Why can't progressives reach white Southern men?

The South's comfort with the GOP is understandable, even predictable. But it shouldn't be inevitable

Published November 5, 2012 11:24PM (EST)

    (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
(AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Ever since Neil Young sang about him, the white Southern man has been the symbol for all that is wrong with America to urban lefties. He is a redneck. A gun-toting, rebel flag-waving racist whose sinister activities wreak far more havoc on the country than, say, the wily Wall Street financier. If you can’t hate the white Southern man, who can you hate?

I grew up with white Southern men. Some of them hard-core Republicans. They have been my classmates. My neighbors. I’m related to lots of them. Having been raised in North Carolina and attended the University of Georgia, it’s impossible for me to see them as strangers.  And while they can irritate me no end when they say and do dumb things, I cringe when San Franciscans like Mark Morford wax elitist and paint them as a monolithic band of aliens whose intolerance is only matched by their ignorance.

I’m from a middle class background, a product of the liberal enclave of Raleigh, NC. But since I went to public schools, I often found myself hanging out with kids whose lives didn’t look like mine. When I was 15, I remember attending a Harley Davidson picnic with my friend Roxanne way out in a rural field that we accessed in her boyfriend’s pickup truck. I was a little fearful -- these were supposed to be the rednecks the Morfords of the world had warned me about. But I got a surprise. The manners of these working class guys were largely superior to those of the frat boys who groped my friends at Duke University parties. They liked Reagan, and baseball, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. They didn't have horns; most of them were gentle and generous. They called me “Cover Girl” because of my fresh-scrubbed appearance and seemed bent on treating me as an ambassador from another world. There was honor at stake; they didn’t want me to go back home and tell my friends about how rough they all were. The more conservative Southern men have a thing about honor and self-respectIf they see that you're not talking down to them, they will want to have your esteem, and show you their best selves, which are often hospitable and kind. If you can't, well, that's a different story. You're likely to get the dark side.

Conservative Southern white men have a thing about the place they call home, too. I remember riding around with the Republican stepfather of an old boyfriend, who showed me the astonishingly beautiful fields and woods of his South Carolina farm. “I love this land,” he said, getting choked up. “I know every sound the birds make.” (He proved this by giving an eerily accurate rendition of a wild turkey’s gobble). Though he was dyed-in-the-wool GOP, he had a strong instinct for conservation, and I could find common ground with him in the need to protect the environment. That’s what you do in the South if you grow up a liberal and don’t want to walk around being pissed off every minute of the day. You try to see if there’s something you might agree on with folks who don’t share your politics. Some humanity that joins you. Usually there is.

I recall snippets like these from my experience with GOP men of the South to help me understand why they are overwhelmingly voting for Romney in this election. Some of it is certainly about race. Cultural memory and prejudice form strange currents in the Southern mind. The power of the fear and antipathy of the black man has been diluted, but it’s still there, and it's easily stoked by unscrupulous politicians. But it’s easy to just stop there, and you won't have a clear picture if you do.

If you look closer, there’s something else. The Harley Davidson guys and their Southern brethren who put rebel flag stickers on their rides are signaling that they still strongly identify with a war in which their ancestors found themselves on the wrong side of history and fought a losing battle. White men in other regions of the country don’t really get what it feels like to know that your people were defeated in a war by their own countrymen. There’s a feeling that they lost so much for this Union to stay together that they’ll be damned if they are going to admit another defeat by recognizing that America is currently in decline. That is too much for the heart to bear. Recently, when I was at the NC state fair in Raleigh, I talked to some guys selling rebel flag paraphernalia. They expressed disappointment with "hate groups" that had co-opted the flag and made it about racism. One of them said that there were lots of flags used during the Civil War, and he wished that the Stars and Bars could be retired because it didn't stand for what he wanted it to stand for -- the history of a war that left his family filled with widows. He said he didn't have any time for racists. Was he joshing me? I don't think so. I think there are more rebel flag waving southerners like him than you may think. I think some of them would be open to finding a way to remember that war that wasn't about hating black people. Not all, but some.

