At first, there was something comforting in the predictability of the evening’s conversation. At Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss., last Wednesday, within the space of perhaps five minutes, I was twice told that “the media” are too liberal. (Once was by my father-in-law, a Sarah Palin admirer, who delights in Bill O’Reilly’s occasional volleys against NEWSWEEK.) With the possible exception of South Carolina, Mississippi has been the most reliably conservative state in the country since Fielding Wright, the state’s governor, ran as Strom Thurmond’s vice president on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948. It is tempting to paint the scene at Doe’s as something you would expect in an unreconstructed red-state redoubt, and then perhaps contrast the gathering in the Delta with the president’s prime-time press conference as images of parallel worlds that will never intersect.
But that narrative, however appealing in its familiarity, feels at once glib and antique. I am not going to argue that the 2008 election has put Mississippi in play; the state George Wallace carried has so successfully channeled the politics of race into the politics of small government (but don’t touch those agricultural subsidies or the shipbuilding contracts on the gulf) that we will most likely grow old in a nation in which Mississippi is a fully owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
That, at least, is a view from Doe’s. I have been in the South for several weeks now and have been struck, mostly in passing conversations, by the dearth of ideological cable cant. Conservatives beyond the media axis seem more open to pragmatism and realism both on tactics and policy issues. Democrats are not mindlessly ebullient about being in power: the pragmatic ones among them appear to understand that this is not 1933 or 1965.
As the major legislative struggles begin to unfold, both sides have a chance to win capital with the vast, unorganized, but no less real party of pragmatists in the great American middle. In Washington, the Republicans cannot pretend that there are no problems government can help solve. The Democrats cannot fail to compromise, and should acknowledge that anxieties about taxes and an expanding government are not hysterical but real and well founded. Purists of the right and of the left will recoil at such talk, but dinner at Doe’s suggests that more people are thinking practically rather than ideologically, and sometimes common sense can lead to uncommon wisdom. And then everyone can get back to bashing the liberal media, an old reflex all its own.