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Green. Photo by Dominic Black.

Green. Photo by Dominic Black.


Other Side Of The Curtain

Dominic Black

What's it like being an outsider on either side of the Cascade Curtain? We'll hear what life is like for Keli Carender, a tea party activist living in Seattle, and George Fearing, a Democrat living in Eastern Washington.


For KUOW 94.9 Seattle, I'm Dominic Black, and with the last in a four–part series exploring the myths and the realities behind the idea of the Cascade Curtain. The notion that there's two Washington states: a conservative east side and a liberal west side, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

But what's it like when they do meet? Or more precisely, what's it like when you are behind enemy lines, surrounded by people who all seem to have dramatically similar political views, it's just that they're dramatically different from yours? What's it like to be a tea partier in the west or a liberal in the east?

George Fearing: "Uh, frustrating. Sometimes angering. Sometimes lonely."

That's George Fearing: attorney; resident of Richland, Washington; resolute member of the Democratic Party.

Keli Carender: "Well, I'm growing used to it."

And that's Seattle tea party activist Keli Carender.

Carender: "It's definitely a challenge, and was definitely a challenge in the beginning to sort of come out to everyone and tell them I was not a liberal like they thought I was."

Dominic Black: "That's an interesting phrase you used there."

Carender: "Well, you know it's probably somewhat similar in that you're afraid people are going to reject you for who you are and what you believe."

To be accurate, Keli lives a short ferry ride away from Seattle, but her political views feel like they come from much further away. That's not to say they don't belong here or aren't valid, just that they're way outside what you might call the stereotypical Seattle consensus.

George Fearing's in the same boat, but in reverse. He is a minister's son, raised as a Seventh Day Adventist. Politically, he started out as a Libertarian. On becoming a Democrat in the late 1990s though, he realized his religious upbringing had acclimatized him to life beyond the mainstream. It's not just that he and his family worshipped on a different day than most other people, he says.

Fearing: "When we went to the restaurants, we didn't eat meat, we just ate vegetables. And you get this sense of being different, of being an underdog. And that's also the sense I now have as a Democrat in Central Washington."

Carender: "You know, I'd go to a dinner party and eventually politics will come up, and because everyone here assumes that everyone else thinks the way they do, because they don't usually talk to people that think differently, they go on and then they say things that are really offensive."

Like, conservatives hate poor people or want to dismantle social security — ideas which Keli says aren't representative of her own views. When she's forced to point that out, arguments often ensue and the evening takes a turn for the interesting.

Carender: "And I can't tell you it's every single time. It's, Oh great, thanks for ruining the dinner party, [you] had to go and shake things up, we were having a nice conversation. Well, no, we weren't actually having a nice conversation."

Dominic Black: "So really, you're just like Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm?' The inappropriate dinner guest?"

Carender: "Yes. Yes."

I kind of like dinner parties where that kind of thing kicks off actually, but I can see how it could get a bit wearying after a while. But then again, one of the ideas Keli and George both hold dear is the importance of expressing their political views openly and arguing for them. Which is admirable when you think about it; takes gentle perseverance, says George, and has a cost.

Fearing: "There are six partners in my law firm. I am the only Democrat. I go to church; there is a handful of Democrats perhaps, but that's it. I'm a member of a Rotary Club and it is overwhelmingly Republican. They tell Democratic jokes about me. It's all in jest, it's all fun, but at the same time it gives you a feeling of being an outsider."

Dominic Black: "Is there any sense that's hurtful?"

Fearing: "Yes. I get tired of it. It becomes hard, and it is an almost liberating experience to cross the mountains and get beyond North Bend and drive into the city of Seattle."

Dominic Black: "Seriously?"

Fearing: "Yes. I feel at home there."

So, what do you learn from being surrounded by people who have different political views than you?

For George, it's that being politically involved is a duty. He sees himself as working to preserve America for future generations, but he also emphasizes that he has great personal relationships with his partners, colleagues and friends from different political backgrounds. It's not like he's ostracized — he loves Richland, he loves his community. Happy coexistence with political opponents isn't always easy, but it is definitely possible.

For Seattle tea party activist Keli Carender, there's an insight that's strikingly similar.

Carender: "I look back and I realize that, in a way, I have been really lucky because I haven't lived in a bubble my whole life. I've not lived in an echo chamber. I've had to be challenged. I've constantly been asked questions and forced to provide reasons, and logical reasons, as to why I believe what I believe and things like that. And it's sort of made me feel bad for a lot of my friends because they do live in a echo chamber and I might be one of their only conservative friends, and I just think that's kind of sad."

What Keli's getting at here is that coexistence — that kind of stable, healthy difference of opinion that George was talking about — it's actually something we should aspire to. It has a multitude of benefits. It means you're more secure in your own views because you've hammered them out in reasoned arguments. And you're less likely to demonize your opponents, because you might be living next door to them. All of which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense.

And all of which leads me to wonder this: There's a tendency to think that the ideological tensions in Washington are splitting the place apart. Its seemed that way to me sometimes when making this series. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder what if it's the other way 'round? What if the tensions are the very forces that help hold everything together in Washington state, that stop us all from flying off into space. Or Idaho.

Maybe those tensions are an essential part of maintaining a community of whatever size. Community being the one idea that came up again and again as I traveled across the state, and that's as dearly held no matter what side of the Cascade Curtain you're on.

For KUOW, I'm Dominic Black.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW