‘King of the Hill’ Democrats?

Matt Bai has a rather disjointed piece in today’s New York Times entitled “‘King of the Hill’ Democrats?

If you watch a lot of cable news, by now you’ve probably heard someone refer to a bloc of voters known as ” ‘South Park’ conservatives.” The term comes from the title of a new book by Brian C. Anderson, a conservative pundit who adapted it from the writer Andrew Sullivan, and it refers to the notion that Comedy Central’s obscene spoof of life in small-town America, with its hilarious skewering of liberal snobbery, is somehow the perfect crucible for understanding a new breed of brash and irreverent Republican voters. In truth, aside from its title, Anderson’s book has very little to say about ”South Park” itself; it’s really just a retread of the argument that the mainstream media is losing its grip on world domination, marketed rather cynically to appeal to the same red-state radio hosts and book clubs that make so many right-wing polemics best sellers.

If politicians and pundits are really so desperate to understand the values of conservative America without leaving their living rooms, then they should start setting the TiVo to record another animated sitcom, which Anderson mentions only in passing and which, despite its general policy of eschewing politics, somehow continues to offer the most subtle and complex portrayal of small-town voters on television: ”King of the Hill,” on Fox. North Carolina’s two-term Democratic governor, Mike Easley, is so obsessed with the show that he instructs his pollster to separate the state’s voters into those who watch ”King of the Hill” and those who don’t so he can find out whether his arguments on social and economic issues are making sense to the sitcom’s fans.

Aside from the fact that Anderson’s book did not popularize the term “South Park conservatives” but rather cashed in on the popularity of the meme by using it as a title, so far, so good. But, while Anderson’s book doesn’t talk much about “South Park,” just conservatives, Bai’s article talks a lot about “King of the Hill,” but not Democrats.

As Arlen becomes more built up and more diverse, however, Hank finds himself struggling to adapt to new phenomena: art galleries and yoga studios, latte-sipping parents who ask their kids to call them by their first names and encourage them to drink responsibly. The show gently pokes fun at liberal and conservative stereotypes, but the real point is not to eviscerate so much as to watch Hank struggle mightily to adapt to a world of political correctness and moral ambiguity. When Peggy tells him he’ll look like a racist for snubbing his Laotian neighbor, Hank replies, ”What the hell kind of country is this where I can only hate a man if he’s white?” And yet, like a lot of the basically conservative voters you meet in rural America — and here’s where Democrats should pay close attention — Hank never professes an explicit party loyalty, and he and his buddies who sip beer in the alley don’t talk like their fellow Texan Tom DeLay. If Hank votes Republican, it’s because, as a voter who cares about religious and rural values, he probably doesn’t see much choice. But Hank and his neighbors resemble many independent voters, open to proposals that challenge their assumptions about the world, as long as those ideas don’t come from someone who seems to disrespect what they believe.

The composition of the audience for ”King of the Hill” is telling. You might expect that a spoof of a small-town propane salesman and his beer-drinking buddies would attract mostly urban intellectuals, with their highly developed sense of irony. In fact, as Governor Easley long ago realized, the show’s primary viewer looks a lot like Hank Hill. According to Nielsen Media Research, the largest group of ”King of the Hill” viewers is made up of men between the ages of 18 and 49, and almost a quarter of those men own pickup trucks. ”This is only the second show that’s a comedy about the South — this and ‘Andy Griffith’ — that doesn’t make fun of Southerners,” Easley told me recently, adding that Hank and his neighbors remind him of the people he grew up with in the hills near Greenville. (Which is probably why Easley does startlingly good impressions of the various characters, including the verbally challenged Boomhauer.)

Even after talking to Easley, who’s correct about why the show appeals to Southerners, Bai still doesn’t get the fact that “Hill” isn’t a “spoof” at all, any more than “Seinfeld” was a spoof of New Yorkers.

The last paragraph finally brings in the Democrats:

If other Democrats want to learn from ”King of the Hill,” they may need to act fast. John Altschuler, one of the show’s executive producers, fears that the show’s 10th season next year could be its last; despite decent ratings, Fox has been buying fewer episodes and shifting its time slot, and there are rumors that the network may want to substitute yet another new reality show in its place. This is odd: after all, there is more reality about American life in five minutes of ”King of the Hill” than in a full season of watching Paris Hilton prance around a farm in high heels. But none of this would come as much of a surprise to Hank Hill and his neighbors, who realized long ago that, as a nation, we often discard the things we once cherished in favor of a more synthetic modernity. ”The only place you can find a Main Street these days is in Disneyland,” Hank once said. ”And just try to buy a gun there.”

So, basically, if Democrats could nominate candidates who were more attuned to the values of rural and suburban Americans, they would have a better chance of getting elected. Well, yeah. No kidding.

“South Park Republicans,” Andrew Sullivan’s much more accurate phrase (I would argue there’s no such thing as a “South Park conservative“) describes a group of people who vote Republican even though they are at odds with the social conservatives who are at the core of the party leadership. “King of the Hill Democrats,” meanwhile, aren’t Democrats at all.

Update: Tom McGuire points out how far the national Democratic leadership has to go to catchup with Easley:

No more sneers? No more “Vote for my health care plan, you racist, homophobic gun nuts”?

Republican strategists can relax.

Chris Lawrence adds,

[T]o paraphrase another modern Southern legend, when the red meat your party activists want turns off the voters you need to reclaim that (oh-so-slowly) “emerging†majority, you might be a Democrat.

Quite right.

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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. McGehee says:

    (I would argue there’s no such thing as a “South Park conservative”)

    That argument might come from a tendency to over-identify American conservatism with the “religious right.” Times have changed since the LSM were playing up the role of the “Moral Majority” and similar groups in getting Ronald Reagan in the White House.

    And the claim that “values” was the biggest issue of the 2004 election has been challenged rather effectively by examining better phrased questions used by other exit-pollers.

  2. I find this interesting but what I find more interesting, as a fan of King of the Hill, is that Hank was first seen as a bit character in Beavis and Butthead cartoons.

  3. Darrell says:

    I enjoyed this article. I’ve been using an image of Hank Hill as a personal avatar at my southern conservative blog for ages. It just fits. I’ve maintained for a while that the show endures because it is honest and affectionate about conservative rural America. It’s not a “Beverly Hillbillies” styled mockery, not a pandering “Dukes of Hazzard” circus, and not a satire. It is, in fact, the only program on television that depicts rural America for what it really is. Hank Hill doesn’t have to be allegiant to any given political party. He is, first and foremost, allegiant to God, family, and country. The show doesn’t deify Hank… he’s flawed and funny, but his priorities and motivations are ours. Fans of the show know that, and we like to think that we see something of ourselves in the Hills.

  4. cheryl says:

    thunderbird appears to be living in one of those alternate realities where the media is liberal and white Christians are persecuted. Please give me no less than 3 quotes, from the last 10 years, where a Republican has apologized for saying something offensive.

    These cases don’t count: John DiUllio for calling the Bush Administration “Mayberry Machiavellis”. Paul O’Neill for his description of the Bush White House in The Limits of Loyalty. Arlen Specter for saying that it would be difficult to get an anti-abortion Supreme Court Justice confirmed. I’d like examples where a Republican has said something offensive that was not about the Bush Administration.

    I can think of plenty of examples where Democrats have been forced to grovel publicly to the Half-Vast Right Wing Machine. But Republicans? Not hardly!

  5. cheryl says:

    Oh … I’m sorry. This thread was over more than a week ago. I apologize for not checking the dates.