Pretending to be a Republican in Blue California.
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.
Richard Rushfield is a Los Angeles based journalist. He edits the LA Innuendo, a satirical review of local culture and co-authors the "Intelligence Report" for Vanity Fair.
Photographs by the author.