Carlton Sparks is the reason the GOP has a stranglehold on the South. With his wife, Cindi, and their 17-year-old son, Andrew, he lives in an unassuming, tan, one-story home off a country road surrounded by mountains. Sparks, 49, makes a good living for a resident of Blairsville, Georgia. He pulls in more than $45,000 a year from Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, where he works as a warehouseman.
Sparks grew up a self-described Kennedy Democrat, born to a single mom in 1954, a time, he notes, when single mothers weren't too popular. After high school, he joined the military for a short stint, got out and went to work at his uncle's sawmill, before joining a Blue Ridge EMC right-of-way crew. This was before they used chainsaws. "They's people in prison don't work as hard as what we worked," he recalls, "but I had to have it." He had a wife and baby girl to support.
Watching him light up Winstons or ramble up the drive to his home in his heavy-duty pick-up, you might pigeonhole Sparks with a glance -- typical NASCAR dad. You'd be wrong. He defies easy categorization. True, one minute he's doling out the Fox News/talk radio clichés about "big government" and school prayer, but in his next breath, he's telling the stories of his neighbors and coworkers, talking vividly about the death grip squeezing rural middle class America, the battle he watches, in person, every day. It has nothing to do with affirmative action or the pledge of allegiance.
In Sparks lies the great conundrum of modern Southern politics: The average white male, for whom the system has always worked, is having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet -- as if consumer debt recently topping $2 trillion for the first time wasn't enough of a clue. His wages have dropped when adjusted for inflation. His health insurance premiums have skyrocketed (if he has health insurance). He and his wife both have to work, and they pay astronomical childcare bills. His younger kids' schools are crappy and under-funded. His older kids' college tuition jumped (14 percent in the last year, on average). And heaven help his children if they don't go to college, because they're bound for a near-feudal system of working for wealthy people in low-paying service sector jobs. Moreover, if the average Joe is like Sparks, 30 percent of what he stashed away for retirement evaporated in a stock market fiasco fueled by corporate greed that a bit more government oversight could have prevented.
So where's the anger? Why isn't he pissed that he's not getting more bang for his taxpayer buck? And why in the world is he going to vote for a president based on a side issue like gay marriage?
I spent a week on the road trying to figure out why traditionally Democratic rural whites have so solidly embraced a Republican Party whose economic program runs directly counter to their own interests.
I started in the mountain hamlet of Young Harris, Georgia -- the hometown of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller -- and in nearby Blairsville. Then, on to Seneca, S.C., the birthplace of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. Finally, I headed to Polk County, one of the poorest parts of central Florida. Like much of the rural South, each town I visited was relatively poor, overwhelmingly white and voted for President Bush in 2000. At each stop, I looked for working poor and middle-income people, asked them how they voted and why. The answers were depressingly facile, filled with the perfectly parroted lingo of the right-wing echo chamber, and yet, once I dug, often so thin, disconnected and confused that I wondered whether a strong wind (or populist candidate with the right message) might reorder the political landscape.
"Part of the problem that any political party would have ... is: Do you take the political world as you find it or do you try to change the electorate?" says Emory University political scientist Merle Black. The answer for progressives and populists is the latter if they intend to solve the riddle of their dwindling support, because these are the places where politicians fear to tread, places populated by the most ignored voters in the country. These are the people for whom governments, Democratic and Republican, have done little in the last 30 years.
Conflict Of Interest
In the parking lot of Mary Ann's, one of Miller's favorite eateries, four men huddle around a pickup truck. A red, white and blue placard below the sign for the Young Harris Motel proudly reads: "American Owned."
The men are examining a diesel generator in the back of the pickup. I ask whether they plan to vote to re-elect President Bush.
"Hell, no. I've been starving since Bush became president," says a man, 25-ish, a dump-truck driver in a baseball hat.
