POSTED ON FEBRUARY 23, 2011:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Republican Galaxy
A how-to on the best ways for liberals to overcome their blues in a red state
Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
Have you tried chicken noodle soup?
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
As far as Oklahoma liberals and progressives are concerned, these trusted home remedies might assuage the common cold -- but they can't begin to conquer a political pandemic sweeping the state's 77 counties.
It's an especially virulent strain of something called the Red State Blues, a malady afflicting almost everyone who views the world from a left-of-center political philosophy.
Among the symptoms:
• An ever-present despair that Oklahoma, once regarded among the most populist and progressive states, is now one of the most regressive, careening into another century -- the 19th century.
• A frequent impulse to pull up stakes and depart the land you love, relocating to the west or New England, perhaps even to Canada where universal health care is the norm and the nation's treasure isn't being squandered by an incessant war culture.
• A growing fear that angry political rhetoric, blatant racism and religious intolerance will encourage even more of those teetering on reality's edge to become the next Timothy McVeigh or Jared Lee Loughner.
Eight years ago Democrats controlled both houses of the state Legislature. The governor and nearly all other statewide elected officials were Ds. As the second decade of the 21st century dawned, every statewide elected official was a Republican. So were 70 of the 101 state House members and 32 of the 48 state senators.
"How does it feel to be a blue person in a red state?" muses Dr. Barbara Santee, one of Tulsa's -- and Oklahoma's -- leading liberals. "It makes me purple with rage!"
Or as state Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, put it, "It's one of these melancholy things. You can cry in your beer, and that's what we're going to be doing for a while."
Less than a century ago, Oklahoma was known as a hotbed of the populist-progressive movement, embracing politics so radical, so anti-corporate, so anti-establishment, so pro-little guy that it's almost incomprehensible when compared to 2011.
It was a world that spawned Woody Guthrie and his power-to-the-people ballads and Will Rogers and his homespun, plainspoken gift of deflating the pompous and powerful.
Oklahoma's transformation from a solidly Democratic state -- though hardly a "liberal" Democratic state in a California or Massachusetts sense -- to rock-ribbed Republican began more than a half century ago.
Then U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr, so powerful in Washington that he was widely revered as the Uncrowned King of the Senate, predicted that Oklahoma one day would be solidly Republican. How, he was asked. "The Daily Oklahoman and the Southern Baptist Church," he replied.
Kerr didn't live long enough to see it, but he was prescient: the last time a Democratic presidential nominee carried Oklahoma was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Two years ago, Democrat Barack Obama failed to carry a single county -- including in southeastern Oklahoma's Little Dixie, a region historically known as so rabidly Democratic that most folks would sooner vote for a "yellow dog" than a Republican.
Not anymore. As the GOP solidified its grip on the state Legislature in last November's elections, it knocked off sitting Democrats -- think Sen. Jay Paul Gumm in Durant and Rep. Glen Bud Smithson in Sallisaw -- and picked up open seats across the region.
Today, Oklahoma is as reliably red, corporatist Republican as any state in the union -- one of the 10 most conservative in a recent Gallup Poll.
Not only do Republicans dominate state government, but they also control four of the state's five congressional seats. The lone Democrat, Dan Boren, is renowned as a conservative Blue Dog whose campaign signs last year touted his endorsement by the ultra-conservative National Rifle Association.
Moreover, the state's two U.S. senators, Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, are conservative icons, ever present in media worldwide with the most extreme, incendiary commentary, whether involving the environment, religion, homosexuality or immigration.
When Enid attorney Norman Lamb was first elected to the state Senate in 1971, he was a member of a Republican caucus that numbered in the single digits -- so small, the joke went, they could meet in a telephone booth.
Lamb, who served 18 years in the Legislature's upper chamber, said that "never in my wildest dreams" did he think Republicans could dominate as they do today. "Who'd have thunk it?"
Liberals now know what it must have felt like to be a Republican in Oklahoma for much of the 20th century. A SoonerPoll last year found that fewer than 13 percent of the state's likely voters identified themselves as "very liberal" or "somewhat liberal." In addition, 31 percent of those surveyed called themselves "moderate." About half the respondents identified themselves as "somewhat conservative" or "very conservative."
