-INTERVIEW: Love is red, death is blue: Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz discuss their amazing new anthology of writing about the American ballad -- and wonder whether Republicans sing better songs of passion and murder than Democrats do. (Charles Taylor, 2004-11-17, Salon)
CT: Forgive me for going relevant on you, but this week everyone is talking about national division. One of the things that struck me here is that in a lot of these songs the America that's being sung about is part of the America that the left is now being encouraged to look down on, in the wake of the election. The passage that smacked me in the head, reading it now, is the one from Steve Erickson's essay where he writes about Lincoln's second inaugural address: "He argued that in fact the country, had, for all its short history, existed as an affront to God in its embrace of slavery, that the Civil War was in fact God's retribution against America for the sin of slavery, that if the nation was destined to fight another 250 years of civil war -- one year for every year slavery existed -- in order to redeem itself, if the nation was to shed its blood to the last drop in order to cleanse itself of the sin, then that was what it would do." Reading that in a week when we hear that God won the election, and the idea that if God is made part of politics it is also the most reactionary part of politics, brought me up short. I don't agree that if the idea of God is present in politics it's reactionary, because then you don't have --We are at long last in the midst of an oft-delayed reckoning on the Left, as it tries to come to terms with its estrangement from the American people. Circumstances intervened several times in the latter half of the 20th Century to preserve a liberal ascendancy that had only been made possible by the Great Depression. First the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a profoundly conservative Democrat, was brilliantly converted into an electoral and legislative opportunity by Lyndon Johnson, though doing so left him unable to even run for a second term. Then Democrats seized on the unsavory character of Richard M. Nixon and managed to drive him from office and, only just, elect a Southern Christian, though Jimmy Carter likewise was unable to win a second term. Finally, the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 gave Democrats a false hope that they were still a viable national party in America--this despite his running as a conservative Southern Christian, with two major candidates to his Right, the incumbent having violated his no new taxes pledge.
Reality came crashing down in 1994, in the GOP's congressional landslide. But the fact that President Clinton got to serve while America was enjoying the enormous post-Cold War peace dividend did get him a second term and kept the 2000 election close enough that Al Gore would have won if he had just been able to carry his own or his boss's home state. Indeed, the very closeness of 2000 enabled Democrats to pretend that George W. Bush was just an accidental president, as the 1994 Republican majority was surely an accident, and they convinced themselves that as soon as voters had a chance to rectify their error they'd do so. Early exit polls led them to believe that was exactly what was happening on Election Day 2004, and made the ultimate results all the more devastating. At any rate, in the wake of all this we've been treated to a slew of books, essays, articles, etc., all seeking to explain how things could have gone so catastrophically wrong in America.
The Left's attempts to understand their own decline have generally taken two forms, those that seek to minimize the Democrats' structural problems and the resistance of much of America to liberal ideas, on the one hand, and those, on the other, that quite accurately depict religious Red America as so radically different from secular Blue America as to call into question whether liberal politics can ever appeal to most Americans. The problem with these latter analyses has been that they've often been hysterical about and/or contemptuous towards the conservative Americans they are examining. You don't have to read much beyond the title of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? to know that you're in for a diatribe that's going to spread more heat than light.
But you really need to go back to Richard Hofstadter's 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, written at the height of the liberal epoch, to find the first glimmers of understanding on the Left that their country had an innate hostility to their secular rationalist ideology. Hofstadter wrote of the enduring strain of anti-intellectualism in American life and said that: "The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life." It's easy enough to draw a straight line from his fretting to the piece that Garry Wills wrote immediately after the 2004 election, quite accurately titled, The Day the Enlightenment Went Out belief in most of America (Garry Wills, 11/04/04, NY Times). This hardly seems to overstate the case. The modern Conservative triumph in America and the increasing divide between not just Red and Blue America but between an America that must be considered Red overall and a Europe that is quite Blue can probably best be understood as a matter of the tenacity of Judeo-Christian belief on the part of most Americans vs. the Enlightenment secularism/rationalism/intellectualism of coastal elites in the States and most Europeans. America has, almost uniquely in the West, rejected the Enlightenment and any political analysis that doesn't take this rejection into consideration is unlikely to penetrate very far into the heart of the matter.
This brings us to Brian Mann's well-intentioned but rather flawed book, Welcome to the Homeland. Mr. Mann, you see, has tried to write with greater sympathy about Red America and less alarmism about the state of the Left, but in the process has terribly underestimated both the depth of the divide in our politics and the amount of rethinking the Democrats will require if they are to make themselves a consistent and serious alternative to the GOP.