"It's about conflict of interest," he continues. "He come from oil, so we attack a place with oil. There's plenty of dictators in Africa doing worse things to their people, and [Bush] don't do nothing about them." The oldest member of foursome turns to me and leans close to my face. "You won't find many people here voting for Bush," he twangs. "They's poor people here. Zell Miller's from here." He points a thumb to the east, in the direction of the senator's home.
The older man is right, sort of. There are plenty of poor people in Towns County, which is deep in Appalachia, right across the line from North Carolina. Nearly three-fourths of the households earn less than $50,000 a year. (Sparks is something of an anomaly in these parts.) More than one-quarter earn less than $25,000.
But the guy's wrong about the way people voted. The gang around the Silverado definitely is in the minority in these quarters. Towns County turned out nearly 2-1 for Bush in 2000. In return, they got a free-spending president who gave them a $300 tax rebate while he lowered the taxes of the richest Americans to their lowest levels since 1932, a government deficit billed to their children and their children's children, and an invitation to send their kids to a war of disputable necessity.
By all counts, it looks as if they'll vote even more heavily for Bush the second time around. It's like watching someone flog himself again and again.
Not surprisingly, the roots of such self-flagellation can be traced to the historical bogeymen of Southern backwardness. Forever, it seems, Southern demagogues have managed to blame the "other" -- mainly blacks or Yankees -- for the sorry state of poor and average whites, while they quietly curried favor for corporations and wealthy families. Now, Zell Miller and George Bush blame "liberals," but they're doing the same thing.
And, after a couple of centuries of twisting the Bible to justify slavery, large swaths of Southern religion have lost the moral grounding to stand toe-to-toe against such demagoguery. Indeed, many churches have employed it themselves. They've substituted Christ's message of social justice for the self-help gospel of personal wealth -- together with a big emphasis on casting stones at others.
Heat those traditional bogeymen in a pot with the vitriol of rightwing news outlets and a well-funded political machine designed to advance the special interests of corporations. Add seasoning from the well-founded skepticism about government that started with the Vietnam War and got worse during Watergate. Now you've got a pretty potent stew. It's not surprising that national Democrats, even the moderate ones, measure nowadays in the Southern, white consciousness as little more than exotic reptiles -- fun to look at but you wouldn't take them home with you. Carlton Sparks is no different, and yet he juggles contradictions -- the words he hears from television commentators versus the life he sees and lives.
So why is Sparks a Bush man? He makes half a case for morality -- the abortion thing -- before conceding "even that has its gray areas."
There is also a careful, understated racism that mimics talk radio's complaints about misguided affirmative action. He lets out his beleaguered taxpayer: "They's always someone on the side that's going to get their pockets lined. They's always a minority group or whatever that deserves this other chance," Sparks says. "It's supposed to be the government of the people, for the people and by the people. But it's gotten to the point now where you've got four or five people that raise their voice. Everybody else is, I reckon, busy making a living, and they listen to the four or five."
And here comes the right-wing whipping boys, atheists, the ACLU. They're taking the Ten Commandments out of public buildings and prayer out of the schools.
"You let your moral values keep sliding away, keep sliding away," Sparks says. "How long is it going to be before start taking out the pledge of allegiance?"
And yet, Sparks is capable of the kind of socioeconomic insight that many politicians just don't get. You just have to ask enough questions. Take his employer, the electric membership corporation.
"It's tough. Up here, for the guys starting on the right of way crew now, if the company pays him $14 an hour, his benefits is going to cost him $7 an hour," Sparks says. "He ain't making much money, so the cost of his benefits are going to seem greater. It comes time that something's got to give. He's got to put food on the table. When I went to work on the EMC the average years was like 25 years. Now, a lot of kids will start, will work for a couple of months and then they're gone." They become fixated on that $7 an hour net income. "They can get a job out here runnin' a dang weedeater for $10 an hour. Well, the $10 an hour don't bring insurance, but he's got to have the $10 an hour to put food on the table."
