I live in the New Confederacy. It’s nowhere near the Old Confederacy but rather in rural western New York about forty miles from the city of Rochester. I’m a college professor, the kind that corrupts young people into thinking for themselves and subverting every opinion including their own. It’s a quiet life out here in the sticks even after you pay attention, but paying just a little attention can be hazardous to your health. It’s unfair to paint in such broad strokes. There are some other progressive folks here similarly sequestered behind fences, minding their business, working too hard to make ends meet to cause any ruckus. And I’m particularly blessed with a very wonderful neighbor too. We’re ignored, I think, and that’s the most we can hope for. Lord knows, we’d not want any local attention. But there’s little doubt about prevailing sentiments.
As you drive the back roads here or go south through central Pennsylvania, other rural NY counties, or even west into Ohio you find the same messages no matter how the signs differ in detail. (http://www.salon.com/2015/07/30/upstate_ny_fair_on_confederate_flag_the_more_of_them_the_better/) Confederate battle flags are only slightly less on display after events in Charleston this past summer but there is a preferred substitution: the Gadsden ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ hanging beneath Old Glory with a lawn full of signs proclaiming various rights to bear arms or protests of infringement on those Second Amendment rights. Here we get properly planted and framed signs urging us to “Repeal the Safe Act,” a response to Governor Cuomo’s signature legislation to enact gun safety and control the sale of assault weapons. We are apparently in need of protecting ourselves from our fellow citizens, a government that is tyrannical and coming for our guns and taking our rights, and of course whoever else will not allow us to “Take Back Our Country.” Whose country from whom? The summer of Trump has made that perfectly clear.
The demographics of my Congressional district fits the profile that Professor Thomas Edsall describes in today’s NY Times. I mean particularly the charts where older white folk are demonstrably under educated and intolerant of difference. (Look here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/02/opinion/what-donald-trump-understands-about-republicans.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region®ion=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region). The issue is not much about securing one’s interests as it is deciding who we cannot tolerate. While our Congressman votes for the Paul Ryan budget that would dismantle the social safety net, cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and provide no aid for our local education, infrastructure, or economic fortunes, my neighbors dutifully vote for him—despite the fact they require all of those services merely to survive and are so economically disadvantaged that they pay no taxes or the lowest rates. Still it is guns and taxes that drive the conversation here, the nativist fear of immigrants, disdain for LGBT rights, and religious “freedom” issues no less present but somehow not quite the immanent danger posed elsewhere in the New Confederacy. We have our share of fundamentalist religious because, you know, Jesus still saves but the meme here is more decidedly an isolationist fear of intervention from anyone. Best to be alone and left alone, good fences make for good neighbors with no one else invited. How neighborly. Of course there’s no one here to shew off your lawn…umm, land…but there’s plenty of reason to find allegiance with all of those other patriots intent on taking back their country.
The irony of the local cemeteries filled Union Civil War dead seems lost on the populace but perhaps that’s not the story. Perhaps they never meant to fight for anything (dare I suggest against slavery) but only their perception of the Union. That seems to be the current definition of America: my country and not theirs. Rural whites, poor, undereducated, now older, and with plenty of time to watch Fox News and listen to Limbaugh on Talk Radio seem a solid majority here where almost no one lives, certainly no young people who don’t mean to replace their parents with more of the same. I would have a harder time believing my neighbors aren’t arrant bigots but for the conversations that seem ubiquitous and unconcealed: Always a them and they take from the government that serves them and not us. Things were better Back Then and have only gotten worse, what with our guns being threatened and our taxes so high, we pay for it all. To find this discouraging or even outrageous leads you to the voting booth where you find only Republicans on the local ballot. I’m not kidding about that. There’s not even the pretense of diversity here, much less a challenge to small minds in my small town.
What we are witnessing today is an overt extremism that has taken over the Republican Party. The influence of Murdoch media and the rest cannot be underestimated because this is an age without facts, only memes. Nothing needs to be true, no evidence would even be believable, it is enough to stir feelings, make proclamations, and repeat them endlessly.
When characters like Goldwater and Reagan would fail the litmus tests of “conservatism” espoused by every presidential candidate on their dais, we have reached new benchmarks and a new tipping point. With Confederate battle flags still flying here in rural western NY what possible “heritage” could they be supporting? The other dog whistles and codes are more plentiful and no less explicit in meaning. We are a country deeply divided not as much by region but by the demographics that Professor Edsall presents: by race, age, education, rural vs. urban, and especially wealth. All of these criteria of benchmarking and tipping points speak not only to inequities and disparities but to the threats of hostilities…on lawn signs. Yikes.
Democrats and what’s left of sane people say that two things have to happen to pull matters back to a center of compromise where everyone loses and everyone still gets something they want: First, the R’s have to lose again in another landslide. The problem with this argument is that the R’s are immensely successful at the State and Local levels, their grasp on the House is currently unchangeable. Between poor turnouts, gerrymandering, and demographics, rural America seemingly votes for nihilism, war, and the dismantlement of any government dedicated to the public weal. R’s have lost the last two presidential elections by landslide margins, have publicly voiced the need to change (remember their putative post-election autopsy?) and what has happened? Only more extremism while the Fox monster feeds the hungry a steady diet of more of the same.
Second, demographics need to change or to put it more bluntly, more old, rural white people need to die so that the majorities turn around and different, more tolerant coalitions take power. That may require us dying before that actually happens but there is a greater problem. The decisions of the SCOTUS (Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, the Voting Rights Act, etc.) coupled with State laws designed to disempower and disenfranchise voters may keep the narrowminded minority in power long after its expiration dates. If young people, minorities, women, and others don’t wake up and vote now, there may be little left to salvage that is not already owned by the corporations of white male privilege. Plantation owners long ago persuaded poor working class whites that they should hate the other rather than notice their common economic interests: that is the heart of the “New Confederacy” which is alive and well here in rural western NY. Hating the ‘guvmint has been the meme since Reagan and the fact that my neighbors are all on the government dole —Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.—does not seem to dissuade them that the problem is taxes and “those people” who are takers. So where’s hope and change in all this? It lies in education and attitudes. Oh right, we just voted to slash school budgets because we can’t afford to pay teachers. Who needs teachers anyway. One thing is for certain: we need Lincoln more than ever.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
—A. Lincoln, First Inaugural Address