American Culture

It hurts to be Left Behind–just ask the "base"

The comedian Colin Farrell has astutely observed that people always are quick to claim personal characteristics that are the exact opposite of who they actually are. Gregarious party-types often say, “But really, I’m very shy.” Lazy people talk about how hard they work. And of course, racists are forever making sure everyone knows that some of their best friends are black and they’re not prejudiced, but…

All of us do that at one time or another, claim personality traits that are 180 degrees from reality. Maybe we lie to convince ourselves. Or maybe we’re trying to deflect anticipated criticism. If I say I am an idiot before you can say it, then somehow it takes the sting out of it.  “You can’t fire me. I quit” sort of thing.

It’s no coincidence that the best-selling Christian fiction series is called Left Behind.  Christians, and particularly the small town conservative Christians collectively known as “the base,” are being left behind in every sense of the word—culturally, societally, demographically, technologically, economically, and politically.  So of course, they say, “No, I’m not the one being left behind. You’re the one being left behind.”

That they are being left behind is unassailable. They’re being left behind in terms of demographic relevance. A hundred years ago, 90% of the population worked on farms and lived in small communities. Now farm employment is 0.5%. The U.S. is increasingly a nation of dark skinned people of non-European descent.  They’re being left behind economically as the wealth gaps between the middle class and the upper class and the small town and urban dwellers grows.

They are being left behind culturally, for example as America moves away from formal Christianity. About 20% of Americans now attend church regularly.  And while many Americans consider themselves “spiritual,” increasingly we are shopping from the spiritual supermarket, and not just the Christianity aisle. There are hundreds of recognized religions in America, and we have become de facto polytheistic, e.g., the local YMCA offering classes in yoga. Last week a major Sunday morning show treated the nonsense of reincarnation with a straight face. Perhaps there was a time when a Christian nation might have been outraged. Now it’s not worth a shrug.

Even the dominant shows on TV no longer portray the stable nuclear wholesome small town Christian family (always a myth, demographically, by the way.) Ozzie and Harriett and Leave it Beaver are gone, and TV now celebrates a very different reality, like Two and a Half Men. To the extent the base is portrayed in the media, it is to be ridiculed and mocked, e.g., My Name is Earl, Married with Children, The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.

Even more poignantly, they are being left behind physically as their children emigrate to urban areas. In a different era, those kids would have stayed home in Kansas and taken care of their parents.  Now, the children give them a cell phone with an unlimited calling plan, a quick hug, jump in the Focus, and get on the interstate for L.A., Chicago or Dallas as fast as they can.

For those Obama notoriously, but accurately, portrayed as “clingers,” these are desperate times. In the book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that by supporting Republicans, Kansans vote against their own economic self interest in return for promises to turn back the social clock. Frank’s conclusion was that Kansans are being duped by the economic elite because the Republicans never deliver on the social agenda they promise—repealing abortion, school prayer, immigration, etc.

I do think that’s’ why Kansans vote Republican. I don’t think they are fools or dupes.  They are correct not to worry about economics. Any economic gains for them will be tweaks. The agrarian-centric economy that made small towns prosperous isn’t coming back. (Nor is the Southern version based on involuntary servitude.) That way of life was doomed by a shifting of economic tectonic plates. Technology is going to continue to move those plates. Local farms producing local food for local craftsmen who build local furniture sold in local stores just is no longer a viable economic model, and hasn’t been since the railroad came through. Why bother to vote for economic tweaks?

Deep in their hearts, the base probably also knows their social system isn’t coming back either. They know their son’s roommate isn’t really a roommate and he’s not moving back home to take care of them.  No one is going to move back to small towns, no matter how many feed stores on the square get converted to cafes. And those back pews in the church will never be filled again. Even with 160 channels on the satellite, given the choice, no one really wants to live in stagnant, boring, narrow-minded small towns.  It’s over, and they’re left behind.

What the Republican elite is offering is token agreement.  When the base says, “We’re not the ones being left behind,” the Republicans don’t laugh, like we uber-logical progressives do, but nod and lie soothingly, “Absolutely. We’re coming back to get you. How about some more of that iced tea?” (And of course, it doesn’t cost the Republican elite anything to say that because they live in West Palm, Boston, Phoenix, New York or D.C. with their third wives and a well-stocked bar.)  It’s not much, but these folks are desperate. It’s something.

Soon Republicans will hit the trail in Iowa and sit across the table from the base and promise them they will roll back the clock to a God-fearing nation of white people who live in small towns and never drop the f-bomb. They’re lying through their fucking teeth. And the people across the table know it. But then, if they don’t call the Republican candidates on that lie, then the Republicans promise not to call them on theirs.

5 replies »

  1. I disagree. People will be moving back, because they won’t have much choice if they want to survive. The smart ones (and it’s a growing trend) are already moving back and trying to relearn the agrarian way.

    There’s no rebound for America; no rebuilding of the great empire that could make money without actually doing something. Like all empires, it will fall. I’m positive that when history examines the entire situation, it will point to a time already passed as the start.

    We’re so much like the Soviet Union it isn’t funny (wait, yes it is…it’s hilarious). The fall is coming for exactly the same reasons, if not the same details. And who will feed all the people who’ve moved to cities to pursue economic situations already being off shored to places with cheaper labor? ADM, Monsanto, etc. aren’t going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts.

    But the return to small communities to eek out a living will not return any power to Christian America. That base has been left behind, though it will scream and fight to maintain its status. What it may do, however, is find common ground with the young people who return. The difference between a young liberal wanting an agrarian lifestyle and an older conservative one living the same is generally just church. But that issue tends to dissolve when there’s mutual respect for all the other lifestyle choices.

    • I think this is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics for historians to study in decades (and centuries) to come, assuming we don’t outlaw historians entirely. My guess is that there are going to be a number of theories about how to cope with where we’re heading, but hell if I know which ones to bet on.

  2. Certainly agree in the fundamental premise: that Republicans will soon be cynically promising to restore non-urban, lower socio-economic/less educated white America to their iconic status as the backbone of American economic and social superiority.

    I would argue that, ironically, this iconic status that is so revered really existed only in the periods between 1815 and 1845 and, once again, after WWII to 1964. During those time periods, work hard/fear God/small town white America actually was an important part of American prosperity. (I almost wrote “at the core of American prosperity,” but, slap in the face, Capital and those who control it are always at the core.) The rest of American history, Civil War, Industrial Revolution, WWI, Depression and WWII, and Vietnam on, they were just pawns to much greater forces.

    As to a return to an agrarian life style, good Indiana farmland is selling at $5,000 an acre, so good luck with eking it out.

  3. People moving back to the country? Wanna bet? Do you have any idea what percentage of the _world_ now starves in the “surburbs” — if you can call a third-world garbage dump hell hole a suburb. From Rio to Lagos, where’s the move back to the country and what makes you think there is more opportunity for them there?

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