Winning Over the Hills and Hollers Crowd
I have a confession. Not only am I a born and raised West Virginian. But I enjoy country music. In particular, I love bluegrass music — and not just the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou that was so popular some years back (although Allison Kraus and Union Station kick some serious bluegrass ass, I must say), but the old timey sort of bluegrass that you heard from Flatt and Scruggs, and that you can still catch on the stage at county fairs where I live or on those happy occasions that Dolly Parton puts out a new bluegrass album.
You are probably sitting there thinking "what the hell kind of political analysis post is this?" but bear with me. Digby hits some notes that I want to expand on the whole cultural connection issue, expanding some thoughts from Chris Bowers at MyDD on American tribalism. Living, as I do, in the heart of the "hills and hollers" crowd, I see this sort of discussion is a necessary one at a national political level — because too often this part of the country has either been written off or taken for granted.
The Democratic party used to pretty much own this area. And they still do in local and statewide elections for the most part. But because the party infrastructure was taken for granted here for so long, and because national campaigns just took for granted that the votes would be here when they wanted them instead of working to maintain a connection — the well has gone dry the last couple of elections, and we need to do a lot more priming to get the votes flowing again.
Digby writes, talking about a song from the CMAs the other day:
Now that’s identity. I emphasized the "can’t get no respect" part because I think that’s key, as I have written many times before. The belief that these ideas are particular to this audience, that they stand alone as being politically incorrect and are "out of style" for holding them, is a huge cultural identifier. And it’s held in opposition to some "other" (presumably someone like me) who is believed not to care about any of those things — particularly the welfare of the common man.
Motivating voters and pulling off a landslide election will require a gut-level change of attitude about the two parties among millions of Americans. For all of the great policies everyone will suggest Democrats to run on this fall, ultimately winning will be based just as much on how Americans view their identity in relation to the image of the two coalitions as anything else. We need to avoid falling into the wonk trap of assuming that people are motivated by policy details. It is the identity, stupid. We need to explore ways to motivate voters for progressive causes with that in mind.
The conservative southern coalition has a very clear sense of identity. They always have. I would suggest that back in the day the New England and Midwestern cultural identifiers were pretty solidly Main Street bourgeois — if you made it your kids got to go to college and you got to join the chamber of commerce and the country club. But that’s no longer the case. The non-southern Party appears to exist mainly as a repository of opposition to conservative policies. Is that true?
I’m not certain this goes far enough. Far be it for me to contradict Digby (and I feel queasy even saying that), but here goes: it’s not just that the Democrats have been playing the "non-Southern party" in recent elections or that they seem to have morphed into an "at least we’re not the other guy" campaign — but that they haven’t even been very good at that in the end. In fact, they suck at it because they keep voting with the other guy.
I feel like all I do is repeat this, but here goes: it’s not enough to hope that people will vote against the other guy, we have to give them a reason to get up off their behinds and want to vote FOR us.
Honestly, let’s think about it for a minute — can you count the number of truly principled stands that you can recall the Democratic party taking in the last five years on more than one hand? Me neither. I’m not saying that the Republican party is any better, but now that the veneer of competence and honesty has slipped off their stinking mockery of a rose, wouldn’t it be awfully nice for Democrats to capitalize on the opportunity by standing up FOR the American people — ALL of the American people? Including the ones that have been taken for granted and all but ignored the last few years?
The South is made up of a big mix of economic strata — but the unifying theme from the very wealthy down to the poorest of the poor is this: what they’d like is some respect and to be treated like they are just as important and intelligent as the rest of the country. Not like some poor hayseed cousin that you are too embarrassed to take to the country club for fear he’ll belch the national anthem before the sorbet course.
And don’t give me that crap that we can just forget about the South and still take all the "battleground" states and win on the electoral map. There are blue collar people in every freaking state — or people who come from blue collar stock, and even though they’ve worked their way up to the suburbs and a two-car garage, they still see themselves as one step removed from the trailer park. (I still do, and I’m two steps removed…)
The Democratic party used to stand for the little guy. The Common Man. The underdog that could make good if he were only given a chance. The widow who got squeezed out of her husband’s pension. You know the list.
And they still do — but the problem is that no one, not even me and I’m a big ole Democratic supporter, NO ONE see the Democratic Party as actually STANDING right now. It’s more of a barely raising your hand in class, and hoping just maybe the teacher won’t notice you until she’s already called on someone else, but you can at least get credit for the hand raising part there.
But for the hills and hollers crowd — and really all of the South and the parts of the country where we like our leaders to have some freaking balls — that’s not nearly enough.
Which is why the Feingold censure movement caught fire in the blogosphere. Which is why people still adore Paul Wellstone. Which is why there are old people all over the state of West Virginia who have a picture of John F. Kennedy right up there on the wall next to their picture of Jesus.
My whole professional life was spent in the courthouse among the "unclean" in America — the underprivileged, for the most part, the drug addicts, the petty criminals, the child abusers, the people you get to mow your lawn and then they rob you while you are on vacation, the folks that all those gated communities work so hard to keep out unless they need a handyman. And you know what I learned? For the most part, they were all just like me but for one, simple fact: my parents worked hard to give me a sense of values, identity and hope, and these folks mostly came from crappy families who disrespected them and taught them to expect nothing better from life than what they already had.
You want to know why John Kennedy is so revered, still, in West Virginia? Because when he campaigned here, he spoke in the language of hope. Of lifting people out of the dark hell of the coal mines and into whatever dream they wanted to achieve. And, despite being from a seriously wealthy family from Massachusetts, he took the time to speak to regular folks like he valued their opinion and not like he was better than they were — and they felt the more valuable for it.
Bill Clinton did the same thing — because he understood exactly what it was like to be in those shoes.
What is missing from politics today is empathy and respect. George Bush was able to fake it for a while with some of the people, because they hungered for it so badly from their leaders that they were willing to look past the smirks and the sly glances to the side at his staffers when he delivered his lines. But that curtain has long been pulled away, and the frat boy simper doesn’t hold the lustre it once did.
What we need is a Democratic party — and party leadership — that steps up to that challenge. Karl Rove’s faux concern malarky isn’t playing well in Peoria any longer, because it’s been exposed for the lie that it is. What we need is to step up to the plate and provide real concern. To highlight the plight of real people in America.
But to do that, we need some fresh ideas — and we need politicians will to step up and honestly run with them. From the gut, from the heart — all the way, not just half-assed, but all the way to the finish line. And we need to provide hope for everyone, not just the golden parachute crowd — everyone in this country needs to feel like they have a stake. Because they DO have one. And that their actions can make a difference — make a change — and bring something better for themselves and their children.
And it is about time we reminded them of that fact. Now, THAT is a reason to get off your butt and away from that Hee Haw re-run to go and vote.
(This photo is of the gorgeous New River Gorge area, in southern West Virginia. I’m lucky enough to have been there a bazillion times in my lifetime, but a whole lot of my state is still this beautiful. Thought I’d share a little glimpse with everyone else this morning.)