The Times of London in its most recent Sunday magazine had a wonderfully written article on the coming American election, "How Barack Obama can win over poor whites". The Times writer, Tony Allen-Mills, spent a couple of days with Joe Bageant in Winchester, Virginia, to learn why many Americans vote against their own self-interest.
This article uses Joe's book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, as a focal point to explain the Obama/McCain race to British readers. Also, be sure to look at the comments, including many from American readers. It appears that some Americans don't like a European, especially a Brit, getting ideas from a redneck socialist. Click here or see below.
-- Ken Smith
How Barack Obama can win over poor whites
Bible-thumping, rifle-toting, truck-loving poor white Americans are one of the key groups Barack Obama must win over if he is to become president. Tony Allen-Mills gauges his support in the backwoods — and Nina Berman travels across America to capture its contrasting faces and moods
As election time approaches in America, Barack Obama’s historic candidacy holds much of the world in thrall. Yet there’s one significant sector of the US voting public that has so far proved resistant to the Democratic candidate’s charms. The great American redneck – that rifle-toting, Bible-thumping, truck-loving caricature devoted to beer and motor sports – has already tripped up Obama once, and he may do it again before November’s presidential poll.
So I have driven to Winchester, Virginia, to find out more about a class of voters who ought to be natural supporters of Obama – the would-be champion of the working man – yet who, in recent years, have turned their backs on the Democratic party and voted for George W Bush.
My guide to the mysteries of redneck culture is a shambling, garrulous, bourbon-loving writer named Joe Bageant. Raised in the backwoods of Appalachia, he returned to his roots after a 30-year absence and wrote one of those books that change the way you think of the US and the tarnished American dream. Joe, 61, is the author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, just published in Britain. It’s partly a scathing portrait of a small Virginia town divided by money, class and race; mostly it’s a lovesick and frequently hilarious rant about the poor, hopeless working-class Americans who “stay dumb and drink beer and vote Republican because no real liberal voice, the kind that speaks the rock-bottom, undeniable truth, ever enters their lives”.
Joe has a great deal to say about rednecks, God and guns, and the way that Democratic idols like Obama have failed to connect with what he calls “the white ghetto of the working poor”.
First, though, we drive out to that mountain-top honky-tonk known as the Troubadour Park, which is the home of a popular country-music guitarist, Joltin’ Jim McCoy. The occasion is Jim Jam 2008, a fundraising benefit to pay for McCoy’s bandstand, which was rebuilt this summer after the old one was hit by lightning and burnt to the ground. It’s a big outdoor space with lovely views across the West Virginia hills, but the redneck hordes are conspicuously absent when Joe and I arrive. On stage, a trio of cowpoke crooners is singing a song about “your cheatin’ heart” to an audience of five. Beside the arena, a couple of sweating barbecue cooks turn the burgers and hot dogs next to an oven shaped like a giant Colt revolver.
A few more people arrive, and most of them seem to have stepped from the pages of Bageant’s book. One man is wearing a stars-and-stripes bandanna and has tattooed biceps wider than my thighs. His neck really is bright red from the sun. Someone else sports camouflage deer-hunting overalls. There are several Harley-Davidson T-shirts straining over barrel-shaped bellies. Yet the crowd is embarrassingly sparse, and McCoy, who is in his eighties, hobbles around looking glum. Joe and I talk to his daughter, Judy, and she confirms what we suspect: McCoy is charging an extra $5-a-head entrance fee towards his bandstand fund, which, with the soaring price of petrol, is keeping the redneck hordes away.
“People just don’t have the cash to go out right now,” Judy says forlornly. Her husband, Tom Shifflett, a retired factory worker, talks about the mortgage crisis and the easy money that flowed as banks abandoned lending caution and grateful West Virginians plunged up to their ears in debt.