Sparks acknowledges he'll be paying for their doctors' bills with higher insurance premiums, and yet he's not interested in paying higher taxes for national health care.
Still, he understands tradeoffs. Sparks has the pocketbook scars to prove it. To pay for college for his daughter, Carli, he refinanced his $26,000 house, when he had just $5,000 left on the mortgage. After refinancing, he owed $45,000. That's the kind of life he's had to live, a life unlike the fiscal policy of his president, one where sacrifices have to be made.
"We went and visited family here and there a time or two," he says. "We went to Florida a time or two, but not a whole lot of vacations, not a whole lot of this, not a whole lot of that in order to make life work. You got to live conservatively. You can't have everything."
Another Roadside Attraction
Driving into Seneca from the west on U.S. 76, you're greeted by the corpulent majesty of the local Super Wal-Mart, a monstrosity with a barber shop, McDonald's, grocery store, shotguns and eye doctor. Everything under one roof.
Most of the Wal-Mart's blue-smocked employees greet news that a reporter's in the building with startled amusement or downright evasiveness, as if they're being asked what color underwear they're wearing.
Person after person shrugs when asked who they plan to vote for in November. Most say no one. They don't follow it, don't have time for it.
Few even know that Edwards, a North Carolina senator who moved as a child from Seneca to Robbins, N.C., is a favorite son. There's an Edwards campaign sign, faded from the sun, in the window of the local Democratic Party headquarters and a gravestone marking a family plot in the city's cemetery. But it doesn't seem today as if Edwards' roots even matter.
A few women say they'll vote how their husbands are voting, and that's for W. In grocery stores and fast-food joints all over town, this pattern is repeated, which is not exactly surprising to people like Merle Black. He notes that the poorest and least educated Southern whites used to vote but now seem to have dropped out of electoral politics almost entirely.
"They're either alienated, or they don't see that their interests are advanced or that they have any real motivation to take part," Black says. That might sound like a promising voting bloc for Democrats, but Black notes that the lack of unions in the South makes it difficult to organize working-class Southerners into a group that would work together for their own economic and political interests.
And who is to say which side they'd be more predisposed to support, anyway? In the Super Wal-Mart, Adam Canady, from nearby Walhalla, practically sticks out his chest when he says he'll vote for Bush.
"He's the only one who's shown himself capable of leading," Canady says.
Sentiments like Canady's and the fact that Al Gore won just 42 percent of the vote in 2000 didn't stop the Democratic presidential candidates from campaigning like hell in South Carolina, a state that could supposedly prove bonafides with Southern voters. Never mind that they don't have a chance at winning the state, or that the primary is so unrepresentative of the state that nearly 50 percent of the voters are black. The state, meanwhile, has just a 30 percent black population.
Tossing Out Democrats
Marlene Young was the last Democrat elected to Polk County's Board of Commissioners. That was in 1996, when she won re-election for a third term.
In 2000, voters in Central Florida's Polk County pulled the lever for George W. Bush by a 10 percent margin. And, after 12 years of public service, Young, a moderate, was tossed out, while Republicans captured all five commission seats.
Yet Polk and its largest city, Lakeland, are anything but the picture of economic well-being. Nearly 20 percent of its children live in poverty, according to the most recent census data. The median household income is a modest $36,036. The city has a movie-lot quality. The commercial strips, save for a Super Wal-Mart and a Target on the edges of town, look as if they haven't seen new façades since 1973.
Young sits in her real estate office in a shopping center in nearby Winter Haven well past closing on a recent Saturday. She still can't put her finger on the "why" three years after the election that knocked her out of politics.
"I'm a Democrat who's been turned out of office by registered Democrats, who are essentially voting Republican," Young says. "For a long time, I've looked and been dismayed at, you know, why are people who are not being well-served by these Republicans in office, or by this party and the platform -- why do they continue to support it?" She has come up with various theories, none of which quite satisfies her.