It's also small consolation that, historically, the pendulum swings continuously in American politics, ushering in Democratic control for a season, then Republican majorities. What today's Oklahoma liberals are trying to do is survive, focused for now on enduring what will be at least two years (before the next election) of total GOP statehouse control -- and probably much more.
So what are political progressives to do? They may view themselves as liberals or progressives, but they differ widely on what they would include in an official red state guidebook.
One antidote, former Gov. David Walters said, is to "amuse yourself with the policy inconsistencies of our new Tea Party Republican leaders" -- or TeaReps.
Among their classics: "attacking ObamaCare and then announcing new Blue Cross jobs from the expected onslaught of new insured Oklahomans; attacking the federal stimulus and then walking around with those giant grant checks at ground breakings; attacking their own leaders (such as House Speaker Kris Steele) when it is suggested that they should tackle serious issues; howling about tax-and-spend when, in fact, the rebirth of Oklahoma City was entirely tax-and-spend (the MAPS programs)."
Walters also recommends focusing on the fact "that Oklahoma is a very small place in a great big world. Look beyond our boundaries to the magnificent innovations taking place in education, health care and economic development in other states and countries."
How? Subscribe to the Economist -- "read it cover to cover" and cancel subscriptions to the state's two largest newspapers, the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman. Moreover, turn off local TV news, choosing instead Jon Stewart's The Daily Show or The Colbert Report -- "Oklahoma still will be on their shows frequently."
Walters further suggests investing in "TeaRep-inspired businesses," such as "granite monument companies that specialize in The Ten Commandments, gun companies and gun show promoters, for-profit emergency clinics that specialize in gun shots, remedial education and reading programs, private prisons and children's methamphetamine addiction programs."
Tulsa attorney Doug Dodd's guidebook includes all seven seasons of The West Wing -- which he actually owns and watches frequently, often when eating lunch at his desk.
"It just gives me warm fuzzy feelings," he said. "It makes me think there is life beyond the reddest state in America.
"It's really interesting to look back at these broadcasts from late '90s and early 2000s and they're talking about exactly the same issues we're talking about right now: gays in the military, Don't Ask Don't Tell, health care, deficits and, of course, that was back when it was the boom bubble."
Fran Morris, a well-known child advocate who hosted a long-running children's television show in Oklahoma City, said she quit watching local TV news in order to avoid "much of the negative stuff" -- relying now on the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority's coverage of state news or CNN. And she, too, relishes her daily doses of Jon Stewart.
"Laughter, young children, romance, meaningful work, music and movies that turn me on -- all distractions, yes, but not denial (of which I've been accused), just survival," she said. "We who survived Nixon know we can survive the Tea Party. We who survived Keating know we can survive Fallin. So I try to stay away from the "ain't it awful" folks as well as the "ain't it wonderful" ones. It's just better for my blood pressure."
Former state Rep. Ryan Kiesel of Seminole has turned to the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" for solace, comfort and insight -- "that's provided some rich commentary that I think is fitting even a century after it was dictated by Samuel Clemens."
The Bar at the End of the Universe
Others think it might be time for a little old-fashioned self-medicating.
"I'd get an electric blanket and stay in out of the cold," said Sen. Wilson said. "I think Tequila's a good idea. To hell with the worms. Just drink it all."
The first thing that comes to Dr. Santee's mind? "Prozac. That's all I can think of is Prozac -- or a good bottle of Jim Beam. I don't know which."
They're joking, of course, but their dismay over Oklahoma's hard-right political turn is anything but a laughing matter.
"Am I beaten down? The answer's yes," said Santee, who's particularly troubled by what she sees -- especially as a pro-choice activist -- as the conservative movement's demonizing of those with differing opinions.
"This element in the Republican Party is accustomed to thinking things in black and white, evil and good, I'm with God and you're not," she said. "So there is a schism there that I think is almost impossible to cross, because once you've labeled your opponents as 'liberal' they have no morality -- they're basically doing things for nefarious reasons.
"I think that's totally impacted our whole legislative interaction with each other. People get really vicious about the other side ... People won't listen to reason. Reason can't argue with religion. The two are almost incompatible."
Kiesel, a former three-term state representative who opted not to seek re-election last year, suggests liberals are often their own worst enemies, often declining to speak up "out of fear you might offend someone."
