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.
*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.