(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The year 2004 was something of a banner year for political books in the United States. American soldiers were fighting a war overseas in Iraq, fears of terrorism were on the rise at home, and contentious issues from same-sex marriage to tax reform were being hotly debated in one of the most polarizing national elections in living memory. With all this going on, the appetite of the American people for books about politics, political figures, and political issues seemed insatiable. Loud—sometimes strident—voices from both the Right and the Left weighed in with dozens of volumes, and America's reading public bought them in record numbers. Amid the stacks of red, white, and blue tomes with words such as “truth,” “traitor,” and “terror,” in their titles, it might have been easy to overlook Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America, a compact book with a photograph of the unassuming, middle-aged author on the cover.

Garrison Keillor, though a much-loved voice in American letters, is better known for his humorous essays and rambling, folksy radio stories than for political tracts, though in the several years prior to writing this book he had published a number of partisan articles and made no secret of his affiliation with the Democratic Party of the United States.Homegrown Democrat—part memoir, part polemic against the reelection bid of President George W. Bush—marked a departure for Keillor and held its own in the sea of political titles during the contentious run-up to the election. In it, Keillor chronicles the growth of his own political awareness and explains in blunt language what it means to be a liberal Democrat in the United States at the start of the twenty-first century and why conservative Republican policies are, in his view, bad for the country.

Throughout the book, the author relentlessly sounds the drumbeat of civic-mindedness and public service—public schools and libraries, emergency services, special protection for children and the elderly—the great ideals of the Democratic Party as he knows it. Among the boldest moves in the book is the questioning of the assertion, most often made by Republicans though generally accepted by Americans of all political stripes, that citizens of the United States pay too much in taxes. Taxes, Keillor reminds his readers, fund the many services they take for granted and that make the United States a good place to live, even in hard times. More than once the author uses his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, as an example of a place where the social compact he so strongly supports functions admirably. In St. Paul, for instance, the official city policy is for a rescue squad to be able to reach any city resident in under four minutes. He compares the city itself to its suburbs, where taxation rates are considerably lower but residents have to wait as much as thirty minutes if they call for a fire engine or ambulance. The city, he points out, is heavily Democratic; the suburbs, Republican.

Indeed, Keillor sees the ideals of the Democratic Party very much as urban ideals. Though he refers frequently to his own rural roots and even dedicates the book “to all of the good Democratic-farmer-laborites of Minnesota,” it is in the city, where residents come into daily contact with their neighbors and with all manner of strangers, that one can best see the ideal of a civil society, where people give what they can to help their fellow citizens. Among the benefits to the United States that Keillor credits to those he jokingly calls “do-gooder Democrats” since the mid-twentieth century are improvements in civil rights, including a reduction in racism and the acceptance of both ambition and athleticism in girls as well as boys; clean air; abortion rights, which he supports with some reservations; and a general tolerance for those on the fringes of society.

Keillor makes a point of stressing that a belief in such ideals is not necessarily a holdover from the radical politics of the 1960's, as many conservatives tend to believe. Though he did, in fact, start college in 1960, and he acknowledges the profound impact that the presidency of John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) had on him, the author insists the roots of his politics were set well before then: “It comes from my parents’ generation who stepped out of high school...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)