I attended a dinner party once—the kind filled with people you really, really don’t ever want to be around for any reason. One of the party hosts, having chugged a monstrous amount of wine over a relatively short period of time, rose from his Barcalounger and addressed me.
“You’re a Southern boy, right?” he asked me. He was a Northern transplant, the kind of guy always going on about “white privilege” and the South’s irredeemably racist history. “You know,” he continued through his nasal Yankee inflection, “I never could figure out why you people always vote against your interests.”
For those who need some lib-speak translated to English, he was essentially asking me why poor white people in the region didn’t vote for Democratic candidates.
Now, I could’ve given him a very short reply—asking why he, an extremely wealthy public-sector employee who pays property taxes in two states—votes against HIS interests and follow that up with the logically inescapable question as to why it’s OK for him to vote against HIS economic interests but not for others to vote against THEIR economic interests. Of course, the mouse of a man I was, I just silently sat there. Besides, I already knew what his retort would’ve been anyway. “But it’s different!” he would shout, swishing the cheapo stuff he got at Publix from his snifter. “You people NEED the money!”
His question is one that I’ve been asked more than once, however, and I suppose it requires further explanation. As it turns out, rural white Southerners tend to oppose liberal-backed policies (and liberals in general) for a whole host of reasons, and not just the old “Well, the Republicans won ’em over with guns and religion” chestnut.
For a moment, let’s forget about all of the secondary stuff such as how rural Caucasians are universally mocked and degraded by liberal politicos. Let’s forget all about folks such as ex-Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman (and serial drunk driver) Graeme Zielinski, who once mocked Tea Party supporters for aligning with states where people have “Southern drawls” and therefore must automatically be Klansmen. And let’s forget all about the mainstream media, filled to the brim with smug bullies such as Bill Maher, who once referred to primaries in Alabama and Mississippi as “Toothless Tuesday.” And of course, let’s forget all about America’s academic elites, whom seem to despise Appalachian rubes with a downright unreasonable fervor.
Instead, let’s just look at poor rural whites from an unbiased sociological perspective. Who are these people, exactly, and what are the core political ideals and interests they actually hold dear?
Well, odds are, if we’re talking about “poor white trash” in the classical sense, we’re probably dealing with individuals with Gaelic and Celtic ancestry, or failing that, the descendants of English serfs. Despite their cultural differences, all three of these groups share four commonalities:
1) They lived life in extreme agrarian poverty;
2) They were often the victims of widespread persecution (or maybe even genocide, if you’re keen on reading about the reign of Oliver Cromwell);
3) Large throngs of each were either indentured servants or prisoners;
4) A whole hell of a bunch of them came to the US from the 17th to 19th centuries, where they were immediately thrust into a new kind of extreme agrarian poverty and experienced new forms of widespread persecution.
Rural US whites from the 1600s-1800s basically picked up right where they left off in the Old World, serving as prison labor, indentured servants (read: slaves), and dirt-poor farmers. As a politically represented people, they never received any kind of proper acknowledgement from the higher-ups. Contrary to the standard narrative you were taught in elementary school, a relatively paltry number of Southerners actually owned slaves, and the odds of any white person in the Deep South prior to the Civil War being a slave owner were actually WAY lower than the odds of any white person in the Deep South being in some form of bondage.
And so the plantation owners and the Southern aristocracy—in the name of states’ rights, which to me, sounds an awful lot like economic interests—decided to secede from the Union and are then accosted by industrialists and Northern oligarchs—in the name of emancipation, which to me, sounds an awful lot like economic interests—and the US Civil War kicks off. For the first time in the nation’s history, politicians actually paid heed to the existence of poor rural whites, primarily because they were needed as fodder for a downright suicidal (and largely metaphorical) stand against Northern aggressors. One look at the actual numbers behind the Civil War tells you the obvious: There was no way in hell the Confederates stood a chance against the Union, with 289,000 or so Southerners dying largely for a battle the Confederate hawks knew was a losing effort from the get-go.
So let’s try to empathize for a bit, shall we? Imagine you’re some poor-ass, uneducated white male living in Georgia circa 1870. For the last 500 years, all your bloodline has known is crushing oppression, and now, you found yourself living in what is more or less a conquered nation. Maybe your sons got killed in battle, or maybe you had half a leg blown off yourself. Who knows; even your wife and daughters may have been raped or maimed by General Sherman’s troops at one point. The entire agrarian way of life you’ve known—that meager lifestyle that BARELY gave you enough to not starve—is suddenly displaced by these newfangled sharecropper systems, where big agrarian tycoons from up North tell you what to grow, how much to grow, and where you can grow it.
