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American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God

Paul Waldman and Kevin Drum, understandably, resent the notion that rural folks and, especially, Southerners are perceived as more “authentic” and “American” than people from the cities and the coasts. Waldman finds it “deeply insulting” and Drum believes Southerners are downright “intolerant” because they won’t vote for Yankees.

Alex Massie, a Scottish-born, Irish-educated, D.C. journalist defends the South’s honor, noting that the region and its culture are more distinctly American. Northeasterners are more likely to have an inferiority complex towards Europe,* big cities around the world are relatively homogeneous, and American inventions like jazz, basketball, and motion pictures are ubiquitous in the developed world. Conversely, Southerners tend to think America is the best at everything while country music, rodeo, and NASCAR are still mostly American pursuits.

Indeed, there’s a reason the iconic image of Americans is a cowboy, not a fellow in a business suit: The latter could be from anywhere.

Drum’s complaint that “Five of our last seven presidents have been from the South and the other two have been from the Southwest” is not only wrong (Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were from California, Gerald Ford was from Michigan, and George H.W. Bush might have lived in Texas but he was Connecticut born and bred) but largely irrelevant.**

It’s not that Southerners will only vote for a guy who sounds like them. Reagan, Bush 41, and Nixon didn’t. It’s about values. As the bumper sticker puts it, God, Guts, and Guns. Northerners who can talk to people in those terms have a good shot at getting Southern and rural votes.

As ol’ Hank put it in his classic ode to rural culture, “A Country Boy Can Survive,”

We came from the West Virginia coal mines
And the Rocky Mountains and the western skies

[...]

We’re from North California and south Alabam’
And little towns all around this land

Despite the fact that I’ve never skinned a buck or run a trot line (nor chewed Beechnut, let alone had any desire to spit it in some dude’s eyes) there’s an undeniable appeal to the pride and raw emotion of the sentiments. And while it’s undeniably exclusionary — one can’t have an Us without a Them, after all– it’s decidedly not geographical but cultural.

Indeed, Hank performed a modified version of the song in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that concluded thusly:

Cause you can’t scare us out, and you can’t make us run
we’re them boys and girls with freedom and fun
We say grace and we say ma’am
If they don’t like that, we give less than a damn
We’re from North California and South Alabam’
And all they’ve done is unite this whole land
There’s no more Yankees and Rebels this time
But one united people that stand behind
America can survive
America will survive

Corny as all get out, to be sure, and not nearly as catchy as the original. But a presidential candidate who could convincingly get across those sentiments, whether he’s from Georgia or Massachusetts, a Democrat or a Republican, could get elected. Those who can’t won’t get many votes from rural America, regardless of their accent.

UPDATE:

*Actually a somewhat-too-glib synopsis of a more subtle point in Massey’s post about a wistfulness for the finer points of European culture, the desire for European approval, and so forth. I don’t hold that Northerners aren’t proud of their country, just that Southern culture is more unabashed in its embrace of American exceptionalism.

**In fairness to Drum, Ford probably shouldn’t count since his thesis is about presidents who are elected. So, if we modify his statement to “Five of our last seven elected presidents,” we scratch Ford (who incidentally moved to California when he left the White House) and add in Texan Lyndon Johnson.

There’s also some conflict as to the scope of “Southwest.” Is California included? I’ve never thought so but I’m seeing conflicting definitions. This page, for example, includes the Golden State; others are more narrow and include only Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Of course, since despite writing for Washington [D.C.] Monthly, he was born and still resides in California, it’s odd for Drum to be complaining about Californians getting elected president.

Minor spelling and punctuation changes made to original for added clarity.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Hank probably never ran a trout line either, though he might have run a trot line.

    Something Mr. Drum doesn’t seem to appreciate is that Southerners are generally happy to leave him alone to live however he chooses to do so up in Washington D.C., whereas they resent that folks from Mr. Drum’s demographic and political class won’t generally do the same for them. Live and let live is a true, individualist American trait that doesn’t seem to be shared by most coastal, urban, wannabe masters of the universe.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. Triumph says:

    As old Hank put it in his classic ode to rural culture, “A Country Boy Can Survive,”

    I have to question your Southern bona fides, James. A true American knows that “old Hank” is Hank Williams, Sr.–not the lame Bocephus!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  3. James Joyner says:

    A true American knows that “old Hank” is Hank Williams, Sr.–not the lame Bocephus!