“A lot of it is their own fault,” Tom says. “They couldn’t wait for their new car, their new house, and if you asked them how they would pay for it, they’d say, ‘We’ll get lots of overtime.’ But now there’s no more overtime and they can’t afford the repayments and they’ve lost their credit, their cars and a lot of them are losing their homes.”
Whoever is to blame for America’s mortgage meltdown, it occurred under Republican rule and seems tailor-made to benefit the Democrats this year. Shouldn’t all these faltering rednecks, the front line of victims of Wall Street excess, be beating a path to Obama’s door? Or is there really so much racism in working-class America that they won’t vote for a Democratic would-be saviour just because he is black?
It was during the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania in April that the murky spectres of class and race first rose up to confound Obama as he campaigned against Senator Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were wooing the blue-collar vote that tends to decide the Pennsylvania polls.
Obama went tenpin-bowling in Altoona and later appeared on a farm to feed milk to a calf from a bottle. These were standard ploys for a Harvard-educated, big-city politician anxious to appear a good ol’ country boy, yet the opinion polls swerved resolutely in favour of Clinton. At one point Obama ruminated publicly about the difficulties of attracting the working-class whites who had abandoned the Democrats for Bush. He said: “It’s not surprising that they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion… or anti-immigrant sentiment… as a way to explain their frustrations.” He sounded like a Harvard sociologist, and Clinton leapt on the blunder. Obama was an elitist snob, she suggested, out of touch with working-class Americans who “don’t cling to religion… they value their faith. You don’t cling to guns, you enjoy hunting or collecting or sport”.
Obama duly tumbled to a heavy defeat in Pennsylvania, although the setback proved only temporary. Yet the issue is certain to return as he faces John McCain in the autumn, and it’s clear that Obama aides are still searching for the right tone of voice for a black intellectual candidate to use when addressing a dim-witted redneck. They even called Bageant for help.
Driving back from the McCoys, Joe tells me to turn right into the West Virginia woods. At the end of a dirt track sits a small log cabin. It’s where Bageant grew up. “I remember getting up, milking the cows, walking four miles to get the school bus, walking four miles back in the evening, and milking the cows again before bed,” he said. “My neck is as red as anybody’s ever was.”
Yet he may be the only redneck ever who talks about Gramsci’s organic intellect and quotes Jean-Paul Sartre and William Burroughs. “I discovered the French existentialists aged 12,” he says. He blames a “drunken railroad engineer” who lived down the road for reading to him from a book about spaceships, sparking an imagination that would soar beyond the boundaries of West Virginia, one of America’s poorest and most neglected states. He felt the first shock of his hillbilly roots when his father moved across the state border to Virginia in search of work, and at his new school in Winchester he was put in a class for the handicapped and other slow learners. “It was just because we were from West Virginia,” he explains. “They called it the dumbbell class.”
His father was a Christian fundamentalist; his mother came from a family of Pentecostal preachers who cast out demons and spoke in tongues. His brother became a Baptist pastor; his sister is a fervent evangelical. Bageant resisted God’s orders, and years later he burst into tears when he saw the Piazza San Marco in Venice. “With all that fundamentalism around me as a child, I’d had to live in my head a lot. I thought places like Venice only existed in my head.”
The moment he was old enough to join the US navy, he fled. He trained in Philadelphia, where the navy taught him hydraulics, and he discovered coffee shops and folk singers who were nothing like the country-and-western crooners back home – mainly because they were black. There was a war in Vietnam, and in his time off he mingled with members of the peace movement. “All of a sudden there were people I could talk to about Rimbaud,” he says.
Returning to Virginia after his navy service, he read about hippies and the beat generation and knew he wanted to join them. He packed up a battered Volkswagen minibus and headed for Colorado, where Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson and other literary icons were holed up in a Rocky Mountain hotel. “I was a redneck kid just out of the navy, but I’d been a reader all my life.” By the time he went home three decades later, he had consumed a boatload of LSD and “sold more cocaine to Hunter Thompson than I ever want to think about”, married twice, produced a couple of kids, and found a respectable job with a farming-magazine group in Oregon.
