Friday, May 26, 2006

"We don't care how they do it up North"

Two complementary posts today about American tribal identities and how "identity politics" trumps issues for most Americans.

Chris Bowers at MyDD writes:
Over the past year and a half, I have slowly developed an argument that the 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. 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.

Motivating voters and pulling off a landslide election will require a gut-level change of attitude about the two parties among millions of Americans. For all of the great policies everyone will suggest Democrats to run on this fall, ultimately winning will be based just as much on how Americans view their identity in relation to the image of the two coalitions as anything else. We need to avoid falling into the wonk trap of assuming that people are motivated by policy details. It is the identity, stupid. We need to explore ways to motivate voters for progressive causes with that in mind.
Digby concurs, noting in particular the south's strong cultural identity:
It's just a fact that the south has a very strong regional identity of its own. And I don't think the rest of the country is quite like it. That divide has been with us since the beginning and it far transcends any mommy/daddy party dichotomy.

I watched the country music awards the other night and saw what looked like a typical bunch of glammed up pop stars like you'd see on any of these awards shows. Lots of cowboy hats, of course, but the haircuts, the clothes, the silicone bodies were not any different from any other Hollywood production. But the songs were not. There are plenty of Saturday night honky tonk fun and straightforward gospel style religious and patriotic tunes. But there is a strain of explicit cultural ID that wends through all of them.

Gretchen Wilson and Merle Haggard's song "Politically Uncorrect" perfectly captures the sense of exceptionalism and specialness of southern culture:
I'm for the low man on the totem pole
And I'm for the underdog God bless his soul
And I'm for the guys still pulling third shift
And the single mom raisin' her kids
I'm for the preachers who stay on their knees
And I'm for the sinner who finally believes
And I'm for the farmer with dirt on his hands
And the soldiers who fight for this land


And I'm for the Bible and I'm for the flag
And I'm for the working man, me and ol' hag
I'm just one of many
Who can't get no respect

Politically uncorrect

(Merle Haggard)
I guess my opinion is all out of style
(Gretchen Wilson)
Aw, but don't get me started cause I can get riled
And I'll make a fight for the forefathers plan
(Merle Haggard)
And the world already knows where I stand

Repeat Chorus

(Merle Haggard)
Nothing wrong with the Bible, nothing wrong with the flag
(Gretchen Wilson)
Nothing wrong with the working man me & ol' hag
We're just some of many who can't get no respect
Politically uncorrect
(Merle Haggard)
Now that's identity. I emphasized the "can't get no respect" part because I think that's key, as I have written many times before. The belief that these ideas are particular to this audience, that they stand alone as being politically incorrect and are "out of style" for holding them, is a huge cultural identifier. And it's held in opposition to some "other" (presumably someone like me) who is believed not to care about any of those things --- particularly the welfare of the common man.
And that, friends, is what Republican flacks mean when they say Democrats "don't get it." Criticisms like that stick because there's some truth to them.

As much as liberal activists read and inform themselves, many can't let go of the notion that the truth (their truth) will set men free. They fixate on pet issues and insist that every voter should hold them as dearly as they do. It doesn't work that way. Some don't want to be "set free."

It's like some vegatarian zealot insisting that eating meat is immoral, but who never tried to survive an arctic winter eating only veggies. That's a temperate zone vanity, born of being able to survive easily on fruits and vegetables delivered year-round thanks to a vast network of asphalt-based roads and fleets of diesel-burning trucks. Moose and caribou eaters in arctic climes might think vegetarians have a death wish.

Not every southern issue is about freeing the slaves, and those who insist upon cultural sensitivity should try promoting it by showing some. The "otherness" of southern culture is a point of pride, as stated in the iconic southern bumper sticker that thumbs a nose at know-it-all yankees (and the rest of the country), "We don't care how they do it up North."

The sooner southern Democrat activists learn to show the same cultural sensitivity for their football- and NASCAR-loving neighbors that they'd show for more exotic foreign ex-pats, the sooner they'll win back southern voters and stop being tagged as the "other" themselves.

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