While Mr. Mann is personally a political liberal and a liberal Christian, he covers rural America for NPR and has a brother who is a genuine Christian conservative Kansan. As someone who likes the people and communities he covers for a living and loves his brother, it would be hard for Mr. Mann to maintain the level of hostility towards Red America that many of his peers achieve. This book, much of it spent traveling around with and trying to comprehend his brother, Allen, is necessarily then far friendlier to his subjects than are many other texts in the genre. The better balance he's able to strike makes the book more enjoyable and the relationship between him and Allen, and the interplay of their differing politics, is genuinely intriguing. If nothing else, Allen puts a human face on the Neanderthals that the Left is usually so terrified of and serves as a demonstration that we can all get along. Meanwhile, the basic case that Mr. Mann makes is that while there is a political faultline in our politics it is essentially between rural America, which is dying anyway so we need not worry about it overmuch, and more urban America, which is thriving, growing, and with just a few tweaks to the Constitution would once again dominate Washington. It's all very reassuring for the Left.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mann's case won't withstand much scrutiny. In the first place, while he devotes considerable time to the declining population and fortunes of rural America, Mr. Mann ignores the respective demographic realities of those who adhere to rural values and those of more cosmopolitan bent. Not only do Christians have far higher birth rates than secular, but our recent boom in immigration has basically imported new Christians by the tens of millions. The enormous influx of formerly rural, socially conservative, Christian, Latino immigrants into American cities is hardly likely to be a basis for rescuing liberalism. And the black population of many cities -- which tends to be more church going and socially conservative than white urbanites -- represents an uncertain basis upon which to pin hopes for a liberal future. It is hardly coincidental that across the country, we see the election of Republicans and more conservative Democrats as mayors of big cities, from New York City to Washington, DC to Chicago to Los Angeles. The raw numbers mask many reasons for Democrats to be alarmed. And this is before you even begin to consider the way that Republicans have come to dominate suburbia, and even moreso exurban areas.
Mr. Mann also contradicts his own thesis in one vital respect. While he argues that the seeming conservatism of American politics is really just an effect of the way the Constitution distributes power undemocratically, allowing a few rural voters in each Plains state the same number of senators as all those millions of Californians and New Yorkers, and so forth, he also gives an honest account of how many of liberalism victories were a function of completely undemocratic Supreme Court decisions. When he concedes that, in the 1960s, "federal courts systematically purged overt Christian influences from most of our public institutions" and that, thereby, "urban intellectuals have dragged the nation into a modernist, multicultural interpretation of the Constitution," he really needs to go on to a recognition that as conservatives in turn get to appoint the judiciary the pendulum is going to swing back and we'll return to the traditional understandings of these constitutional matters. There is no possibility that the Constitution will be rewritten to give urban voters more power, but every likelihood that the courts will undo the modernist interpretation by which liberals imposed from above when they couldn't win below. And the concession that liberalism depended so heavily on the courts because it couldn't win democratically is pretty devastating.
Finally, there's one section of the book where Mr. Man reveals, by accident, just how hot of touch he is with America, no matter how well he's tried listening. There are hints early on, when he writes, for instance, of how Allen surely wouldn't want to be thought of as intolerant, even if he does oppose gay marriage and the like. And it's hard not to laugh when he says that he and his liberal friends are just as moral as conservatives, though they may take their morality from novels and music instead of just from religion. It seems a pretty lost cause pointing out that morality is fundamentally at war with tolerance and that an "experimental" morality that would change every time you twirled the radio dial would be unworthy of the name. (Though one would like to see Mr. Mann meet a new neighbor who says he takes his own morality from music as Helter Skelter wafts from his stereo.... ) However, it's when he gets to his own unquestioning faith in Darwinism that Mr. Mann segregates himself out of the mainstream of American thought and reveals why he may have misjudged the anti-intellectual currents. It remains the key to understanding America's peculiarity that the Darwinism he presents as inarguable fact is believed in by just 13% of our fellow citizens. Even most Americans who believe that natural selection may occur also believe that the process of evolution is guided by some intelligence or another. And you can't help but find it odd that Mr. Mann finds it possible to reconcile his Christian faith with the notion that evolution is wholly Natural. Suffice it to say, while Mr. Mann refers at one point to the "strangeness of homelander culture," it is in fact metro culture -- like its Darwinism -- that is strange in the context of the nation as a whole. This reality gives the book a certain quality of a stranger trying to explain your own land to you. It helps that the stranger here is particularly friendly and likable, but he does run into considerable problems bridging the cultural divide.
On balance, this book is much more readable and useful than such tomes as George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant or the Thomas Frank book. However, one of the best reasons to read it is the opportunity to see how Mr. Mann talks past his brother and struggles to understand his political and religious views, which are entirely common to Americans generally. So long as even the very best souls on the Left remain so perplexed by their own countrymen we are unlikely to see any serious reform of the Democratic Party and we're quite likely to see a long period of conservative domination like that which preceded the Great Depression. The intellectual party is a deuced tough sell in anti-intellectual America.
-NCPR News Staff: Brian Mann (News Reporter and Adirondack Bureau Chief, North Country Public Radio)
-BOOK SITE:Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann
-BOOK SITE: Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann (Steerforth Press)
-BOOK SITE: Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann (Random House)
-EXCERPT: Blue State Blues: HOW THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE CREATES A WHITE, CHRISTIAN, AND CONSERVATIVE ADVANTAGE IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS (Brian Mann)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Welcome to the Homeland (Laura Knoy, August 22, 2006, NHPR)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Brian Mann: Welcome to the Homeland... (Martha Foley, AUGUST 18, 2006, North Country Public Radio)
-ARTICLE: Religion in politics a major topic in fall books: From 'Faith and Politics' to 'The God Delusion,' a range of views on topic (MSNBC.com, Aug 23, 2006)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH THOMAS FRANK? (Lee Siegel, 8/088/06, New Republic)
-ESSAY: Not God's Party: A new poll shows Democrats are losing (more) religious voters. (Amy Sullivan, Aug. 29, 2006, Slate)
-ESSAY: A Little Bit Country: Can Democrats compete for the rural vote? (BRENDAN MINITER, September 5, 2006 Opinion Journal)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd