equation, the U.S. mainland would still check in at 3,119,885 square miles, making it the fifth largest country on the globe, behind the aforementioned nations along with China and Brazil.

Such numbers, though, are exactly that, numbers, and numbers so large they are barely comprehensible. To have the size of this country truly sink in, you must take a long road trip. You must, as the ancient TV jingle said, “see the USA in your Chevrolet.”

You’d be in for many a mind-blowing sight if you traveled cross-country, especially if you stayed off the interstate system as much as possible and instead explored the land on two-lane highways. That was no problem for little Ricky Mellerup and Co. in 1965, considering the interstate system was in its early stages, so massive gaps existed, especially west of the Mississippi. It slowed us down, to be sure, but gave us a much more authentic experience than a person insisting on reaching California as quickly as possible.

Oh, what wonders we saw, both natural and man-made! We drove through the Ozarks in the pre-Branson days, on the lookout for hillbillies. We visited the Grand Canyon, Redwood National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, the incredible if little known Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana and the aforementioned Little Bighorn and Mount Rushmore. Thanks to my uncle being in the Navy, we got to tour the sprawling Navy Base San Diego. I’ll never forget my first trip across the stunning Golden Gate Bridge or taking in one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, Seattle, flanked by the waters of Puget Sound on one side and the snow-covered Mt. Rainier on another. The huge Grand Coulee Dam, the largest hydroelectric plant in the U.S. even if not as famous as the Hoover Dam, was especially impressive.

No doubt about it, there is much that is amazing in our beautiful country, from sea to shining sea.

It was the mundane, however, that is probably most memorable. The hundreds of miles of corn we saw in Iowa; the hundreds of miles of timber we drove through in Oregon and Washington. West Texas, which we traversed at night, was seemingly populated by nothing but armadillos, which scooted across the road in front of us like possums do on Route 9 in Eagleswood. Indeed, West Texas was so vast, and – I’m risking my life here if I ever return to the Lone Star State – so barren and ugly that it is easy to imagine it being the site of a fake moon landing.

It is that spectacular emptiness that is in part responsible for the red state/blue state divisions in this country.

Take gun control. In most of New Jersey, police will be at your door in just a few minutes if you report hearing a burglar rummaging around your downstairs in the middle of the night. In many parts of the Great Plains or mountain states or Texas, the nearest police officer may be 45 minutes away. Don’t you think you’d want to have a firearm in your house? Just think of the Cutter family, brutally murdered at their Kansas farm and made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Take resentment of a vast federal government bureaucracy. If you’re a rancher in the great West, why shouldn’t your cattle be allowed to graze on an open range? What are you saving the grass for, the giant jackrabbits, which, as I mentioned in my last column, are seemingly as big as Garden State whitetail does?

Take something as routine as speed limits. Folks in Texas, which has a 40-mile stretch of road between Austin and San Antonio with an 85 mph limit today, or in Montana, which has a ranch with many more acres than Ocean County, probably weren’t very happy when Richard Nixon signed a bill into law on Jan. 2, 1974, establishing a 55 mph limit across the country to conserve fuel. If that law had been enforced in Texas or Montana or Wyoming, and I suspect it wasn’t, where motorists routinely do 90 on almost-empty roads, an hour’s drive into town would have become an hour-and-a-half-or-more pain in the butt. On the other hand, speed limits should probably be more strictly enforced on the Garden State Parkway, where drivers think they’re NASCAR racers, not realizing their cars – and ours! – are not equipped with practically impregnable cockpits.

Take taxes, especially. The current GOP tax reform plan in the Senate would strip people in high-tax states such as New York, California and New Jersey of the ability to deduct state and local taxes, including some property taxes, the biggest tax bite for most Garden State residents. Red-Staters argue that residents of high-tax states shouldn’t get a break they can’t, considering their homes, on the average, are much less costly and much less taxed than those on the coasts. Get your houses in order, they rave; elect state and local politicians who will cut blue state taxes!

As ex-President Obama used to say, “Come on, man!” Populated states such as New Jersey need far more services than a Kansas or Wyoming, the latter, though geographically huge, having a smaller population than Ocean County. Populated states have more roads, more bridges and tunnels, more mass transit, more schools, more garbage collection (in many localities in the hinterland you have to take your own garbage to a dump), more police officers, more prisoners, more just about everything. Of course their taxes are higher.

The fact is that even in the reddest of states, the residents of larger cities tend to vote for Democrats. They need services.

On the other hand, rural residents get hardly any government services. They really don’t need as many. Thus their taxes are lower at the state and local level.

Oh yes, a cross-country road trip should be almost a requirement for voting in the U.S. for both blue staters and red staters. Only then can you understand both sides.

Look for another “Been There, Done That” column in the coming weeks that will close out my little Ricky Mellerup family vacation trilogy. In it I will talk about a couple of things that I saw that month that foreshadowed the future. In one case, it was something that affected the immediate, in the next-10-years future that launched this country into its most divided stage since the Civil War. In the second, it was something that I fear will lead to even more division in the next 10 years.

If you think you have seen disaffected red state residents, you ain’t seen nothing yet!


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