In his fifties he decided to return to Winchester “to settle some scores with the bigoted, murderous, redneck town I grew up in. I love ’em but they need a good ass-kicking”.
He quickly discovered to his horror that his old friends were now all voting for Bush. Joe raged against the invasion of Iraq, but his friends, who were “dumber than owl shit”, thought Saddam deserved to be nuked. After a few years of impotent fuming at monstrous Republican governance, he started work on his book.
The most striking achievement of Deer Hunting with Jesus – and the quality that earned him the most credit from American reviewers – is that he somehow channels his raucous fury into a poignant and profoundly sympathetic account of the cradle-to-grave miseries that befall the poor white townsfolk of Winchester.
Bageant’s chapters on hunting, and on his tortured dealings with his fundamentalist family, ought to be required reading for Obama, who still appears badly confused about the role of God and guns in the lives of American workers.
“For millions of families in my class,” writes Joe, “the first question asked after the death of a father is, ‘Who gets Daddy’s guns?’ ”
Although Bageant gave up hunting years ago, he hasn’t lost his love of weaponry or his memories of a decent kill. “The crack of a distant rifle or the wild-meat smell of a deer hanging under a porch lightbulb on a snowy night still bewitches me with the same mountain-folk animism it did when I was a boy,” he writes.
Bageant pinpoints the left-wing campaign against gun ownership as the tremor that helped spark the political landslide that turned the South against the Democrats. He says: “When the left began to demonise gun owners in the 1960s, they not only were arrogant and insulting because they associated all gun owners with criminals, but they also were politically stupid.” By lumping hunting rifles in with handguns as a perceived threat to society, the anti-gun lobby alienated millions of law-abiding folk.
In Winchester, the handguns that feature in big-city crime are referred to as “pussy pistols”, and no self-respecting redneck would use one to aim at anything bigger than a goose. Bolt-action rifles are their weapons of choice, preferably with adjustable triggers and detachable box magazines. Many rednecks now view all Democrats – whatever their race or religion – as a potential threat to their guns, and when Obama attributed their animosity to “bitterness”, it was another slap in the face for a culture he had manifestly failed to understand.
At first glance, Winchester is a charming enough southern town, with some handsome 19th-century architecture, plenty of trees and a main street full of cute boutiques popular with weekend visitors from Washington, 60 miles to the east. Yet the Winchester described by Bageant is very different: it’s a working-class town that is “solidly fundamentalist and neoconservative… where nearly everyone over 50 has serious health problems and poor credit.”
The three preferred avenues of local escape are “alcohol, Jesus and overeating”, says Joe. In his book he writes: “These days the neighborhood looks as if it was painted by Edward Hopper, then bleakly populated with gangstas, old men with 40oz malt-liquor bottles, hard-working single moms, and kids on cheap, busted tricycles.”
It’s also a place of very strange churches. At one point we pass a shop front that declares itself to be the “Faith in Christ church bookstore”. It is closed, but a hidden loudspeaker is blaring the scriptures to any passers-by. Joe explains that it’s a creationist operation that denies evolution. Further along is the Church of Another Chance. It’s not a church in any traditional sense: it’s just a room above an empty shop, home to one of many tiny, nondenominational congregations that have mushroomed across the US as believers abandon orthodox worship in favour of a more direct path to God. America is becoming a “collection of weird cults and sects”, says Joe.
Bageant knows a lot about sects. His brother preaches at the Shenandoah Bible Baptist Church. “He tells me things like, ‘I helped cast out a demon the other day, Joey.’ I wish you could have been there.” Brother Mike makes the average Washington hawk sound like a sparrow. Mike wants a nuclear war in Israel. This will duly trigger the Armageddon foretold by the Bible, and will lead in turn to the Rapture – the moment when evangelical Christians believe that true followers of Jesus will be called to heaven while the rest of us burn.
