Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Republican vs. Democrat: A Longer Perspective

My wife and I recently acquired an antique sideboard.  The surfaces are made of walnut, and the interior woods are yellow pine and tulip poplar.  These interior woods strongly suggest a Southern origin.  Mahogany was readily available at this time in coastal cities of the South, but the use of walnut indicates it was probably made in the "backcountry" of the South.
Hoping to find out more about the furniture from this area, I borrowed though Cornell’s library Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown (1997).  Their book wasn't helpful in regard to our sideboard, but Prown's description of how the Southerners living in coastal cities regarded the people living inland started me thinking of the way Democrats tend to regard Republicans today and vice versa.

The longer-settled, more urban, better educated, and more mercantile inhabitants of the 18th and early 19th centuries in the South were unquestionably prejudiced about the inhabitants of the backcountry.  As Jonathan Prown comments, "Regarded by outsiders with a combination of fear, fascination, amusement, and contempt, the backcountry represented a place of cultural chaos.  Nonurban and noncommercial, the early backcountry rarely is hailed for its cultural achievements.  Instead, the region more often is cited for its cultural anomalies--whiskey stills, minimal education, family feuds, desolate living conditions, first-cousin marriages, and rowdy behavior."  It's much to the point that these aspects resonate even more strongly today.

As David Hackett Fischer has persuasively argued in Albion's Seed:  Four British Folkways in  America (1989), the settlers in the Southern backcountry were different from those who had come to the colonies earlier because they came from a different part of Great Britain and determinedly kept to their own traditions.  Caricatured--think of Ma and Pa Kettle, Hee-Haw, or Justified--these anomalies soon were appropriated.  With a reversed kind of pride, "backcountry" became "country."  Jeff Foxworthy’s red-neck jokes going viral are an obvious example.  Those in the backcountry looking outward toward the coastal population probably saw themselves as embattled defenders of traditional values of hearth and home, family and kin, the Bible and the rifle.  They were the pioneers of what became known as Manifest Destiny, those who made America great.  And they are still with us as those who passionately believe that Donald Trump will indeed make America great again.

From the Republicans’ point of view, the best government is the least government (as long, of course, as reformers don't touch their Medicare benefits).  In the 18th century, this backcountry distrust of government and the governing class was rational:  North Britons wanted to escape oppressive regulation by the government; French Huguenots and German Protestants wanted freedom of religion.  They all wanted land of their own and to have like-minded people as neighbors.

But, as my son used to say as a five-year-old, "That was then and this is now."  In our time, regulation by the federal government is the only hope of preventing the excesses of 21st century capitalism, be they fraudulent investment practices, pollution of air, ground, and water, the crippling cost of medical operations, or the obscene pricing of medications.  As Trump and the Republican majority in Congress make government (except for the Defense Department) smaller, it is a near certainty that they will destroy America in order to save it.

What used to be a cultural divide in the South has gone national, and it cannot be overcome by ever more narrowly pointed political targeting of fly-over country.  We have far less to fear from terrorists from without than from fanatics within.  Cultural chaos is at hand.  Unfortunately, we need something more than "a combination of fear, fascination, amusement, and contempt" to restore a moderate balance of power.  I have no suggestions for a solution, but I can say that unless one is found quickly, we are entering the last days.  It's one thing for America's greatness to wane; it's another for it to implode.