It was the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association (CGRA) gymkhana that got me thinking about Nice America and Nasty America. The United States is a country of extremes - rich and poor, warmth and hostility, meanness and generosity. The classic Midwest rodeo is about as extreme as it gets: all star-spangled banners and machismo. Here, men are caricatures of masculinity, puffed up with patriotism as they pit themselves against impossible odds: the 700-pound bull, the bucking bronco.
Kids are trained to be tough from a young age. At the rodeo in every town, there is a contest called "mutton bustin'". I watched a father attach an entry number to a very small child, pick him up, hoick him on to the back of an annoyed sheep as he leaned forward, his arms wrapped around its neck - then let go. The sheep bucked. The kid fell and burst into tears. The proud dad came forward and held him up, to the cheers of the crowd. Yeehaw!
The women are almost as macho as the men. They don't walk, they stride - cowgirls, every one. Two years ago, when a 12-year-old bull rider was trampled to death at a rodeo in Colorado, his mum said proudly that he died doing what he loved: "That's what that kid lived to do.
You can't keep your kids locked up in a closet." He had been riding bulls since he was six. Showing a typical sense of Midwestern priorities, the bullfighter who first ran to the dying boy said afterwards: "Kind of tears you down a bit, knowing this kid had years of rodeoing, years of life, a family ahead of him."
Riders on the storm
At the CGRA gymkhana, things were rather gentler. Same jeans, same boots, same hats, same mountain backdrop - but from the announcer: "Very nice, Cath! There you go!" Spectators were thin on the ground so the handful of riders urged each other on: "Good job, Justin!" When someone knocked over a pole or their horse refused to co-operate, they were unanimously given another go. "One more try," the announcer would urge. "Nice turn!" It was so darn nice.
It must be one of the loneliest lives in the world, being a gay Colorado cowboy. There were no spectators to speak to, no vendors, no burger stall, so I got to thinking about the US debt crisis. ("Go, Kioni! Nice ride." A Native American lesbian Colorado cowgirl? Now, that's brave.)
I had failed to find ordinary Americans prepared to discuss the stalemate in Washington. Most had shrugged. "I'm more concerned where to find the best dumplings in Chinatown," was a typical response. One woman asked if we couldn't talk about the royal wedding instead. Another said that they would sort it out - they always do.
If there is extreme apathy at one end of the spectrum, at the other is the anger of those who consider Washington a "bunch of crooks" and would wind up government altogether if they could. You can't debate with people like that; there's no point. They end up telling you about the frontiersmen as they fiddle with their GPS.
At a party full of liberals, a man whispered, “I don't like to talk about it, because you never know if some of them are here." He looked around a canyon full of hippies drinking sangria and iced tea. One was even strumming a guitar. "Some of who?" I asked. "You know - Tea Party types. I don't like to raise politics in front of them. They get kind of crazy."
By sheer force of anger and vitriol, through rhetorical flourish and dishonest argument, the right is silencing decent Americans. This gentle man at a hippie party who thought taxes would have to rise was afraid to start a conversation that might be overheard by one of "them" - and which would only end, he said, with him being accused of betraying America. They have shouted him out.
Cult of centrism
A growing chorus of commentators berates President Barack Obama for failing to speak up for these people, his natural supporters, and for giving far too many concessions to right-wing Republican demands. Paul Krugman in the New York Times warns of a "cult of centrism" which pretends that Obama is unbendingly left while the Republicans are unbendingly right. In reality, the president and Democrats have bent over backwards to accommodate the demands of the right.
The Washington Post columnist E J Dionne warns that centrism in the US has become "the enemy of moderation", a constant adjustment to the direction of the political conversation, which has veered sharply to the right. "The centre's devotees, in politics and in the media, fear saying outright that by any past standards - or by the standards of any other democracy - the views of this new right wing are very, very extreme and entirely impractical."
So, like that man at the party, the left, and even the centre, cower in silence. Stanley Greenberg, pollster for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair,
recently bemoaned that moderate voters have lost faith in Washington. "There's just such a control of government by the wealthy that, whatever happens, it's not working for all the people; it's working for a few of the people," one focus group participant said. "Wall Street lobbyists govern," Greenberg argued, "not Main Street voters."
Paul Pierson and Jacob S Hacker, authors of Winner-Take-All Politics, which identifies just such an entrenchment of narrow economic interests in Washington, have observed that the political system is in danger of failing. Nice America is concerned about all this but is silent. Nasty America will remain angry, regardless of the debt deal. What the country needs is a president who ignores the catcalls and is brave enough to stand up for moderate, enlightened American values. That's what I was thinking, sole spectator at the gay gymkhana: the situation calls for someone with the guts of a Kioni.