From one stereotype to another

Published 2:44 pm Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Over the past 16 years, I’ve apparently lived in three very different places. During President Clinton’s first term, I inhabited a dark, “incestuous” world of political skullduggery and financial crime. After the election of George W. Bush, my home became a proud “red state,” populated by common-sense, salt-of-the-earth Christians with enduring family values and uncorrupted faith. Since the 2008 election, I’ve found myself residing in a benighted land of backward, mouth-breathing bigots.

The name of these three places is Arkansas.

And yes, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. Melodramatic, cartoon-like portrayals of entire regions of the country remain acceptable in the national media at a time when racial and ethnic stereotypes do not.

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There’s no question that president-elect Obama’s victory spells the end of the GOP’s decades-old “Southern Strategy” of racially coded appeals to white voters in the former Confederate states. Obama winning Virginia, North Carolina and Florida insured, Adam Nossiter wrote perceptively in The New York Times, that “the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy.”

Nossiter points out that Arkansas, which voted 59-39 for Sen. John McCain, “had among the nation’s largest concentration of counties increasing their support for the Republican candidate over the 2004 vote.” (Six states — Alabama, Oklahoma, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Alaska — gave McCain higher percentages overall.)

In short, John Kerry did better among Arkansas country folks than Obama. Nossiter quotes Hendrix College political scientist Jay Barth to the effect that “racial conservatism was a component of that shift away from the Democrat.”

A careful thinker, Barth said “a component” not “the cause,” and “conservatism,” not hatred.

Not everybody’s been so restrained. It’s common to see sneering references to “rednecks” and worse on liberal-leaning Web sites. There’s a lot of gloating and posturing going on.

This is nothing new. I’ll probably never get over seeing my wife patronized to her face by New England academics who seemed to assume a cute Southern girl must be a dumb bigot. Ironically, Diane was then a big fan of the Arkansas proverb, “Thank God for Mississippi” — on the grounds that everything embarrassing about Arkansas was doubly so about its neighbor.

Like most Arkansans, she wasn’t crazy about Texas, either. (It’s a David versus Goliath thing.) How much that had to do with President Bush’s relatively weaker performance here is impossible to know.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s my point: As tempting as it can be to declare one’s moral superiority to others based upon their presumed motives, it’s also foolish and politically self-defeating. I think one can stipulate that the Little Rock man who wrote a letter to the editor predicting that Obama will bring “the thug culture into the White House” and pardon O.J. Simpson definitely has an attitude problem.

As for everybody else? Well, here are other factors to consider before writing off Arkansans (and white Southerners generally) as irredeemable racists.

Inside Arkansas, racially coded campaigns have invariably failed since Dale Bumpers defeated Orval Faubus in 1970. Apart from the presidential contest, there were no significant congressional or statewide offices at stake here in 2008. Neither Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, nor Arkansas’s three Democratic congressmen, drew Republican opponents. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe wasn’t up for re-election. That may have limited Democratic turnout.

There was also an initiated act forbidding any but legally married couples from adopting children on the ballot — a “hot button” issue for conservative church congregations. Unfortunately, it passed.

Broadly speaking, the higher a state’s rural population, the more likely it was to vote Republican. Here, Pulaski County (Little Rock) voted 55-43 for Obama; the rural county where I live went 64-32 for McCain.

Like rural people the world over, Arkansas country folks are slow to change. Barack Obama isn’t simply African-American; he’s a Harvard-trained cosmopolitan with exotic roots who lives in Chicago. No, his middle name didn’t help; nor did the televised sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, taken seriously in a church-centered culture. Scare talk about confiscating guns always plays here.

McCain is a war hero; people in Appalachia and the Ozarks, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., will tell you, have always admired a fighting man.

Arkansas politics are personal: Obama never came here; McCain did.

Mostly, our country neighbors don’t bring up politics in polite conversation. As my views are known, those who do normally agree with me, although I also know McCain supporters who conceded that George W. Bush’s disastrous performance made Obama’s election foreordained. Several volunteered that they’d have voted for Hillary Clinton. Obama surrogates charging her with racism during the primaries were definitely resented.

For many, Obama was just one step too far. This time. Because given a successful first term, I can definitely see Obama carrying Arkansas once people have grown accustomed to him.