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The View from Back East

The fortune cookie that accompanied our meal at a P.F. Chang’s franchise somewhere in the endless sprawl of the Philadelphia metropolitan area told us that “A visit to a strange place will bring you renewed perspective.” The faux-Chinese proverb provided by the faux-Chinese restaurant elicited a slight chuckle, given that the joint was eerily identical to the P.F. Chang’s franchise on the far east side of Wichita, right down to the overly-friendly waiter and the over-priced appetizers, but in truth our rare travel beyond the prairie has offered a few fresh insights.
Modern technology and corporate capitalism have done much to obliterate the regional differences that have long strained the union of the states, but there’s still no mistaking that we’re not in Kansas anymore. The television shows and the offerings at the local movie theaters are the same as back home, and although the local news anchors and anchorettes are different they all have the same handsome and pretty and self-serious look about them and the same bright graphics over their shoulders and the same tales of crime and tax increases to report. We’ve passed countless malls with the same impermanent architecture and the same stores as that we pass by on our drives back home, and although the convenience store market is dominated by something called Wawa rather than the QuikTrip stores that dominate the prairie they have the same gargantuan sodas and high-calorie fast foods and sterile atmosphere. There’s a lot more of everything, though, and occasional other reminders half a continent continues to make a difference in the daily life of an American.
These differences are especially apparent in the quadrennial election results, when the states in the northeast light up in blue and the prairie states turn red, and our perusal of the local press provides plenty of other reminder that folks are far more liberal in this part of the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer is obliged to cover the politics of not only Pennsylvania but also Delaware and New Jersey and the rest of the itty-bitty states that are crammed together around here, and little of it makes sense to someone more accustomed to Kansas politics. Gun-grabbing, Muslim-loving, Obama-embracing Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is considered a Republican by the prevailing local standards, and his commonsensical insistence on balanced budgets and non-punitive tax rates even makes him a relatively radical right-winger in the view of the east coast press, and it is amusing to read the speculation that he might win over enough honest-to-God Republicans in the heartland to win his party’s nomination for president. Such crazy talk is unaccountable to the Kansas kind of Republican, but after just a few days back east it begins to make some sort of sense.
The first thing a denizen of the prairie notices after arriving at Philadelphia’s intimidatingly immense airport is the city’s downright claustrophobic population, which can’t help but inculcate the collectivist mindset that is at the root of liberalism. The vast space of the prairie provides room for the rugged individualism that underlies the conservative philosophy, but getting so many millions of people to live together in such a constrained area apparently requires a degree of regulation that only liberals are willing to contemplate. Class differences are also more conspicuous and no doubt more infuriating here, where the poverty is more glaringly oppressive and the wealth more gleamingly opulent, so the enforced egalitarianism of the liberal program has an understandable appeal. Even as it becomes more apparent that it will lead to everyone but the politically connected becoming equally poor and stupid, we expect that a good many northeasterners will be satisfied with the result.
Still, there’s much to be said for this strange part of the country. Prairie folk will also notice that there’s an immense amount of history here, with elegant homes and businesses that were already old when J.R. Meade established the mud-walled trading post that was the very first edifice of what would become Wichita, Kansas, and we can’t help enjoying that irony that everything in our far more old-fashioned hometown is relatively new compared to what we find in this more up-to-date metropolis. The Philly cheese steak sandwiches at a distinctively local little eatery called Romano’s cannot be duplicated elsewhere, even if no one in this seems to know how to cook a proper chicken fried steak, and there are other only-in-Philadelphia touches that have somehow survived the relentless homogenization of modern America. Most of the folks we’ve encountered have been friendly enough, as well, and the modern technology allowed us to watch the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad extend their thus-far unbeaten season on the internet, even in a place where most people would likely wonder what the hell a Wheatshocker is.
With a return to federalism and a bit of tolerance by both city and country folk, there’s a chance the union might somehow survive that red and blue electoral map.

— Bud Norman

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