Faith & Politics / The Long Versions

The Front Lawn and the American Left

One of the things that strikes urban Europeans when they explore Midwest American neighbourhoods is the ubiquity of the front lawn. Between the road and the front door there is always this strange little cloister, often serving little purpose. The Upper Middle dress them up with enclosed porches, statuettes, and annuals. The Redneck stereotype sees somewhat baser ornaments such as discarded equipment and offerings to the street gods. For those of us in-between, it was genuinely just a slice of lawn; a bit of inconvenience when mowing.

But the lawn has a psychological value. It gives the small detached house an artificial prospect, an illusion of grandeur. It frames the entrance to a home, a space over which one welcomes a neighbour or rejects an unwanted salesman. It’s the perfect patch for a yard sale. It is a social space, yet inimically the property of its owner.

The young, urban activists of the American Left – beating to quarters with catchy but dubious titles such as “Black Lives Matter”, “Antifa”, or “Democratic Socialists” – don’t live in a world of lawns. Sure, you get the odd suburban spark, or Midwestern transplant (such as myself). But the flames of leftist protest are better fanned by the sharp, crafted winds that rush between city skyscrapers. The culture of the urban flat has understood the left, and vice versa. The culture of the lawn hasn’t.

Another curiosity for adventuring Europeans is the supreme power of the third sector. From afar, it is the business class that seems to hold America. America is well-known for its long and strong espousal of capitalism, churning out global brands and defining global markets. But this belies the true soul of America.

True, the axis of Silicon Valley and Wall Street occasionally infects the lawns of the American Midwest, and my small home state, Iowa, is a global exporter. But Midwest America fundamentally does not trust big business. The “Washington Outsider” – Obama in ’08, Trump in ’16 – has vast appeal. Of the states that voted for both Obama and Trump, the vast majority were Midwestern (five of six, if you compare 2016 with 2012). Politicians, red or blue, run on a platform of small business interests and localism. It’s a politics of trust, where activists of all parties and none will stand chatting with locals on their front lawns for as long as it takes to sew a seed of change on a hotly contested street.

Former President George Bush was not a populist, but he had a populist streak when it came to localism. He liked being the guy of the little guy, and in the midst of the global financial crisis, he was more keen on defending social capitalism than the worst excesses of Wal Street. Though a Republican, he was not shy of government spending (few pundits seem to recognise that over their respective 8 years, government grew more sharply under Bush than under Obama). But more critically, he had deep appreciation and support for the third sector. He recognised that most of the support for America’s vast rural infrastructure came from local government, local charities, civic action, and the like. He believed in subsidiarity.

After him, Obama, though inciting controversy with Obamacare and other centralising legislation, didn’t struggle on the front lawn. Obama campaigners readily tell you about racist comments or off-the-wall paranoia, but he kept Democrat activists inspired and welcome across the Midwest. He’s a Chicagoan, after all, and never anything but calm, collected, and professional. You can hate him, but you can still talk to him. And that’s all you need on the front lawn – “relatability”.

Trump, ever the populist, has an aura of relatability. He sounds like a guy you know. No, not at the bar. No, not in the locker room. But “you know what I mean”. He’s that guy who says whatever is at the top of his head. And again, even if you hate him, there’s a certain appeal in this, especially if you fundamentally don’t trust politicians or government.

But most Midwesteners are not extreme libertarians or anarchists. Midwesteners value organisation and expertise. They know the White House is dysfunctional. And this was never more evident than in the Charlotteville conflict and its aftermath, where the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee sparked an alt-right rally, followed by counter-protests from left-wing activists, followed by terrorism and death. It is one thing to have a civic tragedy, but it is another thing to have a tragedy exacerbated by confusing and divisive statements from the White House.

So we shouldn’t be surprised or shocked that the activists of the American left, though nurtured between blocks of concrete, have discovered grass between their toes. They have found a lawn, it is their lawn, and they want someone off it. Specifically, the President, who is in that desperately uncomfortable position of a salesman who has overstayed his welcome before he knew he ever had it.

The midwestern swing voter will smell hypocrisy when the purported ally of “Second Amendment people” starts persecuting a wounded American town for its own civic activism. He might be excused for being sympathetic to the alt-right. But he won’t be excused for going after local communities.

The “get off my lawn” spirit is the same kind of rhetoric that threatens to build a wall through the great lawn of the Mojave while going chasing and erasing swastikas from public life. It’s the rhetoric that puts guns into bedside tables and angry mobs onto the streets. This kind of passionate possessiveness about what it means to be “American” is a new feeling for most left wing activists. MSNBC pundits are suddenly quoting the Constitution. Comedians now complain about the encroaching size of government. Disaffected youth have discovered the power of protest.

The effects can be messy, but the inspiration is sound – one might even say Constitutional. As Jefferson had it, a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.



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