Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Courting The Cavaliers
Ed Kilgore thinks John McCain dwelling on his forbears military past is the story of the Prodigal Son
I've just read the Meridian, Mississippi speech with which John McCain launched his "biography tour," and found it more interesting and troubling than I expected.
Most obviously, I can't recall any major speech by a president or presidential candidate that was devoted so thoroughly to the subject of the speaker's own family background--not just the immediate family (which, for example, was the background theme in Richard Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech, and in Bill Clinton's "Place Called Hope" speech, and is obviously important to Barack Obama's "story"), but the Family Heritage. McCain goes into considerable detail to establish himself as the scion of a very old (by American standards) and very distinguished warrior tribe, whose traditions he first spurned and then half-heartedly embraced, before rediscovering them in the crucible of his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton.
[...]Maybe this is all emphemeral, and at some point John McCain will abandon the biographical message to focus on policy issues. But Democrats need to understand what he's trying to do in presenting himself as the embodiment of the Prodigal Son seeking to lead the Prodigal Nation back to its heritage of greatness, and react accordingly. ...Exposing him will not just be a matter of deriding media credulity or hammering his voting record in the Senate. It will require an unwavering spotlight on his basic message and its troubling implications.
Matt Yglesias thinks he's just trying to appeal to a bunch of racist and sexist old people by selling a form of old white guy identity politics. Kevin Drum thinks he's just in love with war and the military.
I think it's something quite different. The Republican southern base doesn't trust him. He doesn't have a southern accent, he isn't a cowboy (even a Connecticut/Hollywood phony one) and his military history is heroic, but as a survivor, not a killer. In my view, this comes back to Michael Lind's interesting theory of the red and the blue from 2001 called America's Tribes.
In the aftermath of the US election, the pattern of Democratic blue and Republican red on the electoral map is baffling, unless you know how to read it. Ideology does not help much. "Left" and "right" are irrelevant terms from 19th and 20th-century Europe. Geographic dichotomies--big states versus small states, interior versus coasts--merely supply questions, not answers.
The clue to the US electoral map lies in ethnography. As the historian David Hackett Fischer and the commentator Kevin Phillips (among others) have demonstrated, ideology and region are surrogates for race and ethnicity in the US. American politics is, and always has been, a struggle for power between two coalitions of tribes. Two coalitions, instead of three or four, because the US inherited the "plurality" or first-past-the-post voting system from early modern Britain. Plurality systems ensure that third-party votes are wasted and so give countries relatively stable two-party democracy.
In most periods from 1789 to the present, the US has had two dominant national parties competing to control government: Federalists vs Republicans (1790s-1810s), National Republicans vs Democratic Republicans (1810s-1830s), Whigs vs Democrats (1830s-1850s), Republicans vs Democrats (1850s-present). Despite the changing names, the underlying coalitions have been remarkably stable. In effect, there have been only two main parties in American history: the northern party and the southern party.
The core of the northern party (originally Federalists, Whigs and Republicans, and now Democrats) has been citizens of New England and the "greater New England" region settled by the descendants of colonial-era New Englanders, an enormous area which includes the great lakes, the upper prairie and the Pacific north-west. The culture of these "Yankees" originated in 17th-century English Puritanism. Its legacy remains in a distinct New England Yankee culture which values moral rectitude and social reform.
The historic rivals to the greater New England Yankees in US politics have been the coastal southerners of Virginia, South Carolina, and the Gulf coast region, which they settled from the Florida panhandle to east Texas. Royalist refugees from Cromwell's Puritan dictatorship--the so-called "Cavaliers"--created a hierarchical, traditional, aristocratic society based on a plantation economy. They have always dominated the southern party (originally Jeffersonian Republicans, then Jacksonian and Rooseveltian Democrats, and now Republicans).
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite sides in US politics.
What does all this mean for the policies pursued by the two coalitions? When it comes to foreign policy, the divisions between the northern party and the southern party are dramatic, enduring, and somewhat contrary to received wisdom. For two centuries, the northern party (yesterday's Republicans, today's Democrats) has been the more protectionist and isolationist of the two coalitions, while the southern party (yesterday's Democrats, today's Republicans) has traditionally supported free trade, a strong military and an assertive grand strategy.
The differences between the two coalitions in trade policy reflect the old division between the industrial north and midwest and the agrarian south and mountain west. During the period of northern hegemony, 1861-1933, high tariffs protected northern American factories from British and European competition, while forcing southern and western farmers to pay more for industrial goods. The post-1945 global trading system was inspired by the free-trade ideology of conservative southern Democrats such as Cordell Hull, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of State and a former Tennessee Senator--an ideology inherited by today's southern Republicans. Support for protectionism remains concentrated in the northern manufacturing states where Democrats have succeeded Republicans as the dominant party.
Partisan divisions over the military reflect much deeper cultural factors. "From the quasi-war with France [1798-1800] to the Vietnam war," writes historian David Hackett Fischer, "the two southern cultures strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against. Southern ideas of honour and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1941, 1950 and 1965." At the same time, the greater New England region has been home to the most intense opposition to American foreign wars--including the second world war. For 50 years, liberal American historians have spoken of "right-wing isolationists" but the fact is that most isolationists in the 1930s were liberals or leftists. Ironically, Roosevelt found the strongest supporters for his anti-Hitler foreign policy among racist Southern conservatives, who hated New Deal liberalism but were eager to save Britain and defeat Germany. The isolationist America First committee was a miserable failure in the south.
What explains the deeply-ingrained military ethic of southerners--and the equally intense anti-military sentiments of greater New Englanders? Again, culture is the answer. The New England Puritans frowned on violence as a way of resolving social conflicts. The southern cavalier code, however, endorsed violence when personal or national honour was being "disrespected" or "dissed"...
There is much more to this thesis than what I've excerpted and it's all quite interesting. I doubt that it fully explains the ongoing divide between the two parties but I think there's something to it. Through many influxes of different immigrants, westward expansion and even globalization, this divide has stayed with us. Political power shifts from one tribe to the other, sometimes for long periods. Catastrophe and war will expand or contract them. But the two always exist in one form or another. It's America.
It makes perfect sense to me for McCain to take this Southern Comfort tour right now in the lull before the storm. Despite his status as a POW, McCain is known to the Republican base as a rebel, someone who isn't fully a member of the tribe. But many of them don't know that McCain is from a long line of highly decorated naval officers, which among the southern Cavaliers is an automatic tribal identifier as a full fledged member of the warrior class. He's telling that story and it's as good as a secret handshake.
For one of the tribes in America being a military adventurer, particularly when they perceive the nation's honor to be at stake, is a requirement for leadership. The question for us is whether there are more "Yankees" than "Cavaliers" in 2008. I suspect so; the Bush administration has made a hash of things. But we should keep in mind that the Cavaliers' battle to regain the nation's "honor" will begin the day one of the Yankees wins the election.
So perhaps we "Yankees" ---and by that I include all my liberal southern brethren --- (sorry about the name, I didn't pick it) should talk explicitly in different terms about what national honor really means. I would say that we could begin with the notion that any nation that legalizes torture has lost its honor and the only way to get it back it to hold those responsible for doing it accountable.
Unfortunately for Cavalier McCain, the prodigal son, --- he's one of them.
digby 4/02/2008 07:23:00 PM