Country Music and Political Connections

Kurt Campbell is an expert on Asia and security issues who is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, in charge of Asia/Pacific issues, and earlier taught at Harvard. Kurt has written widely, for popular and academic audiences, about everything from Japan to nuclear policy.

Since the disappointing outcome of the last Presidential elections, Democrats have been haunted by a lurking anxiety: Is the party that prided itself on understanding the lives and challenges of common Americans now out of touch with the rank and file? Has the persistent Republican harping on how Democrats are a bunch of Volvo-driving, brie-cheese-eating elitists hit a nerve?

Certainly the 2006 congressional contests that saw Democrats surge to victory and reclaim majorities in the House and Senate helped, but there are still underlying worries about how to make a deeper cultural connection to rural and suburban America. For those blue-tinged partisans who have not yet thrown in the towel and movedto New Zealand, there is a real temptation to mount an anthropological expedition to one of the big red splotches of Republican America to learn more about life in the heartland in order to better compete for hearts and minds and votes.

However, there might be an easier way to gain deeper insights into the soul of America even without leaving the obvious attractions of Blue State life. In just a few minutes a day, without leaving the comforts of coastal living, you too can learn about what matters most to those hard core Bush backers and new Huckabee zealots across Midwest and South by simply tuning your radio dial from NPR, soft jazz, or rock and roll oldies to your nearest country western station, the one that still boycotts the Dixie Chicks. Country music – not jazz, hip hop or blues – is the most authentic and popular form of music in America today.

That’s right, modern country western music provides the most compelling and honest insights into life in rural, homespun America. Unlike previous caricatures of country music with its hillbilly stories of hard drinkin’ and cheatin’ hearts, modern hits often tell more complex stories of everyday struggles that resonate powerfully with many Americans.

Scan the hit charts of a recent country countdown. There is the song about a wife struggling to keep her young family together and her composure while her husband fights in Iraq. There is the catchy tune with a poignant verse about a man trying to be a better person in the midst of losing his job and hoping to find his life’s purpose. Another twangy hit describes comforting family traditions passed down from father to son and the insights that come with the passing of time and the turn of generations. Then there is the one about reaching out and putting America’s boot to the posteriors of the terrorist enemies of America. Truth be told, country music sensibilities tend toward Old Testament punishments rather than New Testament forgiveness and redemption.

Taken together, contemporary country western music paints a picture of an America committed to hard work and traditional family values. It is deeply God fearing but can be surprisingly compassionate and open-minded, sometimes when you least expect. The songs describe regular people striving to live better lives in the midst of temptations and daily reminders of failure.

However, country music is also revealing of a deeper (and darker) nativism that lurks in the modern American worldview. There is the occasional pride in ignorance and the seeking of refuge in black and white simplicities. Foreigners do not fare well generally, when they are not altogether ignored in song lyrics, and the overall genre does serve some generous helpings of xenophobia to go along with the biscuits and gravy.

Still, most songs are uplifting, often inspirational, even with the occasional ode to the attractions of NASCAR or the nearby saloon.

Yes, even with its love for the vehicular and alcoholic, country western is the best place to start to learn a little something about what it means to have a family, to struggle making ends meet, to own a gun or a pickup truck, to support our troops unquestioningly, to enlist in the military and fight our country’s wars and to generally be very proud of what America stands for — and to profess confusion over just what all this fuss is about when it comes to our foreign policy choices.

For Democrats striving to know what lurks in the heart of a Red State voter, it’s a pretty good place to start. And, you might find yourself singing along to the sad story of some hardscrabble and down on their luck guys looking to make a connection, just like the Democrats.

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