Cultural Identity, Country Music, and Voting Behavior

Digby has an epiphany about the difficulty Democrats have in appealing to Red State voters while watching the CMA Awards and examing the lyrics of a Gretchen Wilson-Merle Haggard duet.

Interestingly, my roots are very much Southern and I technically still live in the South (Virginia’s DC suburbs) and like Merle Haggard quite a bit, yet find Gretchen Wilson and her grammatically “uncorrect” song quite annoying. Still, there’s no doubt that she and the likes of Toby Keith (who I also find grating) are wired into something real about the rural consciousness.

Digby seconds a notion that Chris Bowers has been developing for over a year:

[T]he electorate is, in general, non-ideological, not interested in policy, and generally unmoved by the day-to-day minutia of political events that, within the blogosphere, are treated as cataclysmic events. Sure, most people hold general political beliefs, but in general national voting habits are motivated by something else–something more basic.

This isn’t a startling revelation to political scientists by any means. But the implications are worth considering:

As we look for ways to motivate voters in November, we need to remember the powerful role that identity plays in political decision-making. As progressives, we shrug off concepts such as the “battle of civilizations,” but if you look closely at demographic data, maybe it is a battle of civilizations taking place after all. We may very well be living in an era of identity politics. Who knows, maybe every era of American politics is an era of identity politics.

There’s not much doubt about that. The candidate who polls the best on the insipid question “Cares about people like me” invariably wins.

Part of being perceived as caring, though, is a sense of authenticity that regular people can relate to. Guys like Al Gore and John Kerry, perhaps unfairly, struggle with this. Michelle Malkin recently had great fun at the expense of Gore and the Hollywood gliterati over their well-intentioned but tin eared approach to environmental activism. Gore may well be right on the policy (or, at least, in the idea that we need to take things seriously) but one can’t lead if one is perceived as a goofball.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    He’s rejected as a goofball because of the policy he proposes… and on what basis he proposes it.

  2. Alan Kellogg says:

    George Burns: The important thing is sincerity. Once you’ve learned to fake that you’ve got it made.

  3. Alan Kellogg says:


    Gore is scorned because he talks at people, not to them. His policy and ideology has nothing to do with it.

  4. I think there is both truth and a trap here. The truth is that many if not a majority of voters support one candidate vs another less on the candidates record or positions than on whether they trust the candidate to do the right thing when their backs are turned. This is why a charge of flip flopping, taking a position on polls not principles or general dishonesty hurts a candidate so much. We didn’t know the major challenge that Bush would face when elected in 2000, but I have heard many people express thanks that it was Bush and not Gore who was asked to challenge them. Of course, I have also heard others complaining about Bush’s handling, but they tend to be those who opposed them any way.

    The trap is that it can foster a belief that it is just the packaging of ideas that needs to change, not questioning the soundness of the ideas. The Euston manifesto has power not because it clearly argues the liberal vs conservative case, but rather because it takes a position on America and national defense that 3/4 of the voters could support. It then goes after tactics that the other 1/4 would like but would alienate much of that original 3/4.

    For a great number of the voters discussed, the question of national security is a serious one. Should we bomb Iran or not, should we have invaded Iraq, would a democratic Iraq start a movement in the Mideast to counter the appeal of terrorist jihadism and how many troops should be deployed are questions of tactics in the war to keep America safe from future. The fundamental question is are we going to fight the war and fight to win. The discussion on tactics is used as a way to gauge the fundamental question.

    A good example of this could be made with the question of foreign call intercepts. If the democratic response had been to a) condemn the publication of secrets about tactics in our war against the terrorist, b) state that winning the war is job one and c) they would call for closed door investigations to ensure that in trying to win we haven’t lost sight of the need to not abuse the rights of our citizens, then the majority of the country could see democrats as legitimate defenders of our country. When you look at the Echelon program under Clinton you can see that democrats can support a balancing act between gathering the dots and not abusing the rights of Americans. Of course, the ABC response above would have angered the democrats far left. The fact that some of those were also angered by Echelon and the majority have no clue on the program is a problem that the democrats need to address.