Redefining ‘Redneck’ and Faux Populism

One of things I never got around to blogging about after the 2008 election was how lower-income whites do vote Democratic, even in the South, despite misperceptions on both the left and right to the contrary. In that vein, Amanda, commenting on Alexandra Pelosi’s campaign documentary, clarifies a phenomenon that I couldn’t quite jibe with the polling data (and the long history of lower income whites voting for Democrats at higher rates than other white economic groups). What we’re witnessing is the transformation of a class-based term into a culture-based one:

But please look past the ignorant babbling, their kids who can’t spell “socialism”, that they call themselves “redneck”, and even the fact that they’re drinking Natural Light—many of these people, probably most, went to college, and their kids definitely did. They are not oil field workers or ranch hands, and only one of those men at the end correctly identified the origin of the word “redneck” as a classist term to describe the working class people who the people in the video are definitely not. “Redneck” has changed from a term denoting working class men who work outdoors, and now apparently describes professional class men who own Harley Davidsons, tool around in RVs, and go hunting—all hobbies that cost a lot more money than most of you can cough up. These men in this video are largely small business owners, professionals with office jobs, or, if they do work in agriculture or oil, they’re management and have soft hands. Believe me—if you live in one of the red states where these fuckers proliferate, you know who they are. They clutter up the suburbs of big cities where they work, and their kids fill up the fraternities and sororities of the big universities. They went to college, but they were B students with business degrees and didn’t pay much attention to anything that would smarten them up socially….
One of the most fascinating trends of the past few decades is how the middle to upper middle class of the South (and of the Midwest now) has started to front like they’re just a bunch of working class folks, and how the rest of the country seems to buy that hook, line, and sinker. Maybe it’s because the high status hobbies of these folks look different than the ones of the coastal urban high-status hobbies, and part of it is that it just takes less money to be upper middle class in the red states. (Back in some parts of West Texas, you could get a 3,000-4,000 sq. ft. house for under $300,000, for instance.) But do not be fooled. These aren’t squirrel-eating hillbillies, but they are quite likely to be their bosses.

Frank Rich notes that this faux populism comes naturally to Republicans:

What such G.O.P. “stars” as Sanford and Jindal have in common, besides their callous neo-Hoover ideology, are their phony efforts to portray themselves as populist heroes. Their role model is W., that brush-clearing “rancher” by way of Andover, Yale and Harvard. Listening to Jindal talk Tuesday night about his immigrant father’s inability to pay for an obstetrician, you’d never guess that at the time his father was an engineer and his mother an L.S.U. doctoral candidate in nuclear physics. Sanford’s first political ad in 2002 told of how growing up on his “family’s farm” taught him “about hard work and responsibility.” That “farm,” the Charlotte Observer reported, was a historic plantation appraised at $1.5 million in the early 1980s. From that hardscrabble background, he struggled on to an internship at Goldman Sachs.

I suppose when your economic policies are screwing over those who work for you, one way to rationalize away the cognitive dissonance is to convince yourself that you’re just like them (even though you’re not). Once you do that, whatever misfortune they experience is their fault, not yours (or sheer bad luck).

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4 Responses to Redefining ‘Redneck’ and Faux Populism

  1. Kevin says:

    Comedian Jeff Foxworthy defines being redneck as possessing a glorious lack of sophistication. He has taken what used to be an insult and made it into a cultural statement. It isn’t about truth or heritage. Like the suburban harley riders, it is an attempt to define themselves in terms of image rather than substance

  2. justawriter says:

    In all honesty, a million dollar farm at that time wasn’t all that big. There was a farm real estate bubble that burst soon afterward into the farm crisis that begat FarmAid and brought a lot of attention to an obscure college professor named Paul Wellstone. I calculated once that my fathers farm, including machinery, was worth about $1 million in the late 1970s. However, his net income rarely exceeded $25,000, which allowed us to live comfortably but not lavishly. This led me to wonder if there was any other business model where a quarter percent profit was regarded as successful. Over the 1980s, my father lost about three quarters of the equity in the farm and struggled mightily to make sure I got a good education so I wouldn’t have to farm myself.

  3. Ace of Sevens says:

    I live in Cedar Rapids Iowa. The cost of living here is higher than the sticks, but $200,000/year is pretty wealthy. My 1800 square-foot house cost $45K, though it was unusually chaeap and a hundred years old.

  4. thm says:

    This line of argument seems to veer in to the (IMHO false) confluence of wealth and class. The framework laid down, tongue-in-cheek, by Paul Fussell in his book Class is useful here. The mainstay of the Republican-voting, expensive-hobby-like-hunting-and-RVing-to-NASCAR-doing set are the (in Fussell’s words) high proles: the skilled working class. The C-students who drink their way through a state school business degree are in the process of class drift; they are forsaking a middle-class life for a high-prole life.
    The GOP’s Southern Strategy, and Nixon’s bitter hatred of East-coast elites led the Republicans down the path of appealing to high-prole values. But it’s almost like a monster that’s grown out of control. Ford and GHWB were perhaps the last of the powerful GOP cultural elites. Getting someone like Sarah Palin on the ticket wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan.

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