“If I ever hear another elitist jerk use the term flyover people, I’ll punch him in the mouth.”
— John Waters, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
I don’t approve of threats of physical violence. Not even hyperbolic ones. But I absolutely know where John Waters is coming from. And while I don’t intend to punch anyone in the mouth, I completely understand — and share — his anger at this bullshit notion of “flyover country.”
I recently did a speaking tour of the Midwest, promoting my new book. This isn’t new for me: I’ve been doing public speaking for years, and I do it a lot in the Midwest and South. And every time I come home from one of these trips, I bring back a huge suitcase full of respect for people in the Midwest and South — and a hearty desire to say “Fuck You” to anyone who makes snotty remarks about “flyover country” or “flyover people.” Not all progressives do this, of course — but I hear it often enough that I need to say something. Here are five reasons coastal progressives need to permanently purge these phrases from their vocabulary.
1. It’s dehumanizing. Think about what the terms “flyover country” and “flyover people” mean. They say, essentially, that people on the East and West Coasts are worth engaging with — and that people in the Midwest and South are not. They say that people in the Midwest and South are time-consuming annoyances, to be flown past on your way to the important people.
This is dehumanizing. And progressives should not be dehumanizing people. Nobody should be dehumanizing people — and progressives especially are supposed to be fighting for the dignity, equality, and humanity of everyone. It is hypocritical for us to claim to be doing that, while treating hundreds of millions of people as placeholders.
2. It’s classist. One of the distinguishing features of big progressive coastal cities is that they’re often expensive. If someone lives in Columbus or Memphis instead of San Francisco or New York, there’s a reasonable chance that they’re doing it because that’s where they can afford to buy a house, put their kids through college, work for a small business or a non-profit, start a small business or a non-profit, even simply pay rent. Living in San Francisco is becoming increasingly impossible for anyone who isn’t a tech millionaire.
So dismissing people from the Midwest and South, to a great extent, means dismissing people who aren’t rolling in dough. Progressives should really not be doing that. Again — nobody should be doing that, but it’s especially hypocritical when progressives do it.
And of course, the assumption that every decent interesting person would want to live in the big coastal cities if only they could — that’s classist in its own way. Some people don’t like crowds, prefer a slower pace, care more about access to wilderness than access to foofy restaurants. I don’t happen to be one of them myself. Foofy restaurants mean a lot to me. But we need to recognize that a taste for foofy restaurants is not the marker of decency, compassion, or even progressive politics.
3. It enables the right-wing agenda of making citizens feel detached from politics and government. The disengagement with the political process is one of the greatest hurdles facing American progressives. Historically, demographics that skew liberal tend to have lower voter turnout than demographics that skew conservative (with a couple of exceptions, gender being one). If everyone in the United States who could vote, did vote, politics in this country would be radically changed. (The increased voter turnout in 2008 of young people and people of color is widely considered one of the major factors in Obama’s election.)
A lot of factors go into this, of course, including roadblocks to voter registration, voter ID laws, insufficient polling places, cutbacks on voting hours and early voting, and other forms of voter suppression. But voter disengagement, citizens’ sense that government isn’t about them and voting doesn’t make a difference, sure doesn’t help. And getting more people to the ballot box who can vote is one of the ways we can push back against the overt forms of voter suppression — thus getting even more people to vote.
But being dismissed as “flyover people” doesn’t instill folks with a burning desire to get involved in progressive politics. See 1 and 2 above. If we want more Americans to think of government as Us rather than Them, as the way a society pools its resources and makes decisions about those resources rather than as the evil cackling villains lording it over the plebes, we need to not play into the “plebes” narrative ourselves. Voter suppression and discouraging turnout is a major conservative tactic. Let’s not help them.
4. It feeds into the “red state/ blue state” myth, which is inaccurate and hurts progressives. We need to get past the myth of “blue states” and “red states.” It’s crap. When you look at voting maps weighted by population and divided by district or county rather than state, what you see is a whole lot of purple, with liberal voters concentrated in cities and conservatives voters concentrated in rural areas across the country.
This myth hurts progressives. If we’re going to change the politics in the U.S., we need to work harder for change in the blue cities of the red states, and we need to work harder to shift marginal regions from red to blue. And treating the Midwest and South as “flyover country” feeds into this myth — the myth that the Midwest and South are uniformly and hopelessly conservative, and we might as well not bother.
5. It’s just not true. In organized atheism, which is what I’m most familiar with, activists in the Midwest and South are amazing people, and they’re doing amazing work. They’re organizing secular communities, fighting right-wing religious intrusions into public schools, advocating for reproductive rights and other progressive causes, starting humanist soup kitchens, putting out voters’ guides, giving free classes in English as a new language, creating supportive places for people who have left religion. They’re speaking up at city council meetings; they’re running for public office. These folks are amazing: they’re smart, passionate, funny, imaginative, tireless. And they’re doing this work in the places where it’s most needed. Atheist communities actually tend to be stronger in more conservative and more intensely religious regions than they are in more progressive and secular cities — mostly because that’s where they’re most needed.
So if you’re a progressive who’s been talking smack about “flyover country” and “flyover people” — knock it off. If you hear other progressives do this — tell them to knock it off. Yes, there’s hostility and bigotry against coastal progressives, jabs about “the real America” which we’re supposedly not part of. It may be tempting to push back against that with our own snarky putdowns. But we should have moved past “feeling better about ourselves by putting other people down” in high school. It’s not helping. It’s self-defeating. And it’s — what’s the word I’m looking for here? — wrong.