Election 2014  
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What if Liberals and Progressives Could Learn to Talk to White Southern Men?

Southern comfort with the GOP is predictable -- but not necessarily inevitable.

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If you look closer, there’s something else. The Harley Davidson guys and their Southern brethren who put rebel flag stickers on their rides are signaling that they still strongly identify with a war in which their ancestors found themselves on the wrong side of history and fought a losing battle. White men in other regions of the country don’t really get what it feels like to know that your people were defeated in a war by their own countrymen. There’s a feeling that they lost so much for this Union to stay together that they’ll be damned if they are going to admit another defeat by recognizing that America is currently in decline. That is too much for the heart to bear. Recently, when I was at the NC state fair in Raleigh, I talked to some guys selling rebel flag paraphenalia. They expressed disappointment with "hate groups" that had co-opted the flag and made it about racism. One of them said that there were lots of flags used during the Civil War, and he wished that the Stars and Bars could be retired because it didn't stand for what he wanted it to stand for -- the history of a war that left his family filled with widows. He said he didn't have any time for racists. Was he joshing me? I don't think so. I think there are more rebel flag waving southerners like him than you may think. I think some of them would be open to finding a way to remember that war that wasn't about hating black people. Not all, but some.

Obama presents a more realistic picture of America’s place in the world than Romney– one in which the United States will have to contend with other global powers and understand its limitation. That, perhaps even more than his blackness, is what rankles white men in the South. The meme of his supposed “apologizing for America” is so powerful because this is precisely what these conservative white Southern men can’t abide. They’ve been asked to apologize for the Confederacy already. In a culture where the notion of dignity resides in honor, pride in country, and love of homeland – a culture in which a certain amount of boastfulness is part of masculinity – there’s only so much apologizing you can be expected to do. Men in other regions do not feel this double-whammy of defeat.

That love of homeland expressed by my boyfriend’s stepdad is another thing that I think it’s hard for urbanites in other parts of the country to fully grasp. The rural and urban divide between the GOP and the Democrats is bigger than it ever has been. You simply don’t feel the same way about the land you live on when you can see vast expanses of it and you have a sense that your people have lived on it for generations. The migratory, transitory, packed-in-tight experience of a city like New York, where I now live, gives you a completely different relationship to the landscape. Mitt Romney’s mythological evocation of an America restored to its former greatness is particularly appealing when you have this kind of ardor in your heart. And when the heart wants to be healed, it will accept any lie to soothe it. This is called being human.

What liberals and progressives don’t seem to understand is that you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story. And that’s what Obama and the Democrats have repeatedly failed to do. White Southern men want a story that makes them feel proud of America and what it can accomplish. I’m troubled when I hear lefties heap scorn upon the South, partly because I know that the antagonism is precisely what the Mitt Romneys of the world hope for. They want to divide us and keep those regional antagonisms stoked so that the cynical Southern strategy continues to work. Every time a San Franciscan or a New Yorker rails against “rednecks” in the South, he has done Karl Rove’s work for him.