Down to the Nut Cutting, Essay Example
Richard Nixon’s approach to politics in the early 1970s was one which sought to capitalize on the insecurities of the so-called Silent Majority–mainly White Southerners who had been alienated from politics and social issues during the incendiary movements of the 1960s. Although Nixon expressed the need to give this group a voice, his interest in cultivating these voters had much more to do with his wish to retain a strong power base by attracting the support of voters who might otherwise vote Democrat. Indeed, as Schulman points out, his interest in disaffected Democrats from both the North and South demonstrated Nixon’s wish to build a new party, which he often called “the Independent Conservative Party–to foster a wholesale realignment of American politics” (Schulman 39). In Nixon’s vision, this party would unite traditionally disparate groups of people–“white southerners, the Silent Majority, and traditionally Republican rural and suburban conservatives” (39) in order to ensure his success for another presidential term.
The crafting of this Silent Majority was one that relied almost entirely on fear-mongering, racism, and the re-imagination of what constituted an ‘American’. For example, Nixon played on southern fears of desegregation and racially-motivated violence to attract certain kinds of voters, and also worked to attract working class Americans by building on notions of American pride, civic values, and social responsibility. He did this by contrasting the average working Joe against the looming (and often frightening) spectre of the liberal college students who Nixon characterized as drug-smoking, anti-Americans who endangered everything that working class Americans had fought for during World War II. This form of cultural politics was strongly rooted in an us-against-them mentality whose effects linger on even today. For example, George W. Bush took a similar approach when responding to war protesters who argued that the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was less about curbing dictatorships than it was in ensuring a long-term oil supply that would meet the needs of corporate and government interests. Additionally, much of the ideology surrounding current debates about the Occupy Wall Street protests place protesters decidedly in the ‘hippie anarchist’ camp, despite the fact that this social action has drawn a response from people from a variety of socioeconomic and political backgrounds.
Unfortunately, Nixon’s vision of the perfect American as someone who accepts the guidance of political figures at face value and jumps at every racial shadow is a continuing trend in American political debates. However, Schulman’s discussion of the Silent Majority also illustrates that Nixon did not blindly jump into the fray of racial and gender-based fear campaigns. Instead, he “cleverly laid out a moderate approach, neither championing minority rights like Hubert Humphrey nor defending segregation and states’ rights like Goldwater and Wallace” (37), a middle-ground strategy which allowed him to garner the support of undecided voters who did not want to seem either openly racist or unequivocally liberal. Although Nixon cloaked his approach in an optimistic and pro-American guise which expressed his desire to protect the values and history of the nation, hindsight allows us to see his strategies for the deeply cynical viewpoint that they are. Consequently, Nixon’s behavior while in office created a massive amount of distrust and cynicism on the part of voters which many never entirely disappear.
The Rise of the Sunbelt and the Reddening of America
The Sunbelt in the 1970s was a far cry from the politically and economically backwards landscape that it represented in earlier decades. Instead, the south was experiencing an economic boom which forced it to choose between the social and financial instability of the past and a more egalitarian and financially beneficial future. Key to this shift in perspective was the desire of forward-thinking southerners to step away from the rest of the nation’s perception that they were ignorant and racist rednecks. As Schulman points out, advances in technology and business changed the southern way of life forever as infrastructure changes and the implementation of new technologies such as air conditioning led to “increasing productivity, attracting business and skilled workers from the frostbitten, fast-paced North, and making the traditional southern lifestyle a thing of the past, the stuff of nostalgia” (Schulman 102).
Schulman implies that while these changes weren’t accepted by all southerners, and weren’t liked by many of them, they were largely the inevitable byproduct of desegregation and social and political change. While racism still existed, it became much less overt, driven underground by a change in demographics that brought black Americans from the north to work in new industries which depended on this influx of labor. As Schulman states, “a rising South, in need of investment dollars and executive talent, could not afford a reputation for intolerance and backwardness” (103). Thus, the Sunbelt began to attract Businesses that relied on intellectual and skilled labor instead of manual labor began to dominate in the south, a shift which marginalized many poor rural southerners while creating opportunities for educated and forward-thinking whites and blacks alike.
The ‘faux-Bubba’ discussed by Schulman illustrates the reluctance of many southerners to entirely relinquish their pre-1970s identity. Although Evel Knievel’s failure to successfully leap across Snake River may serve as a metaphor for the ‘death’ of “the last of the white boys” (Schulman 105), it did not represent the loss of the southern way of life. Instead, with characteristic resilience, the stereotype of the ‘Bubba’ was transformed along with the southern landscape. The faux-Bubba, otherwise known as “half a redneck” (105), illustrated the political and social belief systems and interests of a group which seemed to exist with one foot in the past and the other in the future. As Schulman writes, “they were not the plantation overseers or the ignorant hillbillies of the past, but they rejected the political and social outlook of the Frostbelt and the New Deal” (106). This group is politically significant even now, thirty some-odd years after their emergence, because unlike the Bubba of earlier decades they are neither poor nor ignorant. Instead, this group tends to be highly educated with strong political views and the financial capital to support their social and political interests.
Schulman’s tone throughout his discussion of the South’s uncomfortable history and the emergence of the faux-Bubba seems imbued with mild contempt. In discussing the manner in which they “proudly displayed the badges of a domesticated, commercialized redneck outlook” (106) in their choice of vehicles, musical tastes, and entertainment, Schulman seems intent on implying that, as the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. That is to say that Schulman’s subtle contempt works to negate everything he states about advances in the south; my impression is that he is suggesting that although southerners may be more superficially forward-thinking than in previous decades, their reluctance to give up their identity altogether marks them as inherently backwards and privately racist.
Schulman, Bruce. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York: Da Capo Press, 2002.
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