"Analysts, party leaders puzzle over election tallies in state," said the headline over a front-page story the other day in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
It seems this state, contrary as ever, led the country in the percentage of counties that cast far fewer votes for Barack Obama than they did for John Kerry four years ago. John McCain, while losing the national election decisively, carried Arkansas by a landslide: 59 to 39 percentage points.
How explain that? "It's just super-complex," says Jay Barth, a member of the state Democratic Party's executive committee, whose day job at Hendrix College is teaching politics. He mentioned a number of factors that might explain Arkansas' going against the national tide so dramatically: demography, culture, religion. "There's no real way to rank them," he says, "since the dynamics all overlap and interact so much." Which sounds like poli-sci speak for I Don't Know But I Got Some Good Theories.
And indeed the professor does have some. But allow a mere layman to offer an explanation that's not so super-complex: Just look at the map of Scots-Irish migration in what would become these not so United States of America. What political science may not be able to explain, a look at the electoral map just might.
The swath of all the counties in the nation that went for McCain-Palin from the foothills of the Appalachians up in western Pennsylvania all the way down to East Texas pretty much parallels the path of Scots-Irish settlement in this country. Here in Arkansas, the Obama vote was largely confined to a stretch of Delta counties along the Mississippi.
In this year's presidential election, as in so many others in the South, Republicans looked to the hills, whence cometh their help. The split in Arkansas between Delta and hills, planters and smallholders, Anglicans and Calvinists, Deep South and Mountain South, is typical of voting and ethnic patterns throughout the region.
The big "secret" of this year's presidential election, and maybe of the South's shift to the GOP column in general, is an ethnic group: the Scots-Irish. They may go by other names of varying respectability: the Southern yeomanry, Reagan Democrats, the redneck vote, or, in Howard Dean's undying phrase, the guys with Confederate flags on their pick-ups. And gun racks in the back.
Just who are the Scots-Irish? They're the descendants of the great wave of immigration, hundreds of thousands strong, from northern Britain who settled first in Ireland and then came to America in colonial times; sometimes they're called the Ulster Scots.
The Scots-Irish are more easily described than defined. Like any ethnic group, they may seem like a mass of contradictions when viewed from the outside, but from the inside all their various traits cohere. And have become part of the American ethos. You can see the Scots-Irish Factor at work in any presidential election or old Western.
How describe these folks' cultural characteristics? Let me try: Deeply attached to family, they're also intensely individualistic. Hard-fighting and hard-drinking, they can be hard-praying folk, too. Loyal to a fault, they can also be instinctively rebellious. They were the great strength of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and they made up a good part of the Union armies, too. Of course Scotsmen would vote for a warrior named McCain.
Much of the mysterious charm of John S. McCain in these latitudes may come not from any specific political stance but from his ability to reflect the cultural values of the Scots-Irish in America, who are scarcely confined to the South.
You'll find their cultural influence wherever country music is popular, which covers a lot of territory. They may be an almost invisible ethnic group, so deeply ingrained are they in the American cultural weave, but their influence is permeating. Which is why both presidential campaigns this year might have found a sociologist, or at least an ethnographer, more useful than any number of political analysts.
If only Barack Obama's middle name had been McGonnagill instead of Hussein, he might have made deeper inroads into Arkansas and the rest of the Scots-Irish Belt. Ah, well, at least he had an Irish mother, which might explain some of his political talent.
Ethnicity is the great subterranean factor in every American political divide. And combination. My favorite all-American political slate remains a Republican ticket in New York City circa 1960: Lefkowitz, Fino and Gilhooley! You could set it to music. Indeed, the Republicans did in a campaign jingle that was a lot more successful than the ticket itself that year. What a pity that ethnicity has become almost a taboo subject in these politically correct (and obtuse) times. It explains so much, and so colorfully.
Recommended reading: "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" by James Webb, now a U.S. senator and loose cannon from Virginia, and, most recommended of all, David Hackett Fisher's comprehensive "Albion's Seed/ Four British Folkways in America." By now I've learned to keep it around as a standard reference. Who knew sociology could be so fascinating? And explanatory.