Backwoods Mentality Takes Over Congress

A growing "redneck subculture" is strangling the political process.

Sen. Ted Cruz (Tom Williams/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz (Tom Williams/Getty Images)

But a closer examination will reveal that these are places where a stubborn contingent of anti-big-government, anti-Obamacare, red-meat Republican legislators reside. And while they represent only a fraction of the country’s living space, they’ve managed to dominate a large chunk of our collective discussion on the role of government. Not only do they get license from rural and exurban voters who’ve backed them into rhetorical corners during town hall meetings and impromptu conversations at the Waffle House, but their language and cultural standard infects national discourse.    

We assume that they, like everyone else who goes to Washington, want to participate in a spirited federal or national political process. But do they really?

Instead, they’re forcing our modern political process to fight a new Civil War. We’re now recognizing scablike geographic divisions we didn’t want to acknowledge at first. An anonymous GOP congressman quoted by the Washington Examiner’s Byron York slightly admitted it when he likened the shutdown debacle to “Gettysburg, where a Confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into Union cavalry, and all of a sudden found itself embroiled in battle.” “Stumbling” is an understatement. Ideological positions and voting patterns are now very much concentrated according to fixed compositions of red and blue. 

Behind the effort to shut down government is the mindset of playing-for-keeps lawmakers from distant and remote lands. It is based on a rugged frontier mentality of largely rural whites satisfied with little-to-lose beliefs, many making up a lion’s share of people on government assistance but too proud or racially indignant to admit it. (Sixty-one percent of those on food stamps [pdf] and 40 percent in Head Start [pdf] are white.)

Candidate Obama was somewhat prescient in 2008 when he described the small-town unemployed as “clinging to … guns and religion,” predicting the battles that loomed ahead once he became president. The thoughtless condemnation of his statement as a gaffe was less media-cycle clowning than it was nationwide denial of something truly ugly on the horizon. It’s the banality of Duck Dynasty adventurism dressed in congressional ceremony, Redneck Heaven transformed into disastrous aberrations of everyone-on-their-own governance. 

These folks, as folksy and harmless as they might seem, want it to all fall apart. They are the Doomsday Preppers living off the garden, bunkers and basements ready, hunting guns loaded, closets full of canned preserves and ammunition stocked for the apocalypse. They scoff at us city slickers who live off the government dole, and hungrily await the day when they can prove that they have always been ready for the day the Four Horsemen arrive. One more day that government is down and the debt ceiling comes closer to cracking is one day closer to a world shaped like a Book of Eli fight scene.    

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When not stocking “potted meat and Tang,” he’s reachable via Twitter