    I don’t believe Hank Sr. ever did a theme song for Monday Night Football.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Tano says:

    Cowboys are not from the South.

    There is a difference between rural and Southern, one that is completely conflated in this post.

    Southern culture has been an anchor around the neck of this country – the source of our greatest moral blight, and our most retrograde and reactionary politics.

    And it must take someone with no understanding at all to imagine that easterners or northerners have an “inferiority complex’ with regard to Europe. We do feel a connection to Western civilization, and a pride of place within that culture, but with an attitude of being on the cutting edge of that culture, not trailing behind. You should get out a bit more, James.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 8

  5. Cernig says:

    If NASCAR was really Southern, they would drive the other direction so all they would have to do was turn further Right :-)

    Regards, C

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  6. M1EK says:

    Something Mr. Drum doesn’t seem to appreciate is that Southerners are generally happy to leave him alone to live however he chooses to do so up in Washington D.C

    As long, of course, as the federal money keeps flowing. Welfare queens have nothing on the Southerner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  7. tylerh says:

    James,

    Your post ends strong with an important point. Bu t you dropped some real clunkers along the way.

    “big cities around the world are relatively homogeneous”

    Bull stuff.
    I’ll grant you that the airports, tourist zones, and 5-star hotels are pretty homogeneous, but all one has to do is walk a few blocks from any of these places to experience this comment for the lazy thinking it revealed.

    “the iconic image of Americans is a cowboy”

    True historically, but the cowboy is a symbol of the west, and was invented in Northern Mexico (hint: why are the leather leggings called “Chaps?). Nothing “Southern” about the cowboy.

    Also, the blonde surfer dude can now give the cowboy a run for his money as an “iconic American” on the world opinion meter.

    Lastly, the woman in a business suit who wields actual (economic) power is still largely an American icon world wide — definitely more widely known (and reviled) than the skoal-dippin’, Ford truck drivin’ good ol’ boy in a gimme cap.

    Still, keep up the good work — no one can post fantastic all the time !

    -tylerh

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Well, I can survive, too, because I can always hire a country boy to grow food for me while I’m busy at the museum, the opera, and Broadway theaters.

    But even I know that it’s “trotline” – not “trout line” (and you don’t generally catch trout on them, anyway).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  9. James Joyner says:

    “big cities around the world are relatively homogeneous”

    Again, this is a shorthand for a point developed more fully in Massey’s post. Read it.

    Nothing “Southern” about the cowboy.

    Certainly not. But the post is about the South and rural America writ large.

    Lastly, the woman in a business suit who wields actual (economic) power is still largely an American icon world wide

    Nonsense. The U.S was rather late to the career woman bandwagon compared to our Western European counterparts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. upyernoz says:

    …noting that the region and its culture are more distinctly American. Northeasterners are more likely to have an inferiority complex towards Europe, big cities around the world are relatively homogeneous, and American inventions like jazz, basketball, and motion pictures are ubiquitous in the developed world. Conversely, Southerners tend to think America is the best at everything while country music, rodeo, and NASCAR are still mostly American pursuits.

    huh? that argument makes almost no sense. let me break it down piece-by-piece:

    “Northeasterners are more likely to have an inferiority complex towards Europe”

    what? is that a joke? i’ve never met any northeasterner who has an inferiority complex towards europe, and i’ve lived in the north-east for 28 of my 37 years. the only person i know who can even be described that way grew up in LA and i met him while living in missouri.

    maybe there are people like that in the NE, but the paragraph states it like it’s an obvious fact when it is far from that.

    big cities around the world are relatively homogeneous

    um, actually big cities around the world are diverse. unless by “homogeneous” you mean big cities around the world are like one another, but that’s also not true at all. lagos is nothing like new york city even though both are in the same population class. once again, this statement seems more obviously true than false to me.

