In director Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 classic, Ride the High Country, movie legend Randolph Scott yells to a bunch of Southern gunmen, “Hey you red-necked peckerwoods.” This was possibly a first in the history of film when one white character leveled a double-barreled racial epithet to other white characters.
While the term peckerwood remains anathema to most right-thinking people, it would seem the term red-neck has gained respectability in some circles while in fact signaling to many (not necessarily whites) the meaning of the former term.
We call attention to all this as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who reveled in her self-description as a “red neck woman” begins to recede into the background of national consciousness following the recent conclusion of the national governors conference and as the Republican Party begins attempts to re-invent itself as a national political organization able to attract massive numbers of voters to its political agenda.
As a leader Palin is not the only option available to Republicans but in terms of attracting the growing far right base of the party, she has to be considered a key contender in future discussions and elections.
In terms of raw emotion the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency and the role played by Palin and her unembarrassed racist appeal to white voters, resembled no other modern election perhaps with the exception of the 1964 election.
At the 1964 Republican convention held at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, state’s rightist candidate, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater walked away with the nomination. Afterwards one wag noted the Cow Palace hadn’t smelled so bad since the last livestock exhibition.
Goldwater was a proud conservative, and though he had supported local civil rights efforts in his home state and voted against the poll tax, he voted against the 1964 comprehensive Civil Rights Act arguing that these measures should be left to the individual states.
In the most thorough drubbing ever delivered to a presidential candidate in modern U.S. history Democrat Lyndon Johnson, a southerner, recorded 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 54. The only states Goldwater carried were Arizona and the Deep South, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Afterwards the nation’s newspaper and television pundits wondered if the Republican Party would ever again function as a national organization.
Just four years later the Republican Party completely resurrected itself with the election of Richard Nixon whose campaign laid the basis of what today we refer to as the Southern Strategy; articulating the concerns and values of politically and racially conservative southern whites but which resonate with conservative white workers nationally. In 1968 what essentially was done was to campaign against the 1964 Voters Right Act, legislation that eventually politically empowered African Americans.
In the coded language of 1968 politics this strategy was marketed as the “silent majority,” an appeal to white voters.
The more recent version of the Southern Strategy and its’ primary articulator Lee Atwater, of whom much has recently been written, was used to overwhelming advantage by the Reagan campaign, ironically enough against southerner Jimmy Carter and that strategy has been the unstated name of the game for Republicans ever since.
Despite the obvious changes U.S. demographics are undergoing, with massive numbers of Latinos and other “people of color” arriving in the United States, Republicans have found a comfort zone in making themselves attractive, once again, mainly to Southern white voters.
When Gov. Palin chose to appear at the Asheville, North Carolina Republican rally, to sing and dance along as Gretchen Wilson sang her country hit, “Redneck Woman,” it was extremely difficult for a casual observer to tell if this crowd was composed of redneck women or peckerwood women, or more importantly, if there is any difference between the two. The only thing missing was the Confederate flag--and one is not convinced (after viewing just a snippet from the video) the flag was missing.
The Republican Party may well choose the path of least resistance and follow in Palin’s media-created wake and continue to stoke the cultural fires; cultural fires long attributed by conservative media to the New Left of the 1960s.
There exist a number of Republican alternatives to Palin. One of the most intriguing prospects is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindall, of whom Republican tax reformer Grover Norquist recently said, “He will be president. I don’t know the year.” Jindall is the first Indian American governor in the United States and the first non-white governor of Louisiana since the Reconstruction Era’s P.B.S. Pinchback.
But will the Republicans go in a new direction? There is little evidence to make one think so. The media’s fawning treatment of Palin during the recent governors' convention and the breathless accounts of her criticisms of any Washington bailout of Detroit’s auto industry make it appear she will be given great credibility in any future discussion of Republican national leadership.
Palin’s political and physical attractiveness has been described by some as the modern commodification of fascism, extreme right wing ideology that appeals primarily to those who still smart from advances made by African Americans and who object to the changing racial demographics of the nation.
For the Republicans to have a meaningful future in a modern United States they need to change course from the paths of the Sarah Palins of the world and become representative of class interests beyond those who are members of the country club and those who wave Confederate flags and wish they could join the country club. But don’t hold your breath.
Jean Damu is a Berkeley resident.