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It’s a scene that has repeated itself all across the country, in state after state. In the big cities, Covid-19 restrictions on the denizens are harsh and controversial, while their country cousins in rural areas sloughed off most of the limits a long time ago. Here in Modesto that is the story. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Chris has lived in Modesto for a few decades. He claims to be 68 years old. If I look like he does at 68 it will be a miracle. He doesn’t like to talk politics but relented under my charm. He dislikes Newsom. Everybody seems to dislike Newsom, but he told me something else. He said, “The anti Trump conservatives hated Trump so much that they wound up with Biden.” It’s quite a thing to say.
In some sense every election is an election of unintended consequences. The Californians I talk to seem very aware of this. One guy I spoke to had lived in Modesto for only a year, having found haven from more urban enclaves. He told me that he was surprised at how easy it was to meet people here. He told me that his worst fears about the people in the Central Valley had not been realized.
He was a nice guy, but I was struck by the ease with which he had told me his preconceptions about people in the Central Valley. As if it was just common knowledge that they were bad, or backwards, or something. What he actually found in this place were good, decent people, who want to be good, decent neighbors.
But the hometown friendliness of Modesto, and the ease with which they just seem to ignore the Covid crisis cuts both ways in the recall election. The folks here do not tend to view Newsom’s leadership as a crisis. They don’t think he’s a very good leader, but they also don’t seem to think that he affects their lives a whole lot. What happens over the mountains in San Francisco or Sacramento just doesn’t draw a lot of water around here.
Outside on the main drag a band played rock classics for a small assembled crowd. They were good. Between songs you could hear the hot shot freight trains of the old Southern Pacific that cut straight through this town in America of the railroad earth. And everything seemed to be alright. That might be Newsom’s saving grace. Recall elections are emergency elections and I couldn’t detect any emergency happening in Modesto.
It has become obvious during the times of Covid that we live in two Americas. In one, where towers gleam and tightly packed citizens hustle it is immediate, there are rules and restrictions, in the other, where big skies comfort the lives of people and families, life is more normal. It’s hard to imagine this growing divide won’t have serious political implications eventually.
But today, with the recall just around the corner of the weekend, the energy of this quiet town does not appear to be directed at politics. It’s almost as if Twitter and cable news aren’t the real world at all. Instead there are PTA meetings, church, and pleasant concerts in the town square. You can imagine the people here filling out their mail in ballots to recall Newsom, but it’s hard to envisage them doing it with anger or gusto.
Parts of America, as it turns out, are still places where you can turn off the news and just live your life. Where you can wear a mask or not, where nobody wants to see your vaccination card if you walk into a restaurant. That’s Modesto. And here, things are alright.
David Marcus: With recall around the corner, energy of quiet town Modesto not directed at politics