Early Monday morning, I heard about Joe Bageant’s passing. Joe, along with Senator James Webb, provided me with a seminal epiphany regarding both my political and biological heritage this past year.
I was born in Joe’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia – basically because at that time, the mid-1950s – Winchester Memorial Hospital was the only hospital servicing Frederick, Clarke, Warren and Fauquier counties in Virginia, as well as southern West Virginia; but the people Joe described in his first book Deer Hunting with Jesus are all too familiar to me.
For a long time, Joe had been a champion of what he calls redneck culture, and not derisively, as many of the Left refer to that demographic. Senator Webb, as befits a Senator and a statesman, refers to that tranche of Southern society in a more refined manner, as those people of Scots-Irish descent, in his history of that culture, Born Fighting.
Both books left an impression on me, if for no other reason than both men are relatively scathing – Bageant even moreso – in their open criticism of the Coastal cultural elites who have reshaped and effectively sought to dominate the Democratic party for the past 40 years. Collectively, they’ve created the myth of the virulent racist redneck, found in the South and in the rural Midwest, and their urban counterpart in the Rust Belt, caricatured years ago in the character of Archie Bunker. Both men go into detail about how this myth was propagated by the so-called ueber-Left Progressive Democrats in affluent boroughs and safely Democratic constituencies all along the “Left” Coast as well as tucked away in the Northeastern corner of the United States, specifically from New York City to Boston, to the point where it was appropriated by the culture warlords of the Republican Party, twisted to suit their purposes in a campaign of fear and culture conflict, until the myth, regrettably, has come to be perceived as a reality.
What was sad about all this, is the fact that this demographic - commonly known as the old “working class” and its union association (in the event of the industrial North and Midwest) – was effectively thrown under the political bus by the Democratic reformers of 1970. The union bosses, they deemed too politically corrupt and too ignorant, for their liking; and the sweaty, undereducated working class, too dumb and roughewn for their refined tastes. They were almost derisive in their dismissal. What were these people going to do? Vote Republican? They’ll carry on voting Democratic. Fuck’em.
But they didn’t, did they? Some succumbed to Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy; others became Reagan Democrats. Most watch Fox News now. Why?
In Deer Hunting with Jesus, two episodes stick raw in my memory. Bageant speaks with several working class people living in and around his old neighbourhood of Winchester, Virginia, just the wrong side of the railroad tracks – people now in their fifties or sixties, working dead-end jobs at box stores which line the strip mall landscape along the interstates which weave through the Piedmont of the Blue Ridge. They work for minimum wage and they work like dogs – some at one job for sixty hours a week, some at three. That’s the difference between rednecks and po’white trash, Bageant explains – not that the Coastals would differentiate.
A redneck will work until he’s ready to be dropped in the grave and genuinely wants nothing more than his due from the government. In fact, he’s suspicious of the government, and that’s down to his Scots-Irish heritage, as further explained by James Webb. These people have an inculcated heritage of pride handed down, generation-by-generation, to them from their forefathers who left the poorest part of the British nation for a new life in the colonies. These people don’t trust the government as far as they could throw the proverbial stick. They’ll take Social Security and Medicare as their due, but want little else.
A po’white, on the other hand, is someone to be viewed with shame, someone so lazy or ineffectual that he has to accept government hand-outs in the form of welfare and is actually proud of it.
In Bageant’s book, he interviews several childhood friends, all of whom are suffering from various physical ailments and medical conditions, mostly brought about by poor diet and lifestyles. Face it, these days, poor people are morbidly obese. The cheapest food is the most fattening food, and precious few of them have the extra money for a gym subscription. As would be imagined, many of these people are insufficiently insured medically or aren’t insured at all. When asked by Bageant how they would feel if they had government-sponsored healthcare, free at source, but funded by higher taxes, most responded positively. Hell, they didn’t care who implemented the damned thing, Republican or Democrat, they’d be in favour of it. Hands down.
Yet, according to most people, this demographic seems the most adverse to any sort of “socialised medicine,” if for no other reason than it might be a harbinger of the infamous “death panels.” Why is that, do you think? Why would these people respond positively to such a suggestion of single-payer healthcare from Joe Bageant, but would vehemently poo-poo the idea when presented by a politician or a political operative, most likely from the Democratic party?
Possibly, for the same reason that these selfsame people gave to Joe for voting Republican, against their interests. They’re not stupid, they reasoned, although they reckoned “those Washington people” had them pegged as such. They knew damned well that both parties treated them, positively, as potential votes in an election year and, negatively, as nuisance constituents any other time; but they at least saw the Republican candidates for office when the time came, and other times, they knew the operatives the GOP sent amongst them as local people who spoke their language – used their vocabulary and dialect and sounded like them. That’s probably why the anomaly of a nice Jewish boy like Eric Cantor, with a broad Tidewater Virginia drawl and the drawn out courtesy culture in which we were all raised (“Yes, sir” and “No ma’am”) is able to represent a largely rural constituency in the Shenandoah Valley, each of whom could probably count on one hand the number of Jewish people they’ve known in their lives, and that ONE person would be Eric Cantor.
