Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Redneck Mystique, #2

Well, now’s as good a time as any, as last night I finally caught Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 on the Sundance Channel. It didn’t make me physically ill, but as usual with his work, I sat there shaking my head, completely amazed at the racket he has going. Then again, plenty of right-leaning people are getting just as wealthy with their cherry-picking skills, gross manipulation and lies of omission. (As for seeing this is in a theatre, forget it. I’m not putting money in his pocket, the same way I’m not buying any Ann Coulter books. It’s a racket aimed at taking money from a well-defined audience, not a search for truth.)

A good question regarding the Redneck Mystique: how did so many working-class white people end up voting for Bush? If you recall, the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election was utter disbelief on the left that this had happened. Shock, disgust, rage, the birth of this Red State/Blue State nonsense, accusations of fraud, less-than-vague threats to move to Canada or elsewhere. (Judging by the results of Canada’s last election, people who pulled out that regrettable line might have been better off with an empty promise to go to France.)

I don’t have the answer as to why this happened, although I have a few ideas that may shed some light. It’s not enough to say that people didn’t vote for Kerry so much as they voted for Bush. Kerry wasn’t all that bad a candidate, although I think the Dems would have won with Edwards, who was younger, wasn’t carrying any baggage regarding the military and could have pulled at least some of the southern vote. The only way Kerry looked like a complete idiot was regarding his military career, which is a shame, because the guy served in Vietnam, as opposed to fumbling through the National Guard. Unfortunately, one got the impression that if there was no war going on, he would have went full-on with the image of anti-war protester he established after leaving the army. In other words, circumstances defined his political stance, as opposed to him having a set stance regardless of circumstances. It showed.

I think a lot of working-class white people relate to Bush in terms of how he’s attacked by the left, which is to position him as a total idiot. This is a grave mistake, whether or not he’s a total idiot. Because the way he’s being attacked is fairly synonymous with how working-class white people are openly portrayed in society – as total idiots, white trash, crackers, rednecks, the only acceptable socio-economic targets to openly shoot at and not be accused of bigotry. (I know … I do it myself.) Whether it’s accidental or a ploy, Bush has a way of deflecting these attacks by shrugging and saying, “What am I supposed to do? If you don’t’ like me, I can’t change that, nor do I want to.”

That sort of stubbornness hits a real working-class nerve. And people aren’t wrong to relate to that. What’s interesting is that Bush is a pampered Ivy Leaguer who’s had financial opportunities galore dropped in his lap and has lead a life of privilege, much like John Kerry. (Part of Bill Clinton’s massive appeal was simply that he came out of nowhere and made himself, which is extremely rare in American politics on that level.) Bush’s greatest act of intelligence is his ability to maintain a down-home image of a regular guy, when the truth is far from that. That’s the political equivalent of gold, an extreme act of intelligence and no accident.

I believe that the harder he was attacked, the more working-class white people related to him. This also positioned the Democrats as reactionary, as opposed to having their own agenda, regardless of what Bush and the Republicans were doing. The theme of a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 can be summed up in one sentence: I have no answers. (Therefore, let me smear my opponent with every trick I have, fair and foul, and see if I can kick his ass in this manner … despite the fact that I have no answers.)

Let’s not forget religion. I’m not even talking about the far right and fundamentalists. Faith seems like a bad joke to plenty of people on the left. If this is a misconception on my part, then folks on the left better throw on the brakes and reconsider their point of view, because if I (as a deeply nonreligious person) notice it, you can rest assure active Christians feel this loathing in their bones. I don’t think the Christian vote, especially with working-class whites, is patently Republican. There’s a reason Democratic politicians aren’t coming out in favor of an issue like gay marriage – because they recognize it could be political death to them if they’ve miscalculated their core constituency. Even if that constituency supports them in their home state, it could still spell death on a national level if they hold presidential aspirations.

I have to believe a huge reason why so many working-class white people sided with Bush was a reactionary stance against the left. Consider the 1972 election, deep in the pit of Vietnam, where Nixon pounded McGovern (this was where the 60s truly ended). The “silent majority” rose up, seemingly out of nowhere, and gave Nixon a landslide. As with 2004 (which was much closer), the left was in utter shock – how could this happen with an unpopular war going on? And I think the answer is there are lot of working-class people stuck in the middle in terms of politics, who could easily be swayed one way or the other, but when you have an extremely vocal/visible far left, these voters will be less offended by the far right (who in reality is just as offensive … but at least shares some of the same core values that affect elections). The left isn’t political poison; it serves a vital purpose in introducing issues that make sense but take time to put over politically. But a simple reality is it is a far harder sell politically than the right, which favors “traditional” values, i.e., time-tested values as opposed to new ideas.

And from what I saw in those months post-election, there were plenty of people on the left who didn’t learn a god-damned thing from Bush’s victory. Their immediate response was to start in with “red state” accusations, threats to leave the country (which were met with “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” comments from Americans who'd never dream of leaving under any circumstance), retreaded accusations of voting fraud, etc. Forget about politics -- bitterness is always ugly. In terms of politics, it’s a wet dog rolling in shit. Rather than focusing on regrouping and examining what went wrong, the immediate impulse was to attack those they held accountable for Bush’s victory. I got the vibe their wrath wasn’t so much directed at the far right and the wealthy – as usual, it was the white working-class, who, by all rights, should be overwhelmingly Democratic, but have somehow been co-opted by the Republicans.

As I write this, I have Country Music Television (CMT) on in the background. Thankfully, Trick My Truck is not on. (Sidenote: what has happened to mechanics? They used to be bone-thin guys wearing service shirts with “Gus” emblazoned on the left breast pocket, smoking Luckies. Now, they seem to be shaved-head, weightlifting goons in wraparound shades, with soul patches, ugly tribal tattoos and a slovenly taste for cry-baby nü-metal music.) But it’s instructive to watch country-music videos, as many of them play like right-leaning propaganda – themes of family, home, work, country, religion. All are beautifully filmed, like a dream, aimed at the emotions of the audience. On one hand, I can see right through this stuff and how deeply manipulative/calculated it is, but on the other, it’s brilliant, too. It works in reaching fans on an every-day level, making them stop and think, “Yeah, that’s what my life is like, how did they know?”

I’d recommend CMT as required viewing for any presidential candidate and his advisors. Because however cheesy a lot of these videos and country artists are (and they are … I much prefer Hank Sr. getting fucked up on speed and whiskey, and threatening to jump in a river), they touch a nerve in ways that any politician would pay a fortune to emulate in a campaign. On a national level, any sort of movement is based on stereotypes and cynicism, like it or not – to move people on a mass level, you need to find common denominators and exploit them. I think the Republicans are simply better at this now than the Democrats are. They’re also very good at exploiting fear, real and imagined, and I don’t see that wave dissipating for at least a few more years, something I recognized immediately after 9/11. It's not so much that the Democrats don't have a clue as to how to do this, as they seem too confused to agree on how to do this.

Compare and contrast with this. In many bookstores in Manhattan, generally well displayed, there is what I call The Idiot Table. The Idiot Table is a display of nothing but political-themed books – as noted earlier, each aimed at a well-defined audience who knows what they’re getting when they buy these things, which is false affirmation of their political beliefs. (I’m not sure the readers know or believe they’re false, but that’s the magic of propaganda.) This is a huge market for booksellers, and I tip my cap to them and the writers for recognizing this and exploiting it to its fullest.

One day, I was passing by The Idiot Table, and I noticed a frowning, angry-looking woman turning over the top book on each stack of books. I paused to notice that every book she was turning over was by a right-leaning author – Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, etc. I must have paused too long, because she looked up and noticed me watching her. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was to the effect of “just doing my duty as a concerned American.” And I responded something like, “Don’t you realize you draw more attention to those books by turning them face down, that people browsing books are more likely to turn them over to see the cover?”

She called me a nazi, told me to go fuck myself and stormed out of the store (Borders on 57th Street and Park Avenue), hopefully to renew her prescription for whatever was keeping her so bright and cheerful. While that woman represents no one but herself, I also sense that sort of rage and resentment on the left is something the Democrats are going to have to deal with if they want to reclaim portions of the white working-class who have at least temporarily abandoned them. American politics are such these days that you'll find plenty of voters who cross party lines on a regular basis. This fall's congressional elections should be interesting, but if Democrats think Iraq is the main issue they're going to exploit, I suspect they're not going to gain back lost ground in either house.


Jordan Hoffman said...

Had she been burning those heinous books, would she still be calling you the Nazi?

I'd like to follow that woman around for a day . . .

PJ said...

I've worked in bookstores, and this is not an uncommon tactic for politcal protest. Clerks would often find Pat Buchanan's or James Carville's books refiled under "fiction" or "abnormal psychology" and the like. I find this is a great way to make your political point, because it's anonymous, unclear in intent, and the results inform no one but merely annoy them. Kind of like blocking streets but less work. I have more respect for those people who gather naked on hillsides to be photographed forming their bodies into the word PEACE because, well, they're naked.

I would tell that woman that if she wants to discourage people from reading Ann Coulter's books she shouldn't turn them over but open one to a page with her writing on it.

Drooch said...

Kerry "wasn't all that bad a candidate"?? He lost to the worst, most brain-dead president in history. He lost the one issue where he had the clear advantage (military service). He couldn't motivate his own party's political base to support him. I think you can make a case that he's the worst presidential candidate of all time.

One more thing: If you think the Democrats will be helped by watching CMT, just keep an eye on Hillary and her on-going campaign to repaint herself as a dyed-in-the-wool red-stater. It's pretty damned funny.

William S. Repsher said...

Kerry had the advantage of military service, and the disadvantage of being caught in high-profile anti-Vietnam protests immediately after his service, i.e., the debate on whether or not he "threw his medals" over the fence. (He obviously did, but saw the shitstorm that would be attached to him admitting he did so.) This was much akin to Clinton's "inhale" debacle -- of course he inhaled. Many times. For Kerry, it was a disadvantage that killed him, along with his old pals from the boat he captained hanging him out to dry. There are surely worse candidates than him in American political history -- the worst candidate would not lose by a slim margin like that. Mondale? Dukakis? It gets worse than Kerry, even in recent memory.

Bush is dumber than Gerry Ford? That's news to me!

Yeah, it looks like Hilary is gearing up for a run -- which is great news for the Republicans should she get the nod from the Dems. But I suspect you're going to see EVERY Democratic candidate going through the centrist motions as she has in the past two years.

Drooch said...

"Mondale? Dukakis? It gets worse than Kerry, even in recent memory."

Let's see: Mondale lost to an incumbent Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in history. No comparison there; he wasn't expected to win, or even compete seriously. Dukakis? Okay, he sucked pretty bad, but he was going up against Ronnie's sitting V.P., George H.W. Bush. Again, not expected to do much. You can't judge solely by the margins of victory; you have to look at the circumstances behind them.