Obama presents a more realistic picture of America’s place in the world than Romney– one in which the United States will have to contend with other global powers and understand its limitation. That, perhaps even more than his blackness, is what rankles white men in the South. The meme of his supposed “apologizing for America” is so powerful because this is precisely what these conservative white Southern men can’t abide. They’ve been asked to apologize for the Confederacy already. In a culture where the notion of dignity resides in honor, pride in country, and love of homeland – a culture in which a certain amount of boastfulness is part of masculinity – there’s only so much apologizing you can be expected to do. Men in other regions do not feel this double-whammy of defeat.

That love of homeland expressed by my boyfriend’s stepdad is another thing that I think it’s hard for urbanites in other parts of the country to fully grasp. The rural and urban divide between the GOP and the Democrats is bigger than it ever has been. You simply don’t feel the same way about the land you live on when you can see vast expanses of it and you have a sense that your people have lived on it for generations. The migratory, transitory, packed-in-tight experience of a city like New York, where I now live, gives you a completely different relationship to the landscape. Mitt Romney’s mythological evocation of an America restored to its former greatness is particularly appealing when you have this kind of ardor in your heart. And when the heart wants to be healed, it will accept any lie to soothe it. This is called being human.

What liberals and progressives don’t seem to understand is that you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story. And that’s what Obama and the Democrats have repeatedly failed to do. White Southern men want a story that makes them feel proud of America and what it can accomplish. I’m troubled when I hear lefties heap scorn upon the South, partly because I know that the antagonism is precisely what the Mitt Romneys of the world hope for. They want to divide us and keep those regional antagonisms stoked so that the cynical Southern strategy continues to work. Every time a San Franciscan or a New Yorker rails against “rednecks” in the South, he has done Karl Rove’s work for him.

I have argued before that there is an ancient strain of populism in the South – particularly in places like North Carolina – that Democrats could tap into to speak to the white Southern man in terms that might appeal to him. But the truth is, the Democrats have been marinating in their own pro-business snake oil for so long that they have often forgotten what they might have in common with the unemployed mill worker or the Wal-Mart check-out guy. FDR did not make that mistake. He turned on the electricity at my granddaddy’s tobacco farm and I can tell you that the man, as conservative as he may have been, never forgot it. Instead of hating the white Southern man, why can’t Democrats take a little more time to talk about what they actually might do for him?

The white Southern man, even GOP-leaning, has never liked fat cats. Reuters/Ipsos polls during this election cycle throughout the Bible Belt reveal a large chunk -- 38 percent –who say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is "very wealthy" than one who isn't. That’s a lot more than the 20 percent who admit that they would be less inclined to vote for an African-American. Evangelicals were once among the country’s most hard-core economic populists, fighting against Anglican elitists all the way back to the founding era. A distrust of money men is still in their DNA. It’s there, if you know how to speak to it. But have Democrats really done this? All too often, they push regressive taxes and tear away at the social safety net, protecting the big corporate interests that back their campaigns. FDR literally turned on the lights for my grandfather. Barack Obama says he's on the same page with Mitt Romney when it comes to Social Security. See any problem?

I think by now many of us can see that a real mass movement that can take hold across the country is the only way to make real inroads against the elites who are pushing us towards a barbed-wire economy. But regional antagonisms are not going to get us there.

Where business Democrats fail, the true lefties could step in and talk about shared economic interests. But they’re usually too caught up in the hot-button cultural issues like gay marriage and religion to have a civil conversation. So the fat cats and the Billy Grahams who do their preaching take full advantage (Billy Graham is doing just that in NC right now). If you want to talk about labor unions, how about doing it without denigrating the cultural touchstones that give the white Southern man his sense of pride and place in the world? As soon as you've scorned a man's god, you can have no further conversation with him. One of the reasons that NC doesn't have much in the way of unions today is that labor organizers from other parts of the country have not been able to have an inclusive conversation with the working class white southern man. Can you look at the rebel flag on his truck and think for a second that he might have pride in the military service of his ancestors and understand that this is not entirely blameworthy? Possible? I"d like to retire the Stars and Bars, too, but I don't want to end the conversation the second I see it. Can you sense his innate hospitality and understand that it might well extend to a feeling of shared responsibility for those you want to help? I"m not saying that this doesn't take patience and the shedding the satisfying feeling of self-righteousness that protects us from our own doubts. It's hard. And sometimes you're just banging your head against the wall. If you don't feel like trying, then you can just continue to rail against the white Southern man. And think about how that's working out for you.

By Lynn Parramore

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is co-founder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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