The “Hastert’ and “Hastertland” Paragraphs from Wooldridge and Micklethwaite’s “The Right Nation”

The Right Nation: Why America is Different, by Adrian Wooldridge, John Micklethwait:

Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker… a hulking former wrestling coach, is a fairly straightforward conservative: antiabortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-Kyoto, pro-invading Iraq, pro-death penalty…. Hastert got a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in the days when he voted regularly….
Compared with other “red” districts, Hastert’s (Illinois’s fourteenth) is deep scarlet. It begins in the suburbs thirty miles west of the Chicago Loop and then stretches out through miles of cornfields to a point just forty miles short of the Iowa border. To drive across it takes a good three hours. Hastert’s district can claim to be the most Republican in the country, at least if you factor in length of loyalty to the party Unlike nouveaux droites such as Texas, Illinois has been full of Republicans since the party’s founding in 1854…. Hastert’s district is resolutely “normal.” The local citizens think of themselves as typical Americans, and their geographical vision is often bounded by the Great Plains that surround them.
The most important difference lies in attitudes to growth…. Hastert’s flat, boring district is in love with growth. New houses march like a vast army resolutely westward across the Great Plains from Chicagoland to rural towns such as Yorkville (where Hastert was a teacher) and even to Dixon (where Reagan spent much of his boyhood). And behind the houses are all the accoutrements of suburban boom time, particularly huge schools and “mega” shopping malls. The high school where Hastert once taught has doubled in size since he entered politics in 1980. The main roads are lined by row upon row of shopping malls, each one of them filled with superstores that seem to be bent on testing the principle of economies of scale to the limit.
The second big difference between the two districts lies in the relative importance of family life. Most of the people flocking to Hastert’s district are doing so for one reason: to raise their children. They want space to build big houses — many cover more than four thousand square feet — and freedom from the downside of urban life, particularly crime. In upmarket St. Charles, 85 percent of the residents own their own homes; even in meat-and-potatoes Elgin, home ownership stands at 70 percent to 75 percent….
Hastert’s [district] is as resolutely middle class as it is cheerfully middle American. A few senior executives live in multimillion-dollar houses and send their children to private schools, but most people belong to the vast American middle class. They shop in the same giant shopping malls, eat in the same chain restaurants (such as Chili’s and IHOP) and send their children to the same giant public schools. Sue Klinkhamer, the mayor of St. Charles, points out that her local school district is so big that fairly modest people can send their children to the same schools as millionaires….
The contrast between middle-class Illinois and aristocratic San Francisco extends to their representatives. Hastert taught history and politics and coached wrestling at Yorkville High School for sixteen years (and his wife, Jean, taught physical education there for thirty-six years). He is passionate about old cars, sports and farming….
Hastert’s district is a place where even Democrats profess affection for George Bush…. Hastert’s constituents will turn up for the occasional rally to, say, commemorate September 11, and plenty of them are angry about the high level of property taxes, but they don’t obsess about politics. The people who look after Hastert’s two-hundred-acre farm while he is away have so far refused all his invitations to make their first visit to Washington, D.C. Yet local politics seem to work pretty well: the streets are clean; the schools are successful. The mayors of blue-collar Aurora and Elgin have done a great deal to regenerate their cities….
Hastert’s slice of the Right Nation does not have the same fire-and-brimstone feel as, say, Sugarland, Texas (where his sidekick, Tom DeLay, rules the roost), but religion matters. New churches are being built, old ones expanded. In the Chicago suburbs some churches have thousands of members. Out in the sticks some small towns have one bar and seven churches….
Hastert’s district is meticulously well kept and relatively free of urban ills such as vagrancy. Klinkhamer, the mayor of St. Charles, says she recently received a telephone call complaining about cobwebs on a local bridge. She had them removed that day….
Looking at “Pelosiville” and “Hastertland,” it is not difficult to see why American politics has shifted to the Right. If American politics is a seesaw, it is an unevenly balanced one. Imagine Dennis Hastert at one end of the seesaw and Nancy Pelosi on the other end, and you have some idea about which party is sitting with its legs dangling in the air. In the war between the two Americas, Hastertland has been winning….
As Hastertland amply illustrates, private property has become ever more widespread: ever more Americans own their homes and, thanks to suburbanization, the size of those homes has doubled since the 1950s. Compared with their peers overseas, Americans have much more control over their educations, medical spending, retirement plans and investments than their contemporaries abroad. Government spending may be increasing; but so too is the capacity of American conservatives to opt out of the state: witness the growth of homeschooling or of secessionist planned communities….
Clinton, the most talented Democratic politician of his generation, ended up governing like an Eisenhower Republican; and why his wife, if she ever gets the chance, will probably end up doing the same thing. This victory is reflected in Hastertland and Pelosiville…. The national picture, where polls show suburbanites preferring Republican policies by margins of around fifteen points, is replicated in Hastertland. Some soccer moms may dislike Hastert’s “Southern” views on abortion, and some businesspeople may rail about the Bush deficit. But most voters rally to the Republican message of low taxes, tough sentences for criminals, strong families and a hard-hitting approach to national security. And once again, it is important not to be mesmerized by party labels. While Hastertland will embrace the odd Democrat who adjusts his or her message to the priorities of people who own their own homes and go to church every Sunday, it is hard to see it ever being lured back to the old-style “European liberalism” that the San Francisco branch of the Democratic Party stands for. The flat land of McMansions, malls and megachurches is not going to start yearning for bigger government, sending its sympathies to the French consulate, tolerating an invasion of sturdy beggars or doing any of the other things that San Francisco regards as normal….
The more time you spend in the Right Nation, the more you are struck by its sense of certainty. Billy Graham, the man who rescued the young George W. Bush from his dissolute life, once said simply: “I know where I’ve come from. I know why I’m here, and I know where I’m going.” The same confidence resounds from so many of the people we have met in this book — from Dustin and Maura in Colorado Springs to the inhabitants of Hastertland. It sits at the heart of the Right Nation: conservative America is “Right” not just in the sense of being conservative, but also in the sense that it is sure that it is right. That righteousness helps to explain the paradox of the United States that we mentioned in our introduction: why America is often both the most admired country and the most reviled, why it is hailed as a symbol both of success, opportunity and progress and also of intolerance, injustice and inequality. That paradox will endure as long as the Right Nation itself.

Originally published at www.bradford-delong.com.