Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Southernization of the White Working Class?

(This essay was originally published the San Diego Union-Tribune on October 1.)

The current battle between the presidential candidates for the votes of the white working-class requires an understanding of the culture of these voters. There are signs of a decline of an old Rust Belt culture, and the adoption of Southern culture – and both campaigns are responding.

The changes first struck me in an unforgettable moment several months ago when I saw what had become of the Rust Belt, white working-class voter. I was standing on the platform of the East Chicago, Ind., station for the local commuter train to Chicago. It was chilly, and the young man near me was wearing a jacket with a union local's name emblazoned on the back and above the left breast. But what he had on his head surprised me: he also wore a black baseball cap with the flag of the Confederacy on it.

Several months later, in a visit to my hometown of hyper-segregated Highland, Ind. – a neighbor of majority-black Gary – I witnessed a large Ford pickup truck cruising through what is left of our old downtown. And there it was again: flying proudly from the rear corners of the truck were a pair of Confederate flags.

These are only two simple observations, but both, I believe, are indicative of major changes taking place in the culture and identities of white working-class voters in the urban north.

The novelist and essayist Dave Eggers – himself a product of the Chicago suburbs – once wrote that the Midwest can be found 25 miles outside of any American city. But I think what is happening, and it is something with important implications for American politics, is that we are finding the American South all over the country. There is a “Southernization” of American politics.

Consider the ways that politicians used to court the white working class in the Rust Belt. The Nixon administration, which pioneered the strand of Republican populism that we see today, sought to appeal to them in three different ways.

First, it sought to “cultivate” (its word) relationships with union leaders. It would not do much for union workers economically, but it would stroke its union identities through words and deeds such as the appointment of Peter J. Brennan, head of the New York Building Trades Council, as secretary of Labor.

Second, it would appeal to working-class voters' identities as Catholics. The way to do this was to laud their institutions, particularly parochial schools.

Third, it celebrated these workers' ethnicity. The Nixon team fanned out across the Rust Belt and made appearances at Polish Pride Parades, Italian American Picnics and Serbfests.

Do we see any of these strategies today? Hardly – and with good reason. The work force in the still-unionized steel mills of Gary is only about a quarter of what it was in its heyday. It just does not make as much sense for the Republicans to tap pride in union membership. Appeals to Catholics are still common, but they come in a very different form. Rather than talking about what is distinctive about Catholics, Republicans appeal to what Catholic conservatives share with evangelicals: opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Religious conservatives of many different faiths, as James Davison Hunter pointed out in “Culture Wars,” share more in common with each other than with the liberal wings of their own faiths. And rather than appeal to these voters'identities as Poles or Italians or Irish, they appeal to the cultural symbols of the American South.

And this strategy makes sense. The sociologist Richard Alba noted years ago that white ethnicity was being severely attenuated by intermarriage and migration to the suburbs. But what may be happening now is that the working-class voters across the country – even in Alaska – are gravitating not toward some bland or empty “whiteness,” but toward the cultural symbols of the South.

Of course, even Nixon used “Southern strategies” to appeal to the Rust Belt. But now these Southern-style appeals are all that are left. In 2008, Republicans appeal to the white working class across the country by stoking and responding to fears of racial change. According to The Washington Post, this year the Republicans' convention reversed its convention trend toward celebrations of diversity and hosted the fewest black delegates (36 out of 2,380) since the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies began keeping track. And we hear tough talk appealing to nationalism and insecurities about American power, we have a vice presidential candidate who is an avid hunter and gun owner (and who is culturally a snow-bound Southerner), and we hear strong defenses of Christian values.

This is a trend in the wider culture – not just politics. The death-knell for the distinctiveness of the old Rust Belt working class may have sounded when comedian Jeff Foxworthy, a native of Georgia wildly successful for his “you know you're a redneck when – ” comedy theme, appropriated the phrase “blue collar” for a show about the zany antics of himself and some other wacky hillbillies. “Blue Collar TV,” as it is called, is not about unions or white ethnics.

The Southernization of the working class is a perilous trend for Democrats. Obama chose an old-school Catholic, Joe Biden, for his running mate, ignoring the fact that the Democrats have not won the White House without a Southerner on the ticket since FDR. But they at least seem to be cognizant of the trend and are being strategic. For example, Barack Obama ended his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention as Brooks & Dunn's country music smash, “Only in America,” played triumphantly. The Obama campaign can only hope that the Rust Belt voters took note.

My former classmate, fellow Rustbelt Intellectual, and NPR/PBS reporter Rick Karr sent me the following after reading the above piece:

One small empirical quibble: Since WWII, in particular, the (Northwest Indiana) Region has been heavy with migrants from the Deep South. Your comment on hyper-segregated Highland takes on another meaning in this context: Those southerners tended to live in places like Griffith, Calumet Township, outlying and unincorporated Gary (Black Oak, e.g.), and in South County -- Cedar Lake and so on.

Note the socioeconomic correlation: Highland High "ranked" higher than any of those schools, though not as high as Munster, where, iirc, very few southern migrants lived.

And I recall strong anti-souther bias in my extended family -- the only word used more derisively than "Czarny" ("blacks" in Polish, spat out with the vehemence of "nigger") was "hillbilly". When my family lived in a mixed working-class and lower-middle class neighborhood, many of the neighbors (the Bashums, the Stewarts, the Cartwrights -- note the names) were denigrated as "hillbillies" -- not only by my parents, but also by the Zemkoskys, Suklaks, and so on. Oh, and my family loathed Bill Clinton -- not because of his politics alone, but because, according to my mother, he "looks like a hillbilly".

Seems to me it's a classic migration pattern: We Eastern Europeans got their first, so we disdained those who followed us during and immediately after WWII.

