I was born in Alabama, grew up in Mississippi, and went to college in Tennessee. And I have a Ph.D. in Russian from Columbia University. So I have a double perception of the South and things Southern. I know the South from the inside, and I’ve chosen not to live there since I graduated from college.
That’s why I was recently intrigued to see a map that showed the county by county results of the 2008 election. It showed, in brown, the counties in which Obama ran behind Kerry’s totals in 2004 by 7% of more. These counties form a clear pattern, a rough crescent that begins in southwest Virginia, runs through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and peters out in Oklahoma.
This pattern raises a number of questions, and let’s begin with this one: What do we call the people who live in these counties? Terms like “redneck” and “hillbilly” come to mind, but they bring their own emotional baggage. It’s much better — because less offensive — to say that they’re “crackers,” in the spirit of Gerald McWhiney’s Cracker Culture (1989).
So what can we say about crackers, the people who refused to vote for Obama in such significant numbers? The easy, obvious, and not untrue, thing to say is that they’re racists; these are after all white people who refused to vote for a black man. But to leave it at that is to give in to the common practice of using “racist” and “racism” as verbal stones to throw at people.
So I say let those who are without racism — white racism, black racism, brown racism, what have you racism — cast the first verbal stone, a stone that will hurt, and cast lots of heat and very little light. Categorizing people — even crackers — solely in terms of their attitude toward race is like categorizing people solely in terms of their sexual orientation. It’s not just demeaning; what’s worse is that it’s also old-fashioned.
Any serious attempt to understand why crackers didn’t vote for Obama must proceed from an understanding of Southern attitudes in general — of what you might call Southern social psychology. Take their attitude toward place, for example. More than the people of any other region, Southerners — crackers — are passionately committed to place, and derive their identity from place.
To put it simply, Southerners believe — or at least say they believe — that they live in what Henry James called “the Great Good Place.” In this, as in so much else about Southern life, country music provides useful clues — and it’s filled with praises of Home. That’s why Hank Williams Jr. could write a song with this quasi-blasphemous title “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot like Dixie, I’d Just as Soon Stay Home.” And let’s not forget country classics such as Waylon Jennings’ “Lukenbach Texas,” which presents Home as a safe haven from yuppie decadence. Don Williams’ celebrated “Livin’ on Tulsa Time,” where Tulsa offers something real, as opposed to Hollywood glitz.
So if deriving your identity from the place where you live has such overwhelming importance for crackers, how did this value affect their attitudes toward Obama?
That’s an easy question to answer if we consider his biography. Obama was born in Hawaii, grew up in Kansas, went to college in New York, and law school in Massachusetts. Then after all that he settled in Illinois. Obama is quite literally all over the place, so he’s without what my Alabama grandparents would have called “a home place,” and crackers just can’t relate to that.
Notice the contrast between Obama and my college classmate and sometime acquaintance Lamar Alexander, who was just re-elected to the senate from Tennessee. In this disastrous election year for Republicans, Alexander garnered a whopping 68% of the votes. He was born in Tennessee, and has lived there all his life, except for his three years at NYU law school and his service as Secretary of Education for the first President Bush. That’s a biography that crackers can understand and relate to.
Crackers have made what Frederic Henry, the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, called “a separate peace.” It’s not just that they are the most marginalized group in America, with no prominent advocates in the media; they are self-marginalized. Jeff Foxworthy, the great blue collar comedian, and arguably the greatest standup comedian of his generation, once said of his audience, “They’re not hip and they don’t want to be.” Their disinterest in being hip and keeping up with what goes on outside the South — and especially in Washington — constitutes a kind of social secession. This social secession derives from the crucial fact of cracker life, a fact that anybody who wishes to understand the South must acknowledge: We Southerners lost The War. Which war? Why, the only war that counts: The Civil War. Or, as it was called in my junior high school textbooks in Mississippi, The War Between the States.
No less an authority on the South than William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The War isn’t over until crackers say that it’s over, so the trauma of losing The War lives on in their psyche, and explains their love of such surrogates for war as NASCAR racing and college and even high school football.
This unresolved trauma also explains crackers’ love of the military — and therefore why McCain had a lock on their affections. Although McCain never did anything heroic (he is a victim, with his own unresolved traumas), he was widely perceived as one. In any case, he was a military man who came from a military family, and was the first presidential candidate since the first President Bush with a military record. Then too, his years as a prisoner of war garnered him a large sympathy vote. It’s fair to say that many crackers were not so much voting against Obama as for McCain the soldier.
It’s also worth remembering that Obama didn’t run behind McCain just in the Appalachian counties dominated by crackers. In fact, Obama carried very few rural counties anywhere. This election showed that the urban/rural split that began to inform American life in the twenties continues to this day, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Counties with significant concentrations of crackers just create an extreme case of this split.
About 143 years have passed since the end of The War, and much has changed in the South. It’s also true that much has not changed in the South, such as attitudes toward home and family. In political terms, this means that crackers will ensure that the South remains the Solid Republican South — and that it will play marginal role at best in future national elections.