"At this point, the Republican Party is certainly seen as the party of wealth and influence and power and the country clubbers, all of those things that the poor working schmucks strive to be," Young says. "It's almost a wannabe mentality."
Then, Young attributes the shift away from Democrats to Clinton's sex scandals and "because the Republicans have so effectively characterized us as free-wheeling, tax-spending, social-promoting freeloaders." And yet, Young says, it was these very same people who are indignant about the huddled masses getting a crack at their money, who clamored when she was in office for more services and lower taxes.
"It just ... seemed to be a dwindling of responsibility," she says. "People more and more just seem to be looking at their own individual self-interests rather than the larger interests that may be necessary for all of us to live together ultimately."
Neil Combee is a farmer, Republican and 13-year member of the commission. He explains the shift to the GOP more coarsely than Young. Voters are "tired of paying people who sit around all day on their butts."
Never mind, of course, that it was the Democrat Clinton who signed the welfare-to-work legislation and famously declared an end to the era of big government. There just aren't too many people left cashing government checks each month, but in conversations with a number of voters, the bugaboo of welfare queens was cited as a reason they plan on voting Republican.
Sparks says he feels like the government's doing enough to level the playing field, and people like Lakeland's Darrell Conaster, 45, a firefighter in the Winter Haven department, have a traditional American belief in fairness, though it's shallow. "Government should be involved to the extent that it's fair for everybody."
But it already does that by enforcing anti-discrimination laws, he reasons.
Conaster, like Sparks, closely identifies with JFK, even though he largely missed those years. When he was in high school during the mid-1970s, "you still had the utopia of the Kennedys, you know, everybody helping one another. That's the mindset that I had. That's why I considered myself a Democrat. Republicans were the well-to-do party. I never considered myself that way. I'm more down to earth."
Conaster lives with his wife of 14 years, and two children. While he says he gets his news from local television and "balances it out" with reports from Pat Robertson's 700 Club, Conaster also thinks The Ledger, the local New York Times-owned newspaper does a fair job.
He has spent 18 years as a firefighter with Winter Haven and works a second job, running Faith Lawn & Tree Service. His wife works as an office manager so that his children can attend a private Lutheran school. Public schools "force your children to learn things that are not your family values," says Conaster, citing evolution.
God informs Conaster's voting. He attends the local Family Worship Center, an off-shoot of the conservative Kenneth Hagin Ministries, which spawned self-help televangelists such as Kenneth Copeland, who sound more like motivational speakers you'd find at business conventions than typical preachers. In his version of the Bible, and the one Conaster describes his minister discussing on Sundays, God wants you to be rich. It's here that Young's contention that Americans identify themselves, whether they're wealthy or not, with the party of financial success makes sense, even if Conaster can't see it working in his own life. He describes a sermon in which his pastor, Reggie Scarborough, was advising the flock on how to make money in real estate. "Pastor was talking about prospering and how you can buy a house and sell it and make $10,000 and stuff like that, and I asked him 'Well, I'm a civil service worker, I don't get bonuses,'" Conaster says.
Yet, he doesn't have a populist's suspicion of success.
"I think the Ross Perot thing was when I really started picking up on that, because they were picking on him, and the man's a successful businessman, and if you check his company out, which I did, he did a lot for the people of his company." Conaster insists that he despises partisanship. But one gets the sense that he is firmly attached to the GOP. He says his switch to the Republican Party had a lot to do with Clinton.
"Bush is family-oriented," Conaster says. "His stance on faith is bold. He's got backbone. He's got integrity. He's not afraid to do what he feels is right. You don't get that wishy-washy thing out of him."
At the same time, Conaster sees no moral problem with handing tax cuts to the wealthy -- he thinks he may have received $200 or $300 with the first Bush tax cut. He shrugs at the idea that conflicts of interest, like the one between Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root and its ex-CEO Dick Cheney, could end up looting taxpayer dollars. "You can invest in those companies," Conaster reasons. "Bush ain't just standing back saying we've got to give more money to the poor to stimulate the economy. That ain't what makes it work."