There was a seven-year period in Joe’s life when he was completely estranged from his family. He remembers returning at one point to see his father, who rose out of his chair and yelled at his Marxist son: “You’re going straight to hell!” Later they made a kind of peace, but Bageant senior believed in the Rapture until the day he died. “The last time I saw him alive we talked about it,” says Joe. “He asked me, ‘Will you be saved? Will you join me on Canaan’s shore?’ I feigned belief to give a dying man solace.”
In this unconscionable world of biblical diktat, there’s no place for earthly politics. Obama doesn’t stand a chance with the conservative fundamentalists, but neither does John McCain, a mostly secular Republican. The evangelicals turned out for Bush in 2000 and 2004 because he knew how to talk a good gospel; the best Obama can hope for this year is that the right-wing Christians don’t bother to vote.
Back at Joe’s house, his friend Mike March drops by. March is a bright southerner who used to install security systems in US embassies and then became a loan officer at a co-operative bank. He had a front-row seat for the American debt crisis. Early in his book, Joe tackles the cheap-mortgage racket and the redneck housing crisis. It’s a stunningly prescient chapter, written long before the wheels came off the US property boom. It’s not just that Bageant saw the crash coming; it’s that low-level bank clerks like March realised years ago that by handing out loans to working-class stiffs who were never going to be able to repay them, the American banking system was irredeemably doomed to choking on its get-rich-quick creed.
“Our average customer wanted to be the middle-class person they see on television,” says March. “Every day we saw folk who were simply trying to get what Madison Avenue [the centre of the US advertising industry] says they should have: the new car, and the new house with the wide-screen TV. And they were willing to pay all of their income to get it.”
March recalls driving past a competitor’s billboard that read: “We finance anyone. That means you.” What that really meant, he says, was that anyone could get a mortgage, no matter how fragile their income or mountainous their other debts. If March didn’t make loans to families who couldn’t afford them, he knew they would just find the money elsewhere. “In those days I could have got a ham sandwich a mortgage,” he says.
Millions of working-class Americans went on a spree based on inflated property values that quickly took a dive. Construction dried up, throwing many out of work. The US mortgage crisis has had an impact all over the world. Isn’t this an issue Obama should be able to exploit?
One afternoon, Joe walks me down to the Royal Lunch diner, a shabby hangout close to the railway tracks that neatly separate polite, middle-class, downtown Winchester from the untidy black neighbourhood up the road. It was from the customers of Royal Lunch that Bageant gathered much of the homespun wisdom that fills his book. The diner is a cramped but cheerful place where several of the customers are wider than their tables and a sign above the counter announces: “Will trade coffee for gossip.”
The gossip that day concerns Jim Sylvester, owner of the Stonewall bar across the road, who has apparently been booked for assault. Joe suggests we check out the other local, so we cross the road and enter a gloomy bar where a couple of drunks are staring grimly into the middle distance. Joe notices that the shuffleboard table has gone. “They moved it so there would be more room to fight,” says one of the drunks. These are bad times for the rednecks, yet all they do is drink and fight. “In years past there might have been an armed rebellion against oppression,” the ageing leftie says. “Now they just seem to take it on the chin.”
We end up in John Hayes’s cigar store, a comfortable smokers’ emporium. There are half a dozen men and one young woman chatting casually about local politics. It seems a good place to talk about Obama. Joe is happy because one of the men turns out to be a visiting trade unionist from Pennsylvania. “In Winchester it’s like meeting an endangered dodo bird,” he says. The two fall into animated conversation about anti-union companies, the threat of factory closure and the transfer of production to Malaysia.
