Alex Massie

The Hillbilly Vote

The Hillbilly Vote
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The day after the Presidential election Matt Yglesias spotted this map that shows the counties across the country which swung towards John McCain this year. As you can see, there aren't that many of them. But what's interesting is where they are:


Matt quipped that, "You can see why John McCain’s principled stand against higher taxes on the wealthy would have a special resonance in this region. Liberals who thought race had something to do with those appeals should be ashamed of themselves."  Andrew Sullivan agreed with Matt: "Ah, yes, Appalachia and Arkansas. Obviously concerned about marginal tax rates for those earning over $250,000 a year, I suppose."

Now, clearly, it would be absurd to pretend - and I do not so pretend - that race had nothing to do with this. But I think this map rather more interesting than that. For that matter, I think the nature of the Appalachian and "Highland" vote is more interesting than this map might initially suggest. 

What the map shows is that McCain did better than Bush in south-western West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. (One ought to remember that the map is also distorting: some of these counties had only five or six thousand voters, so the number of people required to turn the map red is not always large.) Still, as I say, doubtless some of this is attributable to racial prejudice, but it seems a stretch and, indeed, a simplification to suppose that this is the only factor at play. That is, one ought to be wary of presuming that race is the only reason a county might buck the national trend and swing towards Obama. 

Ignorance is, I think, a more likely explanation. I think it's worth observing that Obama didn't really campaign in any of these areas.(Marc Ambinder had a useful chart revealing where each campaign was spending their money). As George Packer observes, Obama did as well as John Kerry had in culturally conservative, pretty rural south-eastern Ohio and in parts of rural Pennsylvania. These placesaren't exactly the same as Tennessee and Kentucky of course, but nor are they vastly different. What I'd suggest, however, is that just as Obama was able to overcome a considerable degree of scepticism in Appalachian PA and OH so he might have been able to in KY and TN had he needed to campaign fiercely in those states.

Packer cites a pair of articles written by the New York Times'  Michael Sokolove who returned to his home town of Levittown, PA to take the political temperature in a key swing state. In the second he observed that:

Early on Election Day morning in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, Pa., Joe Sinitski, 48, stood in a long line inside a school gymnasium, inching his way toward three blue-curtained voting machines. He wore jeans, a sweatshirt and aNational Rifle Association baseball cap. He said he would vote for Barack Obama, a choice that some months earlier he could not have imagined.

“I have to admit, his race made my decision harder,” he said. “I was brought up that way. And I don’t like his name. I’ll admit to that, too.”

...A lot of people in Levittown needed the five months between the primary election and Tuesday to get used to a new idea. After Mrs. Clinton’s defeat, followed by a financial crisis that shook Americans to the core, they came to terms. If Mr. Obama’s race had been a factor, they eventually had to weigh it against other concerns. “For a long time, I couldn’t ignore the fact that he was black, if you know what I mean,” Mr. Sinitski, the heating and air-conditioning technician, told me. “I’m not proud of that, but I was raised to think that there aren’t good black people out there. I could see that he was highly intelligent, and that matters to me, but my instinct was still to go with the white guy.”

Now perhaps white voters in Appalachia would have remained immune to Obama's charms had he campaigned in Kentucky and Tennessee and so on, but I can't help but feel that at least some of them might have reconsidered their votes had they had been barraged, as voters in PA and OH were, by pro-Obama messages. (This isn't a criticism of the Obama campaign since, rightly, it needed to devote its energies to winnable states.) 

Arkansas is, as ever, a slightly different case. The swing to McCain there may also include a Hillary factor. Indeed, according to exit polls nearly 30% of Democrats who voted for Hillary in the Arkansas primary voted for McCain in the general election. Racism? Who knows? Sour grapes? Almost certainly.

Furthermore, it's worth considering the possibility that some conservative voters were more enamoured of John McCain than they were of George W Bush. By that I mean only that some voters may have found McCain's personal story more persuasive, or even inspiring, than they did Bush's. That is to say, some voters may have been especially impressed by McCain's military service (and that of his forefathers) and that those voters may have been located, to a dispropotionate extent, in the south.

Though the percentage of Americans who are veterans is, broadly speaking, fairly consistent across the states, the south is, according census data from 2000, the only part of America in which the number of veterans as a percentage of the overall population is increasing. More importantly, I would suggest, some research suggests that as many as 75% of folk living in rural areas are likely to know someone who has served in Iraq - a figure that, if accurate, is, I warrant, rather higher than would be the case in urban areas. Equally, the Center for Rural Stregies estimates that the death-rate amongst military personnel is almost twice as high for those from counties of fewer than 50,000 people than it is from the most populous counties across America.

That doesn't make small t own and rural America any more "real" than big city America. All it suggests is that, given the nature of small towns, the impact of military casualties is more widely, and even keenly, felt in small towns than it is in big cities. The chances of either knowing or, for sure, knowing someone who knows the dead kid's family, are vastly greater. Two, or perhaps three, degrees of separation. In such circumstances I don't find it hard to imagine vters being swayed by McCain's military heroism even if, on the merits, some of those voters might find themselves more in line with Obama's policy positions. This is, of course, guesswork on my part and I may be entirely wrong. Nonetheless, the point is that communities that send a disproportionate number of their sons off to war ought not automatically to be considered racist if they buck the national trend and endorse the decorated war veteran. And that applies even if some of them are racist.

And that brings me to a second map. This one is taken from the most recent census and shows the concentration of folk who, when asked about their ethnicity, answered "American":


As you can see, there's a considerable overlap with the counties that defied the national swing and endorsed McCain more heavily than they had Bush. It's true that the "American-Americans" only represent about 7% of the total population, but clearly they're more numerous in WV, KY, TN and AL in particular (with significant pockets in SC, GA and elsewhere).  This is, as you'll recognise for sure, the heartland of the Scots and Scots-Irish immigration to the US. And all - or at least most - of that was a long time ago. Senator Jim Webb will tell you that these are the people who built America in its early days and that they've been overlooked ever since. That's bred, he would say, a distrust of government promises (indeed, rightly or not, a scepticism towards government full-stop) and in time, I would suggest, a grievance against those who would define themselves (or permit themselves to be defined) as hyphenated-Americans.

This is America, they may say, and we are Americans. No more, no less. We don't look back or east or south so why in hell's name should you? The attitude is, I think, that once you're a United States citizen you should drop you hyphen. That's to say, I think many of these voters would have been suspicious of JFK's catholicism or, had he ever run, Mario Cumo's Italianism. There can be, for sure, and perhaps always is a certain ugliness to this but I wonder if Barry O'Bama or Jose Obama might have had almost as tough a time in these districts as did Barack Hussein Obama. For sure - and perhaps all this undermines some of what I've written here - there's a degree of racial prejudice at work here, but I also wonder - and this, I admit is somewhat speculative - if there isn't also at least something of a backlash against the idea of identity and hyphenatated politics entirely. (Easier, of course, for white folk in rural areas to rail against all of that. I don't defend this attitude, I merely wonder about it's putative existence and how widespread it may be.)

Some of this is, I suspect, a feature of a certain white working-class sense of self-pity and victimhood. Perhaps that is an unjustified sense, but I suspect it exists and that rather than simply or only condemn it one might ask if everything is as simple as lines and squares and colours on a map might make on think. That's all.

And, yes, to reiterate, I do think there's a racial element at work. I just wonder if that's the only thing.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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