Indiana as a whole has also long had a strong affinity for southern symbolism and politics -- moreso, I think, than the surrounding north-of-the-Ohio states. Neither Illinois nor Ohio ever sent a Grand Dragon of the Klan to the U.S. Senate.

Bottom line: Your conclusion feels sound to me, though citing the Region as evidence seems odd.

Rick is certainly right--and those folks displaying Confederate flags I witnessed could have easily been transplanted Southerners rather than culturally lost ethnic Catholics. I would still maintain, however, that the old political appeals to Rust Belt working class voters emphasizing union membership, Catholic institutions and white ethnicity have mostly disappeared, leaving only Southern-style political appeals in their place.


Geoff Robinson said...

But generally former left-wingers who defect to the right some became indistinguishable from their new political allies. Look at the neo-conservatives, Commentary is keener on Palin than National Review. In Australia right-wing breakaways from Labor soon merged entirely with the conservatives.

Black Political Analysis said...

True enough, but the same patterns work in reverse. In my native South, it is still culturally conservative - politics infused with Baptist beliefs are the norm, not the exception. Yet, the politics of the South are currently transforming - to what, I'm not sure. For instance, 3 of Mississippi's 4 House members are Democrats, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee all have Democratic governors. Partly, this is because of the large numbers of Northern migrants who might bring with them the values of economic conservatism, but not necessarily cultural conservatism - thus Republican populist appeals can fall surprisingly flat in some part of the South.

La Lubu said...

I second what your friend said---transplanted Southerners (whether permanent or temporary) are ubiquitous in Rust Belt cities in the relative "boom time" of major building projects. Probably a third of the guys out at the powerhouse project in my Local are from the South. Those guys are making triple the wages up here---even without overtime---than they would back home, if they could even find work at home (which they can't).

For my part, I haven't seen the dynamic you've described on the jobsite. The only folks I see with the Confederate flag gear (or tattoos) have that as their heritage. White "et-nicks" still try to hold on to that identity, and there's a clear "country" vs. "urban" divide.

What I have seen, is some white ethnics (always male) that---having lost a critical mass of connection to their own ethnic heritage---adopt a stereotypical Italian-American identity, a la the Sopranos. That's easier to "fake" for an urban white ethnic than a countrified Southern identity.

Microsoft Office 2007 said...

Office 2010
Microsoft Office 2010
Microsoft word
Office 2007
Microsoft Office
Microsoft Office 2007
Office 2007 key
Office 2007 download
Office 2007 Professional
Outlook 2010
Microsoft outlook
Microsoft outlook 2010
Windows 7

Iklan Gratis said...

Nice article, thanks for the information
Peluang Bisnis
Bisnis Pulsa

Bob_Alfredo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob_Alfredo said...

I like your blog very much! It is found me so interesting and informative... Thanks very much for sharing this amazing information over here…"

Printing Logo

Admin said...

The post is interesting. I really never thought I could have a good read by this time until I found out this site.Thanks!

Logo Design

Admin said...

Very good, informative piece. Smartly done as all the time.

Photo App

how do you get rid of fruit flies said...

this is really frustrating. You've got a good site with interesting content. Thanks I will be visiting again.

weight loss programs mn said...

It's good to read this information from your post. You have an interesting way of drawing people in. Keep up the good works..

Audience Response System said...

I am unable to quite see it through your eyes in all my honesty.

Audience Response System Rental said...

maybe it is because i am very new in this field but I will keep reading and shoot an email when I’ve one or two doubts if you do not have anything agains this?

electronic voting systems said...

Hi. I wanted to drop you a quick word to express my thanks.

Eagan Fitness Center said...

Ive been following your weblog for a month or so and have picked up a ton of excellent info and loved the tactic youve structured your site.

website hosting australia said...

I like this post. I want to more information about this topic and now, I got all information by your post. Everything define in this post is awesome. I think you should make more post which helps us.

australian web hosting said...

This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best blogger I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.

Website Hosting Australia said...

I took the time to read all the comments, but I really liked the article. It proved to be very helpful to me, and I believe all the critics here! Always good when you can not just be told.

Powerpoint Clicker said...

I like this post, as well as this whole site.

Anonymous said...

"The only folks I see with the Confederate flag gear (or tattoos) have that as their heritage. White "et-nicks" still try to hold on to that identity, and there's a clear "country" vs. "urban" divide."

I see that pretty clearly hear in Michigan with native-born residents as well. Practically none of the people displaying Confederate flag gear here have names like Zemkosky or Suklak. Most are almost certainly the descendents of Southern migrants, and most of them are found in more rural and exburban areas. I think what's happened is that more of the urban blue collar population in the north has become anglo-protestant thanks to post WWII southern migration. The ethnics have not been southernized, they just don't dominate ranks of the urban blue collar like they did 50-60 years ago.

رضا رمضان said...

شركة تتميز بجميع الخبرات في تقديم اعمالها المتميزة في الكشف عن التسريبات من خلال شركة كشف تسربات المياه بجدة التي تعطي كل ما لديها في اصلاح العديد من المشاكل التي تحدث نتيجة كسر او عطل مفاجئ في امدادت المياه لذلك ننصحم ان تعتمد علي شركة كشف تسربات بجدة لديه سباكين وفنين لديهم الخبرة في حل هذه المشكلة بكل سهولة كما نمتلك لديها القدرة علي تنفيذ اعمال العوازل من خلال شركة عزل اسطح بالرياض التي تعالج تسريبات المياه في الاسقف والحوائط كما نقدم خدمة العزل السليمة للخزانات الارضي والعلوي الخرسانية بواسطة فني متميزة لديه القدرة علي معالجة كل ذلك بسهولة من خلال شركة عزل خزانات بالرياض تمتلك مواد ذات جودة متميزة