I chat to Aritha Crandall, 26, the daughter of a local psychologist, who has completed her political-science degree but now can’t find a job and isn’t convinced that Obama – or McCain – will be able to help her. Then in comes Gary Randall, a retired engineer. He also happens to be black, the only African-American in the room. He settles into an armchair and lights his cigar. Randall turns out to be a character. Born on a farm in southern Virginia, he somehow developed a skill for mathematics. He became only the second black to attend Brooklyn Tech, an elite school in New York. He trained as an engineer and became a successful troubleshooter for AT&T, the telephone conglomerate. He retired with enough money to play any golf course he likes. Is he going to vote for Obama?
“I liked Hillary,” he replies. “I thought her husband did a really good job politically.” He won’t make up his mind about Obama or McCain until after he has watched the televised presidential debates. “I don’t vote party or colour or any of that stuff,” he says. “I vote for the person who will do best for us. It could be Obama, but right now I don’t know.” This was a refrain I heard time and again from both blacks and whites in Winchester. Notably absent from my conversations was the remotest hint of racism. Not a single person told me they wouldn’t vote for Obama just because he was black.
Perhaps they just didn’t want to admit it to a journalist (although some of them made no secret of their rabid anti-immigrant views). But race is a funny subject out here in the American boondocks. “The best-kept redneck secret is we all have black members of the family,” says Joe.
At the mountain honky-tonk, I met Norman Mann, a comparatively prosperous local realtor who, like Randall, doesn’t vote along party lines. “Whoever wants lower taxes is who I vote for,” he says. He supported Ronald Reagan and Bush, but what he really likes is “a conservative Democrat – but that’s hard to find today”.
Mike March believes some people will vote for Obama because they like the idea of making history with an African-American president; and others will reject him because, secretly, they don’t want a black. “Those kind of votes will cancel each other out. What decides it is the 10-15% in the middle who are actually paying attention.”
At the Colonial Garage at the edge of town, we talk to Marty Gavis, a veteran redneck who made a fortune from his tow-truck business. “I don’t think it matters who becomes president,” he says. “One man can’t stop what’s happened.” He is contemptuous of McCain, who “can’t keep the same chain of thought from the beginning
of a speech to the end”, especially when it comes to the economy, which is all Gavis cares about. Yet he hasn’t heard anything from Obama that makes him want to vote Democrat either. Everyone has seen the enthusiasm Obama arouses as he campaigns across the rest of the US. But there’s not much sign of it in Winchester.
That evening, Joe brings out the bourbon and we talk late into the night about Obama and his problems with rednecks. “It’s not so much that we cling to guns and religion, but guns and religion cling to us as a matter of culture,” he says. “They are just embedded in our lives.”
Are rednecks really bitter, as Obama suggests? Joe pauses. “You’re goddamned right we’re bitter,” he says fiercely. But then he softens. “It’s a kind of inchoate anger that nobody knows what to do with. Nobody knows its name or face.” He thinks Obama is full of “liberal bullshit”, which will hurt him in redneck country far more than his race. Part of the reason rednecks voted for Bush was “he looks as dumb as we feel… When you see a president who looks aw-shucksy about everything, you kinda like that around here.”
Obama is not exactly an aw-shucks kind of guy, and while his huge popularity in the cities might sweep him to ultimate victory, his remoteness from the poor white experience may yet turn out to be costly. “What the Democrats have done is lose contact with the people,” says Joe morosely. “The Republicans didn’t do that.”
The next morning his spirits have recovered. He tosses some bacon into a frying pan. “I have proof there’s a merciful God in heaven,” he says. “I didn’t get the hangover I so richly deserved.”
Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bageant (published by Portobello Books, £8.99), is available at the special offer price of £8.09, including postage and packing, from BooksFirst, tel: 0870 165 8585
Homeland, an exhibition of Nina Berman’s images, in conjunction with The Sunday Times Magazine, will be at Visa pour l’Image, Couvent des Minimes, Perpignan, France, from August 30 to September 14. More images from Nina Berman’s Homeland can be seen at www.timesonline.co.uk/ninaberman