Thursday, May 22, 2008

Obama, Webb, and the Scots-Irish

This map (source) shows counties where Clinton received 65% or more of the vote in the Democratic party's nomination campaign; it was compiled before West Virginia or Kentucky voted, but we know from subsequent results that those states should be considered almost uniformly purple.

We will be hearing quite a bit more about the politics and culture of the Scots-Irish demographic -- surely the "hard-working white people" of Clinton campaign fame -- that predominates in much of the purple, in connection with the prospect of Virginia Senator Jim Webb becoming Obama's running mate.

Webb has written about the Scots-Irish subculture in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, and has parlayed his understanding into a successful political career. In an opinion piece he wrote in support of the book, he laid out the politics:

The decline in public education and the outsourcing of jobs has hit this culture hard. Diversity programs designed to assist minorities have had an unequal impact on white ethnic groups and particularly this one, whose roots are in a poverty-stricken South. Their sons and daughters serve in large numbers in a war whose validity is increasingly coming into question. In fact, the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African-Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the past two centuries.
A coalition that unites African-Americans and Scots-Irish? An Obama-Webb ticket sounds custom-tailored for that, and it's a pairing I would love to see not only for reasons of crass political calculation (although I would not claim to be innocent of those).

I would love to see an Obama-Webb campaign actually forge a functional political coalition that breaks out of the racialist rut we saw so vividly in the exit polls from West Virginia and Kentucky, and that we've seen in national politics at least since the 1960s. This could be an opportunity to make a new politics -- sound familiar, fellow Obama supporters? -- that engages African Americans (and other minorities) and Webb's Scots-Irish (and similar demographic groups) in a genuinely new way, a way that finds common ground between them rather than exploiting their superficial differences. This would, as Webb suggests, transform American politics.

The promise and challenge of forging that new politics -- against loud countervailing forces that are quite content with the old politics, thank you very much -- will be, arguably, central to the forthcoming presidential campaign, whether Webb is Obama's running mate or not. The challenges are by no means new; John at Obscene Desserts canvassed one small corner of them a few months back.


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

It's interesting to see that Oregon-shaped hole there. Of course, I understand why it's there; it's just fascinating.

Scots-Irish, then, eh? Apparently us Germans still can't be trusted with anything. B-)

Dale said...

Nah, I'm not Scots-Irish myself ... if that's what you're asking. I'm a mostly-German mutt -- German on the paternal side, miscellaneous German / Slavic / English on the maternal side.

I do come from a place where a lot of people speak proudly of their Scots-Irish heritage. In my experience, it's a polite way of calling oneself a Hillbilly. ;-)