Big lakes, small ripples

Joseph Bottum writes on the Midwest and the prairies:

There’s a metaphor there, I suppose, in the way the white wake of the motorboats out in the middle of the lake turns to a small wash, a gentle swell, by the time it reaches the shore. Events in the national news are like this, in the small towns of the Midwest. There’s the roiling of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination over accusations that he assaulted a psychology professor, back when they were in high school, for example. The coming release of the Apple watch, Series 4. The loss of the aging New England Patriots to the Jacksonville Jaguars in football. The 12,000th blockbuster article about how Trump’s unpopularity has doomed the Republicans in this November’s midterm elections. Splashy back in D.C. and out in San Francisco, certainly. But just a swell, a small up-and-down motion, by the time it reaches the lake’s edge.

The metaphor is a reach, of course. A fun one, maybe: Will the waves caused by the national media’s distaste for Donald Trump, the relentless denunciations of all he does, splash high enough to swamp Midwestern politicians before the freeze of the election locks down the political season for another two years? Will a national repudiation of the Republicans raise the local waters enough to carry the Democrats to shore? But in the end the metaphor seems a failure, the figure more complicated than the phenomenon it’s trying to explain.

In truth, political views out on the prairie are fairly simple. They turn with the national tides, but more slowly and sedately. …

This is fairly level land, scraped smooth by the glacial ice sheets somewhere around two million years ago. West of the Missouri, the earth is rougher: the Badlands, the Black Hills, the high plateau rising to the Tetons. But to the east, the ice flow sanded off the peaks and filled in the valleys. And in their retreat, glaciers left behind the melt water that gathered in all the thousands of little lakes that dot Wisconsin, Minnesota, and eastern South Dakota.

These are the lakes the motorboats prowl. The water-skiers bounce in the white wake as the boats turn away from the far shore to take another lap. The children shout as they bob up and down in inflatable cushions tied to a line from the stern. In the bright sunlight, under the pale sky, hardly anyone wants to notice the leaves on the shoreline trees turning brown. The grass fading to a dry yellow. The long slant of the late afternoon sun. All the signs of fall closing in.

If it’s true that somewhere out there, in the vastness of the American prairie, that our politics “turn with the national tides, but more slowly and sedately,” then it sounds like the prairie is a place many of us want almost achingly to experience.

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