Oh, and also, you can’t leave the land, and if you don’t do what we say, we’ll evict you, throw you out into the wilderness, or worse. Poor rural Southern whites immediately after the Civil War went right back to living in feudal times, whatever scant freedom they received as poor-yet-self-sustaining farmers crushed before their eyes. And throughout large portions of the Deep South, such a lifestyle dragged on, sometimes extending as late as the 1960s.
So your entire agrarian culture, and with it, practically all of your ethnic ways and customs, are obliterated. To not starve to death, you travel to the city and get a job doing construction or working in a factory—indeed, two types of industries that didn’t have the soundest safety records in the early part of the 20th century. Or you could join the Army and get shipped to the Philippines or Cuba and contract malaria. If you want to keep your roots alive, your only alternative is to become a sharecropper and lose all semblance of personal liberty, or you can try to exist off the land and struggle through almost uncountable hardships. Almost exclusively, today’s rural, impoverished Caucasians are offspring of that last category: the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of those staunch individualists who, rather than lose their traditions and agrarian lifestyle, chose to live life in extreme, albeit relatively independent, poverty around the turn of the century.
Many early 20th century white trash, like their white trash forerunners, at least aspired to be subsistence farmers. With sharecropping—and later on, government-subsidized corporate farming—that practice became obsolete, and many new-wave white trash turned toward emerging industries to feed themselves. They worked in factories and on the railroad tracks and became, to some extent, skilled laborers. Ever the enterprising sorts, many of these post-Depression hayseeds and bumpkins became self-employed, electing to start their own businesses and services—be it cutting grass, operating a garage, or simply freelancing their mechanical skills—all the way until NAFTA came along and led to all of the manufacturing jobs heading south of the border and overseas, while low-wage competitive labor filtered into the US en masse.
Still, they kept a-workin’ at their manufacturing jobs and running their small businesses, while globalization and the Information Technology Revolution slowly transformed the term “US manufacturing” into an anachronism. With hardly any construction, manual labor, manufacturing, or especially agrarian-type jobs left in the wake of the Great Recession, today’s white trash, in particular those in the rural South, are left working crappy service-industry jobs (your part-time Walmart and Cracker Barrel gigs, if you’re lucky) or engaging in more nefarious doings (such as yanking copper out of abandoned buildings and selling prescription pills fished out of dumpsters) to support themselves and their families. Once the definition of self-sustainable folks, ever-growing numbers of today’s hillbillies and rednecks have instead opted for the dole; rather than hunting their own food like Jed Clampett, the aggregate, post-recession cracker is much more likely to spend his or her days endlessly applying for disability payments or trying to pawn off pain pills on his neighbors.
So let’s recap. As a poor Southern honky, it was the DEMOCRATS who led you into a bloody, doomed-from-the-start military endeavor in the mid-1800s. Then it was the same DEMOCRATS who sold you out to carpetbaggers and Northern industrialist opportunists during Reconstruction. From there, three generations of Southern rubes were shipped overseas to get shot, gassed, maimed, and disfigured, and wouldn’t you know it? All three sitting presidents at those respective times—Wilson, FDR, and LBJ—were DEMOCRATS. When unions started getting picked apart and the US government basically nationalized agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s, it was DEMOCRATS who held a stranglehold on both houses in Congress. And lest we forget, it was a DEMOCRAT commander-in-chief who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into existence, which has done more to deprive rural Americans of livelihoods than just about any act in United States history. And of course, I don’t think any rural poor folks today haven’t noticed just a teensy difference in their way of life during the Bush years compared to the Obama years; ask any non-metro Southerner whether life was better circa 2002 or 2012, and the consensus pick really shouldn’t surprise you one iota.
With all that in mind, it seems quite clear why rural Southern white folks don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with the political left: because the Dems’ mass public investment shticks just don’t gel with what has traditionally been the utmost desire of virtually every rural white Southerner since the nation’s founding: the freedom to be left the hell alone for once.
Indeed, the countryman has been one who embraces self-employment and entrepreneurialism, while modern US liberalism, for better or worse, is an ideology wedded to social collectivization. There’s nothing more that the Southern country-dweller wants than to live a truly private life, to be his or her own provider. With today’s Democrats hell-bent on spending every taxable nickel and dime on public investments and social entitlements, however, is it really all that shocking that rural poor folks tend to pull their levers for the other guys instead?