Actually, that is what has made America work. As author Michael Lind notes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a large, healthy middle class doesn't just happen in a capitalist system. "The truth is that each of America's successive middle classes has been artificially created by government-sponsored social engineering," he writes. Since 1800, you've had land distribution laws that promoted small farmers -- America's first middle class -- high tariffs, the end of child labor and strict immigration limits benefiting turn-of-the-century industrial workers and Social Security, Medicare and the GI Bill, among other initiatives, that solidified the middle class during the last half century.
So what programs guarantee the future stability of the middle class? Few politicians have any answers, and tax cuts don't count.
Indeed, a powerful case can be made that racism and anti-government sentiment are just by-products of the squeeze on the middle and lower classes -- eggs to the much larger chicken of enormous and increasing income inequality. Reaganomics has led to numbers like these: In 1979, the top 5 percent of earners made 11 times more than those in the bottom 20 percent. Now, the elite earn 19 times more than the lowest 20 percent. Meanwhile, the economy during that period grew just three times and typical family incomes only doubled.
And CEOs have really been rolling in the dough since the Reagan years. In the 1970s, they made 25 times what the average worker made annually. That number rose to almost 100 times by 1988. By 2000, CEOs made 500 times, on average, what the typical worker made, according to numbers compiled by economist and professor Jeff Madrick. These are inequalities that we haven't seen since the 1920s. The only difference is that during the 1920s, the economy grew rapidly. That isn't the case now, and it can be argued that such inequality leads to the search for scapegoats. "Roughly, since 1973, we've been growing about 1 percent a year slower than we did since 1870, and that's very significant when you accumulate it over time," says Madrick.
You might expect a little outrage from the average worker when confronted with numbers like these, especially when he sees little that government is doing in his own life, but it's distressingly rare. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening -- a sort of political paralysis that's reflected in the blank stares of Seneca's Wal-Mart employees.
Journalist George Packer, in his introduction to "The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World," captures the downward spiral of American politics: "The relationship between democracy and economic inequality ... creates a kind of self-perpetuating cycle: The people hold government in low esteem; public power shrinks against the awesome might of corporations and rich individuals; money and its influence claims a greater and greater share of political power; and the public, priced out of the democratic game, grows ever more cynical about politics and puts more of its energy into private ends. Far from creating a surge of reform, the erosion of the middle class has only deepened the disenchantment."
It didn't have to be that way, especially for white males. In the early 1970s, wages stopped going up for males, and in particular for lower-income or middle-income, less-educated white males. Nearly 60 percent experienced either a decline or almost no gain in wages, Madrick writes. They rose for minorities and women, but only because they'd been so much lower to begin with.
With a little more imagination, the government response might have been to step in and re-train the workers who were falling behind. It would have meant more spending, but not a huge increase, Madrick says, and it might have helped avoid the pervasive anti-government feelings I heard on my trip through the South.
Add solutions to the current wage-growth killers -- increasing childcare and healthcare costs -- to worker training, and maybe the political landscape is different in the South. Maybe more folks have a vested interest.
Instead, as Sparks of Blairsville suggests, those low-skill workers just kept falling behind until companies started shipping their jobs out of America.
"You wouldn't believe the jobs we've lost in this area, and now this wasn't a great place to come to work to start with," Sparks says. "But these companies that keep farming it out overseas ... where's your kids going to work one of these days?"
If progressive politicians want to break the GOP death grip among rural whites, Sparks' question is one they need to answer. They should begin by charting a new course for expanding the middle class -- the backbone of American promise and political clout -- in the new century. Maybe then the words Democrats speak will connect with the lives most people in this country lead.
Kevin Griffis is a staff writer for Creative Loafing-Atlanta.