As a Southern Democratic political operative and Scots-Irish hillbilly, I've been asked the same question a thousand times in a thousand different ways. In the summer of 2006, the question was condescendingly thrown at me by a sitting U.S. Senator in a luncheon buffet line at a Senate Democratic Caucus retreat. She asked, "How can your people in the South be so ignorant to go against their own economic self-interests and vote Republican?" Huh? I remember thinking that surely, in the name of Jesus, this woman (Senator or not) didn't call my people "ignorant".
Since I had been invited to the retreat by Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, two guys I personally like, I was all cleaned up and on my very best behavior. But candidly, I still had to lock up every brake in my soul to not respond to her question with a bombardment of backwoods, "By God", profanity. Somewhat to my own surprise, I overcame the urge and answered, "Has it ever crossed your mind that it might not be ignorance, but instead, a more powerful force called culture?"
I told the Senator that was the short answer, but if she wanted the long answer she should read Jim Webb's book, Born Fighting. Read it with attentiveness, I said, and added that she would be shocked by the immense role that culture plays in the lives, faith and politics of the least known of American ethnicities, the Scots-Irish. I was thinking she might possibly gain some understanding that dismissing the power of the Scots-Irish culture is the Democrats' "glass jaw" in electoral outcomes. There are, after all, huge Scots-Irish voting blocs throughout the South and much of rural America.
Since Webb, the Jacksonian Populist, was better than 30 points behind George Allen when I told this Senator about the book, I doubt it made her top 100 books to read. But come this Sunday night, April 10, she will be able to sit back for two hours, watch it, and be entertained. Most importantly, she can be educated.
The documentary version of Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America premieres on the Smithsonian Channel at 9:00 P.M. ET/PT, or as Webb would say, "2100 Hours". Narrated by Senator Webb, Born Fighting is in no way a political documentary. Other than mentioning that Andrew Jackson introduced his strong brand of Scots-Irish populism to the American political stage, the film is rightly devoid of politics. The documentary is about educating America on a non-talked about ethnicity which has made an overwhelming impact on the building, defense and arts of this nation. In Born Fighting, Webb traces his ancestors' paths from the shadow of Hadrian's Wall to Scottish battlefields like Stirling (the place where Mel Gibson and the boys mooned the British in Braveheart), then on to the Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland, and from there, to the Appalachian Mountains and points beyond on the American frontier.
Unfortunately, prior to the release of Webb's book in 2004, the contributions of the Scots-Irish -- as a people -- had been invisible ink on the pages of American History. Born Fighting, the documentary, is not only a fascinating history of the near-continuous plight of the Scots-Irish, but just as important to modern day electoral politics, the passing from generation-to-generation of the powerful Scots-Irish ethos, which Webb aptly characterizes as "FIGHT, SING, DRINK, PRAY". In reality, my word "powerful" does not do justice to the influence of Scots-Irish culture at the ballot box.
Mike Murphy, who for my money is the best Republican operative in America, said, "Democrats go after class. Republicans go after culture." Clearly, election results throughout the Scots-Irish South prove Murphy's words -- emphasis on culture is the only proven strategy. What is totally baffling is Democrats could go after the South and rural America with Scots-Irish Jacksonian Populism and add big numbers while not alienating their current cultural and economic base. Honestly, I don't understand how any native Southerner could keep from embracing -- as Webb described in 2004 -- the Scots-Irish cultural "tendency toward egalitarian traditions."
As I said before, Born Fighting is an educational documentary. But at the same time, there is no denying that cultural education leads to cultural understanding, and cultural understanding leads to political victories.
If you're Scots-Irish, you've got to watch it. If you're interested in Southern and rural politics, you need to watch it. Besides enjoying it, you'll get a lot of answers concerning electoral result maps. And the answers all lie in the culture.
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