There’s a brief but interesting article up on the American Prospect site by music historian J. Lester Feder that plays off the Dixie Chicks “controversy” to remind people that country music’s famous political conservatism was yet another legacy of Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy.Feder’s right that country music got politicized in the Nixon Years, and I can add a few examples to his account, from personal memory.He rightly tags Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee” as the apotheosis of country conservatism, and reports ol’ Merle’s claim that the song was a parody. He doesn’t mention Merle’s follow-up superpatriot hit, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, that was clearly beyond parody:I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don’t believe in fightingAnd I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on being freeThey love our milk and honey but they preach about some other way of livingBut when you’re running down my country, hossYou’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.This tune anchored a live album, recorded in Philadelphia, that was a red-white-and-blue extravaganza. I remember it vividly. My parents, huge Haggard fans (they actually got to hang out with him a bit at an Atlanta country music venue called the Playroom, in those innocent, pre-arena days of the genre), naturally had a copy, and made sure I heard the cut that included his spot-on impressions of other country stars, most notably fellow Bakersfield legend and country-rock pioneer Buck Owens (whose ex-wife Bonnie was Merle’s then-wife and backup singer).Haggard did, a couple of years earlier, turn down a request from George Wallace to endorse his 1968 presidential candidacy. But other country stars–if I remember correctly, they included both Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn–did sing for George. And one of my favorite memories from the 1968 campaign was an ad featuring Grand Ol’ Opry fixture Roy Acuff, who did a soulful musical intro about the nation’s many problems, and then the camera pulled back to show Roy standing next to a gigantic, hideous photo of Richard Nixon (Acuff himself ran for Governor of Tennessee as a Republican back in 1948, and in 1970, campaigned for fellow country singer Tex Ritter in 1970, running for the same office with the same futile result).Perhaps the best example of the abrupt transition from populism to conservatism that Leder talks about was Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, a Georgia country crooner whose band, the Po’ Boys, was rooted in the Depression populist tradition. But in the early 70s, he did a song, “Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?” that arguably captured the rightward, nostalgic trend in country music more presicely than Haggard’s pugilistic odes (though Loretta Lynn’s “God Bless American Again,” co-written with Conway Twitty, which she typically delivered against a backdrop that featured a spotlighted Old Glory, did so as well in a less explicitly political vein).The omission in Leder’s piece that surprised me the most was the obvious antecedent to the Dixie Chicks’ liberal heresy: Earl Scruggs. An alumnus of Bill Monroe’s band, co-founder of the vastly popular Flatt and Scruggs duo, and basically, the inventor of bluegrass banjo pickin’, Scruggs scandalized much of his following by performing at the big 1969 anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington.And Earl’s still around, probably chuckling a bit at the Chicks’ successful notoriety and multiple Grammies. Scruggs picked up his first Grammy the same year as his anti-war appearance, for Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and won a second Grammy for a re-recording of the same piece, in 2002.
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By Ed Kilgore
I read a Thomas Friedman column this week that really required a smackdown. So I supplied one at New York:
How much political capital should Democrats invest in a probably doomed effort to save the political career of Liz Cheney? Earlier this week, Never Trump Republican Linda Chavez penned a column urging Wyoming Democrats to take a dive this November in order to give the incumbent a chance to survive as an independent, assuming (as it safe) that Cheney will be purged in her own party’s primary. And now, in an apparent coincidence, in comes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggesting a far more radical step by Democrats to align themselves with the small slice of Republicans who follow Cheney’s example in repudiating Donald Trump. He wrote:
“Is that what America needs in 2024 — a ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney? Or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney? Or any other such combination.”
Friedman phrases this as a question, but clearly he thinks it’s a good idea given the “existential moment” America would face if Trump is allowed to regain the presidency in 2024. It’s a bit of a loaded question, too, since it postulates that nothing short of a previously unimaginable “sacrifice” by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans alike can stop Trump — and that it would, in fact, succeed in stopping Trump.
I certainly agree that Democrats dumping Kamala Harris to give their vice-presidential nomination to a conservative Republican who opposes legalized abortion and is a militarist by conviction and heredity would be a “sacrifice,” to put it very mildly. It would also be very, very weird. Friedman cites the recent establishment of a mind-bending coalition government in Israel to thwart Bibi Netanyahu as a development comparable to what he is suggesting. But as he acknowledges, Israel has a parliamentary system in which multiparty coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. A presidential system in which parties invariably run separate tickets for the top job is another thing altogether.
The U.S. has had exactly one example of multiparty fusionism in a presidential election. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Republicans nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee — then serving as U.S. military governor of Tennessee — to run with Lincoln on a “Union” ticket. The experiment did not turn out well, beginning with Johnson’s drunken inaugural address in 1865 and continuing with the racist solidarity he exhibited toward ex-Confederates after Lincoln’s assassination, culminating in his impeachment and near removal from office. There are important reasons politicians sort themselves out into major parties, which should be apparent in an era of polarization over issues other than the scofflaw behavior of Donald Trump.
Is the threat of Trump’s return to the White House the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War? Not in itself, I would contend, though that horrific development could lead eventually to grave conditions comparable if not equal to a civil war. The premise that a Biden-Cheney fusion ticket would uniquely doom Trump to failure is even more dubious. There has never been much evidence of a mass following for Never Trump Republicans, and such as it is, it is mostly composed of people who would (and did in 2020) gladly vote for Biden and Harris. The baleful effect that replacing Harris with Cheney on the ticket would have on Democratic turnout could easily offset or exceed the alleged benefits of bipartisan and trans-ideological fusion.
So Democrats should say thanks, but no thanks, to Friedman for the idea of submitting their party to some sort of unwieldy and unnatural coalition of national salvation, so long as there is the slightest possibility of beating Trump the old-fashioned way. Liz Cheney deserves great respect for the courage she has shown in defying Trump at the expense of her own career, and if Biden is reelected with her support, perhaps she deserves an ambassadorship, a minor Cabinet post, or a major sub-Cabinet position. But she has no business being at the top of the line of succession to a Democratic president.