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Flyover Country, Then and Now

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The phrase “flyover country” first made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1980, “59 years after ‘fly-over’ was first used to describe an aircraft passing over a place,” according to this 2016 article from National Geographic. In more recent times, the term has been “sometimes used pejoratively, but more often defensively.”

The pejorative use came first. Flyover states “generally aren’t destinations for travelers or tourists,” explains the Urban Dictionary. Folks looking for good times in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston or Miami Beach slept or read magazines while flying over Nebraska. Alabama and Illinois. As a columnist for the website MetaTalk noted, I can’t read ‘flyover country’ without imagining some amount of dismissiveness, resignation, and even contempt on the part of the writer.”

Flyover states began turning reliably red in the 1968 Presidential election. In the Democratic landslide of 1964, President Johnson had taken them all (except for the Old South). But four years later, there was a complete switch: nearly every state we think of as “flyover country” voted for the Republican, Richard Nixon. That status quo hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama broke into enough of flyover country to win the Electoral College a total of four times, but in 2016 Trump rearranged the red-blue map to make it look more like, say, George W. Bush’s map of 2000.

Why did flyover country go from blue to red? Flyover country is predominantly rural, and rural folks tend to be white, Christian and not as educated as coastal folks. These states, ranging from the Intermountain West to the Great Plains to the Ohio Valley, Upper Midwest and the Old Confederacy, were targeted by Christian born-agains and evangelical politicians like Jerry Falwell heavily starting in the 1970s, when the cultural shift between liberal, “urban” values and the more conservative values of the “heartland” became a major factor in American politics. The Republican Party, sensing an opportunity, seized on that conservatism and steadily went rightward, until it became the social movement—almost a cult—we see today.

But then an interesting thing happened: As Wikileaks noted, the term “flyover country” began to be used “more often defensively” by those living there. They took a phrase that was derogatory to them and, by embracing it, neutralized it. As a writer for the conservative publication “Human Events” noted in 2008 (when Sarah Palin was the vice-presidential nominee), As a lifelong resident of flyover country, I hardly know where to begin to refute [liberal] snobbery. So let’s stop dancing around the subject. The reason these groups [i.e. liberals] feel alienated from the Republican Party is that they are embarrassed by those of us who want to defend innocent human life and traditional marriage. They simply cannot believe that these issues are more important to us than a temporary drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.”

The biggest political question today is whether flyover states will once again turn blue, the way they were in Lyndon Johnson’s time. Nobody knows, but according to this rather pessimistic article, which was written by a recovering evangelical, “Rural, Christian white America will never change.”  The reason is because of the version of Christianity—Biblical inerrancy, anti-intellectual, intensely nationalistic–that has become popular in flyover country. In deep-red white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally.” These people insulate themselves from the outside world and associate only with their own kind, with the result that “Their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians.” They are a cult—and, like all cult members, they are zealously protective of their own kind and both fearful and resentful of The Other. What they like about Donald Trump is that he seems like them. There is nothing in this status quo that is unstable; we can expect no change in the immediate future; the red states that are “gone” from the Democratic column are likely to be gone for a long time.

Have a great weekend!

  1. You don’t know anything about us and you don’t want to know. That’s the problem.

  2. I know enough about you to know that your attempt to foist your religion on the rest of the country is doomed to fail.

  3. Kenneth Metviner says:

    Steve, you have lived on the left coast too long. I wonder if your sister Barbara is as hysterically leftist as you. She and I used to be an item at Taft HS.

  4. Kenneth Metviner says:

    You have spent too many years on the left coast. Do you remember me from The Bronx on Grand Conciurse. I used to date your sister Barbara.

  5. I’m glad she dumped you. Have fun in trumpland.

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