    and American inventions like jazz, basketball, and motion pictures are ubiquitous in the developed world. Conversely, Southerners tend to think America is the best at everything while country music, rodeo, and NASCAR are still mostly American pursuits.

    this one is just bizarre. jazz was invented in the south. but for some reason it is classified as “american” and not “southern” here. perhaps because it is ubiquitous?

    meanwhile rodeo isn’t even american. it was invented in mexico. NASCAR is phenomenally popular in the rural north (something people who write about north-south differences like to pretend doesn’t exist), and country music is ubiquitous in subsaharan africa. at least it was when i traveled there.

    i realize the above was from a quote by alex massie, but you seem to endorse his entire thought with a single “indeed” even though the paragraph seems mostly detached from reality to me.

    as a north easterner who was once transplanted into the south, i think the only real difference between northerners and southerners is that for southerners being a southerner is part of their identity, whereas it really isn’t for a northerner. as a result southerners seem to define themselves in opposition to northerners, setting up dichotomies between their own way of life and the perceived way of life in the north. and like this post, those perceptions are often remarkably inaccurate

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  11. William d'Inger says:

    Oo-ee, y’all’s talkin’ up a tub o’ hogwash flavr’d wid sawr grapes.
    The South only accounts for about a third of the electoral votes. The president runs in all 50 states. By itself, the solid South isn’t worth a mess of beans (with or without a side of pot lickin’ cornbread) to the outcome of the election.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. stevesh says:

    UpstateNY born, Boston for twenty years, now back upstate: Boston is tres Euro, the “North Country” of UpstateNY resembles the South in many aspects.

    Then, of course, there’s this:

    Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
    Rick: It’s not particularly my beloved Paris.
    Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
    Rick: When you get there, ask me!
    Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
    Major Strasser: How about New York?
    Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. just me says:

    I would point out that NASCAR absolutely is a Southern born sport. It was born from the various moonshiners and bootleggers souping up their cars to outrun the feds out to shut them down.

    It gradually developed into the sport it is, and it sure enough has been exported around the US and they run a Busch series race in Mexico City. It is an American sport, and it was born in the South, just because it is popular in other portions of the country now is due to good marketing and popularity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Rob says:

    Speaking as a rural voter (I live in North Dakota, which is about as far from the bright lights of the big city as you can get), I think a lot of the refusal to vote for “city slicker” types has to do with cultural divides. Which is pointed out in the column.

    But those cultural divides have more to with attitudes than just preferences on music and sports. We rubes like a good redneck joke as much as the next guy, but there’s only so many times you can hear some arrogant jerk from New York talk about “fly over” country before you begin to get a little annoyed with him/her.

    We in rural areas just don’t get a lot of love from the political elite. I don’t even remember the last Presidential candidate who visited North Dakota, even if we do only have three electoral votes.

    Ultimately I think we all just like to vote for people who we identify with. And, like it or not, rural or southern voters tend to like to vote for down-home types rather than “big city” types who we sometimes get the idea might be making fun of our little podunk towns when they’re not aiming speeches at us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. TJIT says:

    M1EK you said,

    As long, of course, as the federal money keeps flowing. Welfare queens have nothing on the Southerner.

    There is an easy, workable, conservative solution to this problem.

    Terminate the programs that transfer money from the taxpayers in the North East to the tax eaters in the South.

    A win for the liberal taxpayers in the north east, and a win for fiscal conservatives, happy, happy, joy, joy all around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    Tano that was extremely racist so I fixed it for you. “Liberal culture has been an anchor around the neck of this country – the source of our greatest moral blight, and our most retrograde and reactionary politics.”

    “And it must take someone with no understanding at all to imagine that easterners or northerners have an “inferiority complex’ with regard to Europe. We do feel a connection to Western civilization, and a pride of place within that culture, but with an attitude of being on the cutting edge of that culture, not trailing behind.” Dude what in the great bloody hearted blue hell are you talking about?????

