Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2004 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
The invisible ethnic group
With the presidential election only days away and the land awash in analyses and predictions and polls and enough statistics to make the head swirl, it occurs to me that ethnicity remains the great subterranean factor in every great American political divide. Its influence isn't always emphasized, but it's obvious once you've noticed it.
In graduate school I once came across a map showing the heaviest concentrations of German population in the Midwest. Those dark splotches on the map coincided almost exactly with congressional districts whose representatives took the isolationist line on key votes leading up to the American entry into the Second World War.
You could almost see the light bulb come on above my head: These folks weren't isolationist because of pacifist leanings or any abstract belief about avoiding entangling alliances. They just knew darned well which side America would join, again, if this country got involved in the approaching world war. And they didn't want to be back in the position of fighting their own kin. (Would you?) Their opinion might have been entirely different if it had been the Spanish-American War that was looming at the time.
In Louisiana, the Long dynasty (first Huey, then Earl) always tried to pick a candidate for lieutenant governor with a French surname. But the most ethnically balanced ticket I've ever encountered was a classic GOP slate in a New York municipal election back in the 1960s. It was positively musical: Lefkowitz, Fino, and Gilhooley! I still can't get that jingle out of my head. An ethnic triple dip! The ticket lost, but the music remained. And isn't that what counts?
I can remember being amused the first time (was it in the '50s?) that I learned the Republican Party had an Ethnic Division. It was a charming conceit - as if only others had an ethnic identity.
Back then, the GOP was trying to cultivate voters with roots in Eastern Europe - like the large blocs of Poles in Chicago and other big Northern cities. It was a time when Congress routinely passed Captive Nations resolutions and nobody except maybe John Foster Dulles actually believed in a rollback of Soviet power, let alone its collapse.
The big secret of this year's presidential election, and maybe of the South's shift to the GOP column over the years, is another ethnic group: the Scots-Irish. It goes by other names of varying respectability: the Southern yeomanry, Reagan Democrats, the redneck vote, or, in Howard Dean's awkward phrase, the guys with Confederate flags on their pick-ups. And gun racks in the back.
Just who are the Scotch-Irish? They're the descendants of the great wave of immigration, hundreds of thousands strong, from northern Britain who settled first in Ireland and then came to America in Colonial times; sometimes they're called the Ulster Scots. They're more easily described than defined. Like any ethnic group, they may seem like a mass of contradictions when viewed from the outside, but from the inside all their various traits cohere:
Deeply attached to family, they're also intensely individualistic. Hard-fighting and hard-drinking, they can be hard-praying folk, too. Loyal to a fault, they can also be instinctively rebellious. They were the great strength of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and they made up a good part of the Union armies, too. They first settled along the Appalachian mountain range from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and even in some frontier areas of New England in colonial times - Vermont and New Hampshire.
Then they spread south and west with the country itself, settling in the uplands across the South. And to this day, the part of the Constitution that calls forth their deepest attachment remains the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. And their agrarian roots remained strong long after they'd become urbanized.
Much of the mysterious charm of George W. Bush in these latitudes may come not from any specific political stance but his ability to reflect the cultural values of the Scots-Irish in America, who are scarcely confined to the South. They can be found spread across the Midwest as far north as Pennsylvania's hills and hollows. And wherever Arkies and Okies migrated during the Great Depression - from Detroit to California. Yet they remain the invisible American ethnic group.
You'll find the cultural diaspora of the Scots-Irish wherever country music is popular, which covers a lot of territory. It's a key political constituency. Which is why both presidential campaigns might have found a good sociologist more useful this year than any number of the usual political analysts who fill their staffs.
The most perceptive piece about ethnic politics I've seen this election year appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week. It was written by James Webb, the author of "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) and it began:
To an outsider, George W. Bush's political demeanor seems little more than stumbling tautology. He utters his campaign message in clipped phrases, filled with bravado and repeated references to G-d, and to resoluteness of purpose. But to a trained eye and ear these performances have the deliberate balance of a country singer at the Grand Ole Opry. . . . The Bush campaign proceeds outward from a familiar mantra: strong leadership, success in war, neighbor helping neighbor, family values, and belief in G-d. Contrary to many analyses, these issues reach much farther than the oft-discussed Christian Right. The president will not win re-election without carrying the votes of the Scots-Irish, along with those others who make up the 'Jacksonian' political culture that has migrated toward the values of this ethnic group.
John Kerry understands that he needs to appeal to Scots-Irish values, which explains all that posturing with shotguns whenever he touches down in the South or small-town Midwest. If there's a membership card in the Scots-Irish ethnic group, it's a hunting license.
Senator Kerry knows what issues he needs to address to win over this ethnic group - and the many Americans who have adopted its values, its music and its sports over the years. (Note the popularity of stock-car racing.) But he can't change his Brahmin ways any more than he can his accent. He tries, bless his heart, but he doesn't really connect. A stranger in a strange land, he's got the words but not the music.
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