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.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:
The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).
The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.But in assessing the implications of the results, it’s important to look back at what happened down ballot in California in 2020, while looking ahead to the most critical 2022 battleground, the fight for control of the House. Of the 13 net House seats Republicans gained in 2020, four were in deep-blue California. There is no likely path for Democrats to hang onto House control in 2022 without flipping some or all of those lost seats in one of their strongest states.
Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.
One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.
The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.