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Tano says:

    Dude, I would draw you a picture, but I cant seem to find the crayons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. [...] American By Birth, Southern Because My Mom Was Stupid Enough To Marry My Father James Joyner, Outside The Beltway, has a post up “American By Birth, Southern By The Grace Of God”, that goes on to extol the virtues southerners and the southern way of life.Despite the fact that I’ve never skinned a buck or run a trout line (nor chewed Beechnut, let alone had any desire to spit it in some dude’s eyes) there’s an undeniable appeal to the pride and raw emotion of the sentiments. And while it’s undeniably exclusionary — one can’t have an Us without a Them, after all— it’s decidedly not geographical but cultural.Kevin Drum hit on the theme that southerners have a victim complex and will only vote for other southerners.I can’t begin to tell you how tired I am of the South’s victim complex. Five of our last seven presidents have been from the South and the other two have been from the Southwest — and the reason, as near as I can tell, is that most Southerners just flatly refuse to vote for anyone who comes from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And yet, somehow, it’s the rest of us who are supposedly intolerant of Southern culture. Feh.Joyner goes on further that it’s about culture and a sharing of common values.It’s not that Southerners will only vote for a guy who sounds like them. Reagan, Bush 41, and Nixon didn’t. It’s about values. As the bumper sticker puts it, God, Guts, and Guns. Northerners who can talk to people in those terms have a good shot at getting Southern and rural votes.Well, speaking as a southerner who has caught and cleaned fish and killed and skinned a buck it doesn’t endow you with any special American-ness. Southerners have no more sense of values than anyone else. We have no more values than anyone else. Southerners still think that car racing is a sport, and that the civil war was fought over states rights. Those two things should tell you something. They can be just as rude, uncouth and stupid as anyone else. To say that a group of people or for a group of people to claim that they are more special because of where they live is to believe the lies told by the media and to accept the republican’s southern strategy. It’s all bullshit.Kevin Drum got it right, kind of. So did James Joyner, kind of. Southerners think they’re special because people keep telling them they are. They sure didn’t do anything to deserve it.As to the title, my mom met my dad at a naval hospital in Connecticut where she was stationed as a nurse during WWII. I’m southern born, but only half southern bred.Jim MartinLabels: culture, politics [...]

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  19. Patrick T McGuire says:

    I was born in Nebraska, grew up in Las Vegas, spent 14 months in New York before moving to the Middle East for 25 years. I have travelled the world, I have been on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, my favorite place in the world is the beaches of France (both in Normandy and along the Riviera), and I currently live in the South so I consider myself able to speak on this subject with some authority.

    Being a Southerner has nothing to do with how we talk, or the type of hat we wear (I alternate between my Stetson and a Panama hat), or geography for that matter. Being from the South is a cultural thing that no one outside the South could understand.

    It’s about showing respect to others, not being afraid to help others (even total strangers), and not caring much what others think of us. It’s about doing what is right, especially when it’s not the easiest thing to do. Its about thanking God for the few blessing He has bestowed upon us. It’s about living a simple life and wanting nothing more. It’s about honor (a man’s word is his bond) and it’s about standing your ground in any confrontation, no matter the odds against you.

    Some claim it’s about God, guts and guns. Perhaps, although I prefer to think of it as Mom, apple pie, and the American flag. Regardless of how you care to put it, I have never been prouder to be an American before moving here.

    And y’all can take that to the bank!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. The distinctiveness of the South comes from our pioneering roots. We “pull ourselves up by the boot straps” in Texas. A Native Texan will rarely ask for a hand-out, but we always give a helping hand to our neighbors.

    Don’t mess with Texas women either. While in the southern states it is an understood courtesy that the woman must extend her hand first for a handshake, it is also best understood that the same woman with the soft hand might be able to line up a shot and knock a cigarette butt off the fence down by the mailbox.

    I am a Texas lady and make no apologies!

    Tammy Swofford

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Anderson says:

    The distinctiveness of the South comes from our pioneering roots.

    Because when the Southerners got here, they found indigenous suburban Americans at strip malls in the Northeast, Midwest, and West?

    ALL of the country was settled by “pioneers” of one type or other.

