Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More about Peoria...

Imressions from my recent there as published in the Sinagpore Business Times:

Business Times - 24 Apr 2007

Playing it deep purple in Peoria

Its political culture explains why President Bush and the Republican Party have paid special attention to the area


DESPITE the fact that I've never visited the place, Peoria has been on my mind quite often, especially when I'm trying to break through my writer's block as I search for an appropriate metaphor for a political stand or a policy that supposedly appeals to mainstream America.

Indeed, this so-called All-American City has been celebrated by writers as the representation of the 'average' American locale because of its demographics and alleged mainstream Midwestern politics and culture.

'Will it play in Peoria?' a saying coined on the vaudeville circuit where it was said that if an act would succeed in Peoria, it would play anywhere, has become so much a part of the American political culture that the place acquired an aura of a myth, which explains why some of us believe that the Average Man of Peoria is a figment of the imagination of a creative mind.

So I was delighted when as a Cato Institue scholar, I had received an invitation from the World Affairs Council of Peoria (and its neighbouring Quad Cities) to visit this Midwestern city to discuss global affairs with local leaders and students. (In fact, I ended up addressing the World Affairs Council of Peoria on the same day that US President George W Bush addressed the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan).

Yes, there is a Peoria in the state of Illinois. And with a population of more than 130,000 people (and about 40,000 in the larger metropolitan area), Peoria serves as the international headquarters for the giant Caterpillar Corporation, the bulldozer and engine manufacturer; Clifton Gunderson, the 13th largest national accounting and consulting firm; LR Nelson Corporation, manufacturer of irrigation sprinklers; and Maui Jim, a maker of polarised sunglass.

The city is also the home for several leading medical and scientific institutions, including the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, the largest USDA facility; where penicillin was first mass produced, a major university (Bradley) and a few cultural centres.

Peoria certainly does not have the feel of a remote provincial town, and if anything it reminded me of the many satellite townships that have emerged around cities like San Francisco, Washington, and Boston and that tend to attract members of what economist Richard Florida refers to as the 'Creative Class' of educated middle class professionals.

As part of an effort to attract the knowledge of the twenty-first century, the city is developing its NEXT Innovation Center, a high-tech business incubator designed to take advantage of the basic and applied research that is being done in the area and create the foundation of a bio-technology industry.

The freezing wintry weather does put the city in certain disadvantage with, say, San Diego. But in a few years, global warming might take care of that - Angela Weck, the director of Peoria's World Affairs Council has said that the city has attracted many Indian immigrants, mainly engineers and medical professionals who are helping to add a cosmopolitan flavour to this All-American-City (which at the same time, has a only a small percentage of Hispanic immigrants).

But the majority of the residents of Peoria - white middle-class families with a strong commitment to tradition, hard-work and patriotism - still personify the values of the 'red' sections of the Midwest whose roots are in small cities and farm lands.

The political culture of Peoria and its surrounding areas explains why President Bush and the Republican Party have paid special attention to this politically conservative part of the American heartland that has traditionally voted for Republican candidates.

Mr Bush has flown to Peoria in January this year to meet with business leaders there and to visit the Caterpillar plant as part of an effort to sell his economic programmes, including trade liberalisation, stressing during his address that Caterpillar's strength lay in its ability to expand its exports abroad.

'The temptation is to say: Well, trade may not be worth it, let's isolate ourselves, let's protect ourselves,' Mr Bush told workers surrounded by Caterpillar's trademark earthmovers. 'I know it would be a mistake for Caterpillar workers to do that. . . I know it's a bad mistake for the country to lose our confidence and not compete.'

Indeed, as US exports increased by 13.1 per cent in the first 11 months of last year and 10.7 per cent the year before that, Caterpillar has enjoyed particularly strong growth, with US$9 billion in exports last year and US$41.5 billion in overall sales.

Despite the weakness in the US domestic market, Caterpillar has reported record net profits for the first quarter as international growth, notably in Europe, boosted its global sales by 7 per cent. At the same time, according to opinion polls in the city, the majority of the mostly pro-military Peorians supported the decision by President Bush to invade Iraq as part of the response to 9/11.

'Most of us here backed the president because we believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could threaten us,' a local lawyer told me who identifies himself as a 'traditional Republican'.

'But I think that we are disgusted now, if not horrified, with what is happening in Iraq and we want to see the troops returning home as soon as possible. That's the general view here.'

I detected a similar depressed mood during all the meetings I held with political and business leaders as well as high-school and college students in Peoria.

These Peorians still resist the kind of Bush-bashing that is popular in the more 'blue' parts of the country, but seemed to have tuned out much of what is happening in Iraq these days.

'Whenever I hear the president talk about the surge in Iraq, I basically press the mute button in my ears,' the lawyer explained. In short, forget about trying to win the hearts and minds of Peorians when it comes to the war in Iraq.

And adding to the Republicans' concerns is the changing economic realities here. While Peoria's economy is more diversified than it had been in the past and the seeds of the 'new economy' are being seeded, there is a sense of economic insecurity among many residents as much of the 'old economy', mainly manufacturing, is being slashed as a result of pressure from globalisation.

Although most of my impression is based on anecdotal evidence gathered during a short visit to the city, it seems to me that the war in Iraq combined with the problems of an economy in transition, are eroding the support for the Republicans here and in other parts of the 'blue' Midwest where Democrats or Republicans committed to the more traditional regional agenda of their party could discover a political opening by promoting a more 'purple' agenda that combines opposition to the neoconservative military interventionist agenda with some measure of economic populism.

That will probably play in Peoria.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Great article, as usual - You know, Barack is more popular there - in that part of illinois - than dumbells like Chris Matthews realize.

Anonymous said...

Read your article on about Wolfowitz. Although I agree with most of your points, one thing caught my attention. You said "In a way, by applying US military power in a very selective way – through air power in the former Yugoslavia, for example – the Clintonites helped to maintain it as deterrence against potential threats." Excuse me, but what threat did the former Yugoslavia pose to the U.S.? What did they do to deserve being bombed and the country subsequently being disintegrated?