I live solidly in “Blue” to-its-core Venice, Calif., a neighborhood so left-wing that anyone spotted in a Bush button is more likely to be a costumed trick-or-treater than an actual GOP voter.
As a political and journalistic experiment, I decided to see how people who live in primarily one-party areas would react when faced with a living, breathing member of the opposition. I appointed myself an ambassador to bridge the Red-Blue divide and ventured into each side’s territory dressed in the T-shirt, campaign button, and tote bag of the other. (A baseball cap, I decided, pushed the ensemble one step over the line, making me look a raving nut about to start yelling obscenities.)
For four days, I wandered Republican areas in a Kerry-Edwards shirt and button and loitered in the heart of Democratic country in styles by Bush-Cheney ‘04. I treated each foray as a run-of-the-mill busy day—visiting malls, stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. I didn’t try to provoke the opposition; I simply lived an active consumer’s life while dressed in a great big Bush or Kerry T-shirt. I avoided any specifically political place, such as campaign headquarters, and any venue where politics would likely be discussed, such as churches or bookstores. The idea was not to see how people would deal with overt opposition but how the mere existence of a political opponent would be tolerated. And so, campaign logo on my chest, and no small amount of mortal terror in my heart, I sallied forth to see if political freedom would pass the T-shirt test in our two Americas, Red and Blue.
My journey to Red America carries me to the antipodes of today’s Republicanism. I first visit Newport Beach, Orange County’s last bastion of wealthy white country-club Republicans (population, 70,032; 94 percent white; 61.6 percent registered Republican; median household income $111,166). I then travel to Bakersfield, the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley two hours northeast of Los Angeles (population 247,057; 69 percent white and 29.4 percent Hispanic; 49.2 percent registered Republican; median household income $39,468). To give you a sense of the lion’s den I was entering: In 2000, Bakersfield voted 60.8 percent Republican versus 41 percent statewide.
In my Kerry-Edwards shirt, I enter Red America certain that I am on the verge of inciting to rage a gang of angry yachtsmen who would soon be strapping me and my lefty leisurewear to their mizzenmast. Instead, I encounter only shades of indifference—head shaking, “crazy idiot” expressions from older, very wealthy, very white folks in Newport Beach; terse nods from the middle- to working-class citizens of Bakersfield, which seem to indicate that people here have much bigger things to worry about than whatever is on my stupid T-shirt. In Bakersfield, surprisingly, there’s little indication that we are near the eve of an election: I see a total of two campaign bumper stickers, one for Bush and one Kerry, and one elderly lady with a huge Bush button pinned to the jacket of her pantsuit. Despite a recent visit from Dick Cheney, presidential politics seems to have bypassed Bakersfield, and the locals are not about to let a mere T-shirt drag them into the muck.
Toward the end of the day, I find one person on whom the election has a deep hold. Strolling past a sunglasses booth in the mall, I am spotted by a tall and exceedingly thin man in his early 20s, with a buzz cut that makes him look ominously like a shock-therapy patient. As I walk by, he fixates on my shirt and begins to follow me, seemingly mesmerized by the power of my Kerry-Edwards logo. I look back and see him trailing behind me, mouth agape, his eyes glued to my back. Whether the shirt identifies me as his leader or whether it is his Manchurian Candidate-like signal to kill, I can’t tell. I duck into the mall’s Starbucks and the spell seems to break; he turns and wanders away.
In Los Angeles’ gentrifying-as-fast-as-we-can Hipstervill—aka the Silverlake/Los Feliz area on the city’s eastside—there are more coffeehouses and alternative bookstores than churches. Here, aging, unemployed bohemians with long, matted hair, tinted sunglasses, and affectedly dour expressions skulk along the midafternoon streets as though they have just rolled out of bed. (They probably have.)
Dressed to impress in my Bush-Cheney T-shirt, tote bag, and “W.” button, I first stop at Silverlake’s Über-cafe, the Coffee Table. “The Table,” as it is known, is the daytime HQ for the area’s writing community—the bed-headed brigades of aspiring indie auteurs who hunch over their laptops, whispering pitches back and forth like state secrets. I stand in line for a soda; my T-shirt first makes contact with the locals as the server, a rather prim-looking Asian-American man, double-takes at my unabashedly partisan display, his smile freezing into a look I can only describe as bracing for me to pull out an assault weapon and open fire. I order, pay, and walk with my Diet Coke through the restaurant, taking a seat on the patio that puts me and my garb on prominent display for the 20 or so patrons. A wave of distressed glances ripples in my direction, but I remain unmolested. Yet as I finish my soda, two hipsters saunter past. One of them, untucked shirt hanging over his jeans, gapes at my shirt and mutters, “Asshole,” only slightly under his breath.
Next up: Café Tropical, the gritty Cuban coffee house in old Silverlake. I park my Bush-Cheney festooned car behind a Volvo station wagon decorated with a bumper sticker that reads, “Ban war without end. Not in our name.” I order an iced espresso and sit beneath a collage of Che Guevara photos. Customers accessorize their coffees at the condiment station in front of me. Suddenly I look up to see Latino man, who appears to be in his early 40s, rushing toward me, an enormous grin on his face. “Where do you get that shirt?” he demands. He continues: “I know only three Republicans here. Everyone else loves Kerry. The Spanish language TV is so filled with bias. They don’t tell you that Mr. Bush is a gentleman.” People standing nearby watch our summit with anguished there-goes-the-neighborhood expressions. As my new friend leaves, he stands at the front door and, raising his fist, yells, “Viva Bush!” Spasms of horror seize the store and pulse out to the community beyond.
Slinking away, I stroll down Irony Row; a two-block stretch of Sunset Blvd. filled with boutiques peddling vintage 1970s lunch boxes, summer-camp T-shirts, and baby-doll dresses for grown women. So steeped are its denizens in the culture of irony that almost everyone thinks my shirt is a hilarious joke. As I browse through the Vice magazine store, a pair of girls giggles at me. One of them comments, “I’ve never seen that one before.” A 40ish man dressed in cargo shorts, flamboyant sunglasses, and a Lance Armstrong bracelet sees my shirt and bursts out laughing. “Way to go, man!” he says, giving me a thumbs up. Then, as I walk into a wacky gift shop, I hear a shriek. The woman behind the counter throws up her hands in mock horror, “Oh no! Bush-Cheney! In Silverlake!” she cackles, feigning horror at my hilarious costume, as if humoring a child on Halloween.
On Vermont Avenue, irony fades into gentrification. A fashionably dressed woman seated at a sidewalk table makes a disgusted face at the sight of me. On line at Psychobabble coffee house, another woman in a blue velour tracksuit rolls her eyes and grimaces at me with undisguised hatred. Realizing there are no seats but the one next to me, she stares intently into her cup, avoiding my polluting glance, until another table opens and she quickly relocates. Out on the avenue once again, I am gifted with my second “Asshole” of the day, this time muttered by a young man with bright dyed raspberry hair.
The next day, I head to Brentwood, the lush epicenter of modern limousine liberalism and the hillside home of left-leaning Hollywood. This is where activists like Norman Lear and Laurie David live; a few months in residence here and Arianna Huffington dropped Newt Gingrich like a hot tamale to become a paragon of “progressive” politics.
I enter the faux-rustic Brentwood Country Mart, a collection of shops intended to look like an olde-time barnyard. On the central patio, I pass a woman who looks up from her gaggle of children to see me passing and exclaims, “Ick! God!” A group of teen skater boys waiting on line to buy the Mart’s famed “Chicken Basket” discuss whether Bush will be removed from office by the time they turn 18, thus saving them from the draft. I sit down to eat. Dining nearby is a young girl who looks to be about 6 years old; she gazes at my shirt with a look so forlorn, I expect to learn that Dick Cheney just stole her crayons. Her mother arrives and gives her a hug of consolation. The girl starts to talk, but I can only make out “Bush shirt,” which she says to her mother as she points my way. The mother turns and glares, shaking her head at me. I start to wonder what sort of person I am to inflict this on a poor child.
Up in the San Vicente shopping area, things go even less smoothly. At the first intersection, an older man in the weekend wear of the very prosperous passes me and yells, “Bush-Cheney?!?” as though demanding an explanation. At the Coral Tree Organic Café, a willowy, bookish woman seated alone glares at me from across the room. When I smile and wave to her, she puts on her sunglasses.
Driving home, I rip off my Bush-Cheney shirt so I can walk the streets of my neighborhood unjeered at and without terrifying little children. Reflecting on the sting of being called “asshole” during my travels through Blue America, I wonder: If I were truly a Bush supporter, how long would I be able to endure a life filled with epithets before I gave up on the shirt? Changing into a nonpartisan brown Gap polo, I breathe a sigh of relief that I will never have to find out.