Bageant also talks about how blacks and redneck whites work side-by-side in shitkicking, low-paying and soulless jobs daily, without much of any thoughts about race or racial differences, but how their white betters, first the old land-owning elite and now their corporate successors, have played this difference off against each other in what has resulted in being tantamount to trickedown racism. Divide and conquer, as they say. But on the rare occasions when people wake up and realise that the difference isn’t in skin colour, but in those who have, as opposed to those who don’t, the result has been astounding. Barack Obama turned Virginia blue for the first time in three decades, didn’t he? Yes, some smartass would say, but that’s mainly down to North-to-South migrations into urban areas like the sprawling suburb of Northern Virginia. Well, I’m a Fauquier County girl from the Tenth Congressional District, represented by that inestimable Republican Frank Wolf, and Fauquier County, largely rural, has been the blue thorn in Wolf’s red ass for the thirty years he’s been in Congress.
The other thing remarkable about Bageant’s observations is how cleverly the Republican party has used religion and culture to imbue this demographic with a false sense of self-worth. The GOP operatives highlight, pejoratively, the elite condescension of the Coastal elites toward the South, the rural Midwest and the old working class of the Rust Belt. These people are made to believe that such liberals look down upon them strictly as a second-class and almost subhuman proletariat. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, various high-profiled spokesmen for the ueber Left reinforce this impression.
Bill Maher often refers to the Midwest as “flyover country”, and in a recent editorial on Real Time, ridiculed the South as being filled with Civil War re-enactors and losers intent on endlessly celebrating a one hundred fifty year-old act of treason. Yet James Webb repeatedly points out that a large contingent of armed forces personnel come from the South, including a huge number from West Virginia, mostly kids – black, white and Latino – from one-horse towns whose high schools aren’t geared to promoting college enrollment and who are often faced with the choice of operating a meth lab, gutting chickens in the local processing factory or the military.
And since the great Democratic reformation of 1970, the only Democrats to make all the way to the White House, have been two bubbas and a black man, and the current incumbent has very Southern and very Scots-Irish roots from his mother’s side of the biological equation. In fact, since 1900, bar two, all of the Democrats who successfully attained the Presidency were Southerners. Could it be that these affable sorts were able to communicate more effectively with the working classes? I even think Barack Obama, for all the television punditry would deny, communicates with ordinary people of any background, more effectively than any other President since FDR. At least, Obama speaks to people as adults; it’s not his fault that most of America hasn’t progressed beyond adolescent reasoning.
The religious aspect promoted by the Republicans is mostly that of the dangerous Dominionist dynamic – convincing these basically good Christian people that, because they’re Christian, they’ve been chosen by the Lord to ascend to his side, come the Judgement Day. They are, effectively, the Chosen -whilst the overtly secular Left take on the aura of the anti-Christ. Thus, they’re able to promote the Left’s agenda of pro-choice (read pejoratively: abortions) and human rights (read pejoratively: gays coming out of the woodwork) as evil and wrong. Thus, a Glenn Beck is able to convince his audience of millions that Christianity really shouldn’t be about social justice at all.
It doesn’t matter that the efforts of the Democratic Party might bring you affordable healthcare free at source, or that their efforts provided free public education, paved the roads and brought electricity to thousands of rural homes in the past; it doesn’t matter that this is the party who’s traditionally protected the rights of working class people and working poor for donkey’s years, pun intended … this party is now promoted, cynically, by the Right, as anti-God, anti-foetus and anti-America, fronted by a man who – nudge nudge wink wink – doesn’t look like an American, doesn’t sound like an American, doesn’t have a name like an American and doesn’t even want to lead like an American.
There’s a culture war, all right; and it’s not enough that this culture war exists between the Right and the Left, between Democrats and Republicans. It exists within the Democratic Party, itself. When people who purport to be Democrats, lump everyone in the South into the category of unreconstructed Confederates, itching for the opportunity to seceed once again, they’re throwing an insult not only in the faces of Southerners who are Democrats and who come from a Democratic heritage, whose family stayed with the party rather than claiming Dixiecrat or faux Republican heritage, but it’s a slap in the face of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. It’s a slap in the face of people like Ann Richards and Molly Ivins.
In the wake of the disastrous Midterms last year, during the time when the Coastal elites of the Democratic party were feeding fodder to the 24/7 cable chattering classes about Obama’s caving on the temporary tax cut extensions for the wealthy, I was glad that, no less than Chris Matthews and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, brought up the subject of the working class and the working poor and Obama’s mention of them in his press conference where he outlined the rationale for his compromise and, in doing so, royally pissed off the ueber elite from those affluent safe constituencies.
More and more, I hear the pundits wonder why the President doesn’t do well amongst white working class males, or even amongst the rural working class, in general. The President, one-on-one before these people, does fine. It’s the rest of the people who’v become the collective voices of the Left, the ones who give the impression that these people aren’t worth the bother, who do the damage. In the 2004 Presidential campaign, Howard Dean chomped at the bit to be able to speak to Marlboro Man of the South, who drove a pick-up, adorned with a Confederate flag and a gunrack. Dick Gephardt and John Kerry thought he’d gone mad. Books have even been written about how the Democrats can achieve by effectively writing off the South.
But just imagine the power drive and the loyalty if we invested half as much energy into putting ourselves amongst these people, speaking their language and listening to their needs as constituents and citizens as we do deriding them? Look at any small town in the South or the rural Midwest. You’ll see a Republican party headquarters staffed by local people known to all. You see a Democratic headquarters pop up every four years and staffed by eager college kids from outside the area who disappear the day after the election.
People say the middle class is in danger. I say the middle class is a myth today. If you have to work to live, you’re working class. Embrace that idea as positive, and come home to the Democratic party.
Already this year, the Left has lost James Webb to resignation and Joe Bageant to death. Virginia will miss the pair of them. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have one James Webb and one Joe Bageant fighting my corner than a thousand fragrant designer-clad Katrina vanden Heuvels.