"Liberals by our very nature are open-minded," he said. "A liberal is someone who will argue with himself and convince himself his original proposition was wrong. That open mindedness is a good thing. But that shouldn't stop us from speaking up whether at coffee shop, barbershop or supermarket.
"When you're approached by someone trying to engage you in political conversation or political matter, give your opinion. What is wrong with having a civil debate about the issues of the day? Right now there's a real vacuum of liberal thought in that civil discourse."
As Kiesel sees it, the "standard of polite society has been discarded by the right. Those left in the middle and maybe even further to the left have found that the only conversation that's being had is for the most part void of their political perspective. For them that's not that big a deal. They have their minds made up. They know the candidates they will support. They know the ideas important to them. But for the undecided, if they don't hear from other voices, then it becomes accepted -- it's the overwhelming attitude of the electorate when it's really not."
Dodd said he always considered himself a moderate politically, but "I've been made a liberal by the (state's) shift to the hard right." It wasn't easy watching his party suffer in last fall's elections, but he said he's willing to let his GOP friends crow -- for the moment.
"You don't give up your principles, but you understand there will be another swing," he said, describing the history of American politics as a "pendulum" that eventually will swing back his way. "There will be another opportunity. Democrats have to be ready for it."
And Dodd believes it may happen sooner, rather than later because an unsettled electorate -- concerned especially about jobs, the economy, health care and war -- are increasingly impatient with their elected officials. Consider: Democrats regained control of the Congress in 2006 and recaptured the presidency in 2008, but were pummeled in 2010, losing their majority in the House.
"No longer do you have a couple of terms to work it out," he said. "People are going to demand what they want and they're going to want to see action quickly.
"I suppose I feel some sympathy -- not a lot -- for Republicans in the Legislature and the governor's office. In some instances they're sort of like the dog that caught the car. What do I do with it now? It's going to be very difficult."
Lamb, the former longtime GOP senator whose son, Todd, now serves as Oklahoma's lieutenant governor, has advice for liberals and progressives -- and a warning for his fellow Republicans: "Very few organizations, very few coaches, very few individuals, very few politicians, very few business leaders can stand prosperity."
Meaning? Just as Democrats who dominated for so long got fat-and-sassy, setting themselves up for defeat, Republicans have to guard against overconfidence.
"Guess what?," he said. "There's a thing called upsets. It's can darn sure happen. The voters are very demanding. There's a lot of 'I know what you did for me yesterday -- you did a good job -- but what have you done for me today?
"There's a history that voters correct their mistakes pretty quickly."
Lamb said a secret to Republican success was strong, persistent leadership and organization that stretched over decades: "It happened so slowly and so methodically. It was not a revolution, per se."
And to survive -- and succeed -- as a member of a distinct legislative minority, Lamb said, it's important to "build friendships," especially "to have any hope of getting any legislation passed. Some days you're at the mercy of an overwhelming majority, other days you're a victim of hard-core politics and other days you may be given a crumb.
"Nothing is as crazy as the political winds ... Things change. Things shift. Be careful. Never say never. Political temperatures change."
In conversations with liberals and progressives across Oklahoma, it's not uncommon to hear musing about whether it's time to depart this ultra-conservative state for a more politically progressive clime. It's also not uncommon to hear conservative Republicans wishing a bon voyage -- the equivalent of "don't let the door hit you where God split you."
"I told someone just the other night that when I retire in a couple of years, my wife and I just might move to Vermont," said Sen. Wilson.
Asked why, Wilson replied: "Because they've got the best health indicators."
"But there are too many liberals (in Vermont)," the man replied.
"That's probably why they have the best health care indicators," Wilson said.
Take heart, Oklahoma liberals. You are not alone in your suffering. I received this e-mail recently from a kindred spirit in Northwest Kansas, asking if I had heard his state's new legislative motto: At least we ain't Oklahoma -- yet.
"Survivors kit?" he wrote. "Plenty of Tequila. Rural Kansans are going to get bent over the table, with their pants around their ankles. Schools will close wholesale, as the funding is stopped, and will have to be put on property tax rolls, which will make them unaffordable in small towns.
"But those dumb asses vote in favor of (Gov. Sam) Brownback and all Republicans."
He then added: "The well-placed 'yet' was on purpose."
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