ASPEN, Colo. – At a bustling farmers’ market, Trevor Washko worked on a square of leather in his booth of finely stitched journals.
To his right was a stand packed with fresh-picked fruits and vegetables; to his left, a cooking demonstration.
“We are not at all anything like the way we are portrayed by the media,” Washko said of the extraordinary mix of super-rich and resort workers who live in Aspen.
Washko spent life in Springfield, Ill., until he graduated from college and moved to Colorado. He has worked as a naturalist, as a field guide, in several service jobs at local resorts, and even served as unofficial mayor of the nearby Ashcroft Ghost Town.
The national media would not know how to begin to understand what makes this community tick, he said.
“Here is what they do not get – most of our country is right in the middle, perhaps slightly to the right,” he said. “We are not a member of this group or that group, even though they place all of us in boxes.”
Ten years ago today, Americans united in a way few had ever seen. Since then, a wedge has been driven between us.
Politicians, cable-television commentators and the national media have created a Blue (Democrat) America and a Red (Republican) America.
A funny thing happened as I traveled the country in recent weeks: Things were not as they have been portrayed; Republicans, Democrats and independents do not think of themselves as ruby-red or bright-blue partisans.
Instead, they think of themselves as Americans who don't fit neatly into boxes and who still believe America can meet any challenge, solve any problem, if politicians will just get out of the way.
Tom Link lives in Lower Burrell, in the farthest corner of western Pennsylvania’s portion of the Appalachian mountain range. A commercial-truck salesman, Link says he feels absolutely disconnected by the politicians’ and the media’s understandings of America.
“They don’t care what we think. They care about what they want us to think,” he said.
Over 20 days, this column visited 10 states and one district – Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. – mostly on back roads, often in town squares, listening to how people feel about themselves and their country.
Liberals, conservatives, Green Party members and political agnostics all voiced the same belief: Washington doesn't work, and the reporters who cover Washington don’t understand America.
That belief has led an unprecedented number of Americans to conclude that if they can simply throw out all the bums (including their own members of congress and the president) and replace them with someone new, things will improve.
Steve McMahon, a Democrat who runs the Purple Strategies consulting firm with Republican Alex Castellanos, has a warning for incumbents of both parties:
"Americans are completely fed up with the gridlock. They can't believe no one is willing to compromise, or that both sides would take America to the edge of default – while the whole world watched in disbelief – just to score political points.
“Now they are perfectly willing to toss everyone out, including politicians they have voted for over and over again. This isn't a partisan problem. It's an incumbent's nightmare."
Mark Rozell, a public-policy professor at George Mason University, believes “the public is not as polarized as commonly assumed.” Instead, it is “more in the middle than anything.”
Yes, some citizens beyond Washington get caught up in the sort of discourse coming from the national media and many political figures. Yet most care more about how a policy affects their daily lives, not about whether it helps Democrats or Republicans.
“There is a big disconnect, in that sense, between the insider discourse and what most citizens actually care about,” Rozell said.
Sitting in an airport recently, waiting for a much-delayed flight, I watched a military unit pass through one of the concourses. Spontaneous applause erupted, offering those soldiers an honest expression of gratitude from average citizens.
That is the America that Tom Link says he knows, not the America that he says he sees in the national news.