Notes from the Heartland, in Williston, North Dakota

On state highway 85, trucks loaded with the means of the North Dakotan oil boom roll over the bloody headless carcasses of dogs, elk and racoons. Grit and gravel fizz through eighteen-wheelers and patter the windshield. Roadside signs scream prosperity (“We have land!”) and piety (“an embryo is a life not a choice”). Haphazardly constructed houses, campsites and hotels suggest quick-buck urgency. Machines dip in and out of wells in metronomic regularity. Flames of burnt natural gas flutter in drilled cornfields like hot orange flags of adventure and conquest.

Williston is another America. There is no unemployment. Rents would make Manhattanites blush. Jobs at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay twice the federal minimum wage. The city has revenue to burn. “How long do you think it will last?” ask locals, as if befuddled by the happenstance of their geography. Of course, the town has problems. Traffic, crime and prices are all on the increase. But only a minority wish the fracking would stop – and most of them have long since sold up. Read more

Notes from the Heartland

Dennis Bute is a noun guy. Riding shotgun in his pick-up, cornfields melting into liquid gold, I listen to the 64 year-old farmer itemise West Point, his home town in western Nebraska. “This be combines”, he says, grammatically resuscitating the harvesters. “This be a cow”, he continues, an adjective as rare as a raindrop.

The Butes have farmed 160 acres of corn and soyabean for 130 years. The third oldest of eight brothers and sisters, Dennis will probably end the family run. His siblings, aside from one sister, live out of town and there is no heir to inherit the land. “Here’s my farm, it looks like any other farm”, he says, without decelerating.

I ask Mr Bute how the last years have been. He affords himself a rare smile, “prices gone up, double, triple, last three years.” Times are so good that he is mulling retirement from his second job – midnight watchman at the soyabean processing plant. “If we’d had these prices, we’d have seen more people”, he adds. Read more

In his latest dispatch from the US, John McDermott tells of an unfortunate automobile accident – and a fortunate meeting. Read more

In his latest Note from the Heartland, John McDermott meets Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a strident campaigner against illegal immigration.  Read more

Notes from the Heartland

My atheist feet are doing all they can to stop tapping along to the power chords of the Westside Family Church house band. Westside is a megachurch in Lenaxa, Kansas, home of United Parcel Service and 50,000 people. No tour of the heartland would be complete without a bit of Jesus, so on Sunday I drove out to fill my cup.

Foreigners often leave the US with a sense of paradox: how can a country combine religious tolerance with religious intensity? Few others manage it. Charles Dickens, for example, preferred the more open Boston preachers to the stuffy Anglicans back home. Yet he noted the New World’s fervour, too. “Wherever religion is resorted to, as a strong drink, and as an escape from the dull monotonous round of home, those of its ministers who pepper the highest will be the surest to please.” Read more

Notes from the Heartland

In a colonial-style house in Mission Hills, Kansas, a group of Republicans eat Oklahoma barbecue, discuss a book by an old Etonian and debate the future of Afghanistan.

Kansas may be 7,000 miles from Kabul but the US Army Combined Arms Center in nearby Fort Leavenworth is the intellectual home of national defence. David Petraeus, the CIA director, honed many of his ideas here, as commandant, before he went to Iraq. Read more

Notes from the Heartland

A crunch of an onion ring breaks the silence of the Democratic debate night party at the Diamond Bowl in Independence, Missouri. On each of the four big television screens affixed above 10 battered pins, Mitt Romney explains how he will concomitantly cut taxes and the deficit. “Lies, lies, lies!” comes the response from the end of the alleys – one that served the 40 local activists well throughout the night.

Independence is one of the holiest sites in Democratic politics. It is the hometown of Harry Truman, whose childhood house is situated five minutes from the Bowl, near my inn for the night, proud and freshly painted in sky blue. Its name could not be more apt for the Democratic approach to the state.

In Missouri, which voted for every president but two from 1904 to 2008, centrist “Truman Democrats” are the norm. The Democratic governor Jay Nixon is fiscally conservative, gun-friendly and not shy of populism. Claire McCaskill, the incumbent junior senator running against Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, has TV ads that say she is the “50th senator”, a reference to her moderate voting record in Washington. Read more

Notes from the Heartland

I’m in Springfield, Missouri, the second stop on my tour through the American heartland. Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the headquarters of the local Republican party, trying to understand what its members think about the upcoming election and about the future of the country. In advance of the first presidential debate, which takes place tonight in Denver, one thing in particular struck me amid the electoral regalia and kind-hearted atmosphere of this Christian, conservative and friendly town.

The idea that America is polarised is a given across the political spectrum. There is a lot of truth in this, but often it gives rise to caricature. Read more

Notes from the Heartland

In Denver tomorrow, the first presidential debate will see the candidates discuss the role of government in the economy. Some Republican commentators argue that Barack Obama’s healthcare and tax policies make him a “socialist”. About half of Americans believe the term “socialist” applies well or very well to Barack Obama.

Obama meets campaign staff in Nevada. Photo AFP

In the primaries Mitt Romney admirably declined to play this game. Obama may be a “big government liberal” (a phrase oxymoronic to British observers) but he isn’t a socialist. But don’t take Romney’s word for it. The US branch of the Workers International League agrees with him. Read more