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  22. If southerners love their country so much, how come so many of them flock around the traitors’ banner that is the confederate battle flag?

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  23. JKB says:

    For those concerned about this, you should be afraid, very afraid. While the South may be where a politician can show pride and speak to America’s greatness and still get elected, it is all the other people in “fly over” country or working class suburbs of the “big cities” that elect them President.

    The uncouth, unabashed pride in Americanism is what defines these people not their region of the country. Perhaps now that the MSM hegemony is waning, a politician who speaks directly to the Jacksonian in Brooklyn or rural Michigan will make some headway in state politics. It isn’t Southerners who keep getting elected, it is candidates who believe in and have hope for America who get elected.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. JKB says:

    TJIT,

    “Terminate the programs that transfer money from the taxpayers in the North East to the tax eaters in the South.”

    You and M1EK should get right on this. The “Progressives” of the ’30s started this to buy influence. It should be apparent by now that just because the Yankees buy us dinner doesn’t mean they get to screw with us. Of course, if you aren’t buying we don’t have to smile and listen to you incessant harping anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Major Scarlet says:

    if you want to know why southerners still don´t like yanks.. just read the comments in kevin drum´s blog. the yanks trot out every tired insult of southerners you can imagine.. dumb, rednecks, hillbillys.. etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  26. spacemonkey says:

    I think the Northerners/Urbaners just need more gravy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. TJIT says:

    JKB,

    You are right about these programs being put in place and largely supported by the progressives / liberals.

    Which is why I find it somewhat entertaining when liberals / progresssives complain when lots of people sign up for the programs the liberals / progressives started.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. TJIT says:

    JKB,

    I have to point out M1EK has a pretty valid point in his comment.

    Southern politicians blather on about fiscal conservatism, individual responsibility, etc. Then they proceed to get their snout in the trough to an astounding degree and shovel massive amounts of pork back to the southern states.

    The ag subsidy programs were abused so much in the south that the phrase “mississippi christmas tree” is used to describe one prominent misuse of the system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. ken says:

    I have spent considerable time in the south for business purposes.

    I can say without a doubt that the southern people are, on personal basis, as decent a people as you will find anywhere in America. From New York to Los Angeles you could not find more amiable populations that you can find in almost any southern city.

    The people are nice but that is not the problem with the south. The problem is the southern culture. Southern culture is myopic, vituperative, dishonest, cunning, shallow and materialistic to an extreme.

    A business deal with a Northerner or Westerner that can be sealed with a handshake after being reviewed by the lawyers and accountants is impossible with a Southerner. They are simply not as trustworthy. They are constantly looking for loopholes and advantages in any business deal in order to gain at your expense.

    And they do this with a warm smile on their faces and a sincere invitation to a family bar-b-que next time you are in town.

    Places where southern culture is declining, like in the research triangle or the financial center of Charlotte, are places where northerners have moved in and become culturally dominant. These are the places where honest businesses deals get done and commerce can thrive.

    Southern culture is what is keeping the south down. It is the reason we still have to support it with tax dollars from the more decent parts of America.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. Bithead says:

    **In fairness to Drum, Ford probably shouldn’t count since his thesis is about presidents who are elected. So, if we modify his statement to “Five of our last seven elected presidents,” we scratch Ford (who incidentally moved to California when he left the White House) and add in Texan Lyndon Johnson.

    Given Drum and his left wing politicking, one wonders if GWB isn’t on that list of exclusions… the wacko left, you’ll recall, is to this day salivating over the idea that he wasn’t elected, either.

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  31. floyd says:

    “Waldman finds it “deeply insulting” and Drum believes Southerners are downright “intolerant”

    ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

    Why should a southerner give a d**n, if some are “deeply insulted”? It appears above to be the avocation of many to “deeply insult” their betters from the South!
    Slandering the South has become a tradition among those who suffer from true inferiority and are desperate to compensate!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. floyd says:

    “Dude, I would draw you a picture, but I cant seem to find the crayons.”
    ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

    Gee Tano, To think I had credited you earlier with mastery of the crayon medium![lol]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0