'Talk to someone in Cincinnati? Are you crazy?'. . . and so the Democrats blew it
Tom Wolfe on the elite that got lost in middle America
Over the past few days I’ve talked to lots of journalists and literary types in New York. I’ve grown used to the sound of crushed, hushed voices on the end of the phone. The weight of George Bush’s victory seems almost too much. But what did they expect, I ask myself.
They don’t like the war and the way the war is going, they don’t like Bush and they don’t like what this election says about America. But where’s their sense of reality?
The liberal elite showed it was way out of touch even before the election. I was at a dinner party in New York and when everyone was wondering what to do about Bush I suggested they might do like me and vote for him. There was silence around the table, as if I’d said “by the way, I haven’t mentioned this before but I’m a child molester”.
Now, like Chicken Little after an acorn fell on his head, they think the sky is falling. I have to laugh. It reminds me of Pauline Kael, the film critic, who said, “I don’t know how Reagan won — I don’t know a soul who voted for him.” That was a classic and reflects the reaction of New York intellectuals now. Note my definition of “intellectual” here is what you often find in this city: not people of intellectual attainment but more like car salesmen, who take in shipments of ideas and sell them on.
I think the results in Ohio, the key state this time, tell us everything we need to know. Overall, the picture of Republican red and Democratic blue across the country remained almost unchanged since last time. The millions of dollars spent and miles travelled on the Bush and Kerry campaigns made no difference at all.
But look at Ohio and the different voting patterns in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Cleveland, in the north of the state, is cosmopolitan, what we would think of as an “eastern” city, and Kerry won by two votes to one. Cincinnati, in the southeast corner of Ohio, is a long way away both geographically and culturally. It’s Midwestern and that automatically means “hicksville” to New York intellectuals. There Bush won by a margin of 150,000 votes and it was southern Ohio as a whole that sent him back to the White House.
The truth is that my pals, my fellow journos and literary types, would feel more comfortable going to Baghdad than to Cincinnati. Most couldn’t tell you what state Cincinnati is in and going there would be like being assigned to a tumbleweed county in Mexico.
They can talk to sheikhs in Lebanon and esoteric radical groups in Uzbekistan, but talk to someone in Cincinnati . . . are you crazy? They have no concept of what America is made of and even now they won’t see that.
So who are the people who voted for Bush? I think the most cogent person on this is James Webb, the most decorated marine to come out of Vietnam. Like John Kerry he won the Silver Star, but also the Navy Cross, the equivalent of our highest honour, the Congressional Medal.
He served briefly under Reagan as secretary for the navy, but he has since become a writer. His latest book, Born Fighting, is the most important piece of ethnography in this country for a long time. It’s about that huge but invisible group, the Scots-Irish. They’re all over the Appalachian mountains and places like southern Ohio and Tennessee.
Their theme song is country music and when people talk about rednecks, this is the group they’re talking about: this is the group that voted for Bush.
Though they’ve had successes, the Scots-Irish generally haven’t done well economically. They’re individualistic, they’re stubborn and they value their way of life more then their financial situation. If a politician comes out for gun control they take it personally. It’s not about guns, really: if you’re against the National Rifle Association you’re against them as a people.
They take Protestantism seriously. It tickles me when people talk about “the Christian right”. These people aren’t right wing, they’re just religious. If you’re religious, of course, you’re against gay marriage and abortion. You’re against a lot of things that have become part of the intellectual liberal liturgy.
Everyone who joins the military here thinks, “Where did all these Southerners come from?” These people love to fight. During the French and Indian wars, before there was a United States, recruiters would turn up in the Carolinas and in the Appalachians and say, “Anyone want to go and fight Indians?” There was a bunch of boys who were always up for it and they haven’t lost that love of battle.
My family wasn’t Scots-Irish but my father was from the Shenendoah Valley, in the Blue Ridge mountains in western Virginia, so I know the kind of folks Webb is talking about.
They do like fighting: many’s the time I was visiting there and I’d get taken down to town to watch the rock fights on a Saturday night. All the men would hit the bar, drink beer — the only drink you could buy out there — come out of the saloon, pick up rocks, throw them at each other and then go home.
Bush, despite his wealthy and refined lineage, in terms of family and where he went to school, manages to come across to people like that as one of them. He walks like them, he talks like them, he likes cattle and he says he likes stock car racing, the most popular sport in the United States, not that you’d know it from reading the New York papers — they don’t cover it.
There’s an annual race in a little place, Bristol Tennessee, a place full of Scots-Irish, that draws 165,000 people every year, 55,000 more than go to the biggest football game. Bush reflects this America — the real America — and that is maybe what the liberal elite and his critics abroad can’t stomach.
He honestly seems to believe in God, whereas Kerry says, “I’m a Roman Catholic so I must believe in God.” It’s as if he turns to James Carville (the Democratic strategist) and says, “Don’t I?” It obviously doesn’t play a part in his life.
The values of middle America don’t play well in New York. Among American writers, with few exceptions, you don’t say anything patriotic and you don’t say anything generally good about the country.
I must finish now because I need to get to Kennedy airport to wave goodbye to all those writers and journalists who’ve told me they can’t take another four years of Bush. Triumphalism is not my style but I can’t help an “I told you so” smile. Oh, by the way, most of them are leaving for London. Heaven help you when they get there.
Tom Wolfe was talking to Margarette Driscoll