Friday, January 1, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: The Road Film Score (2009) by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

The United States fought a civil war 150 years ago that has shaped the politics of this country ever since. We are taught that the war was about slavery, but it was really a result of the breakdown of the political system; this at least is the Michael Holt thesis: Political parties became sectionalized as the Whigs were replaced by the Republicans, temporarily but chaotically destabilizing the duopoly.

The energy and movement in U.S. politics over the last 50 years has been about the Republicans gobbling up turf that once belonged to the Democratic Party. The GOP from Goldwater forward has remade itself as the party of Dixie.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Goldwater and Reagan are not the party heroes of this narrative of transformation; rather, it should be George Wallace and Richard Nixon. It was Nixon who initiated the Dixification of the Republican Party with his embrace of Kevin Phillips' "Southern Strategy."

Simply put, Phillips saw the political puissance of Alabama Governor George Wallace's third-party run for the presidency in 1968, based as it was on a thinly veiled Negrophobia and Hippiephobia pitched to a belligerent white working class, and decided to appropriate it for the GOP. The rest as they say is history.

Fast forward to yesterday's piece by Nate Cohn, "Donald Trump’s Strongest Supporters: A Certain Kind of Democrat," which argues that Donald Trump, though ahead across the board with all slices of the Republican demographic pie, has his greatest support among less educated members of the working class in the South and industrial North who are registered as Democrats:
He is strongest among Republicans who are less affluent, less educated and less likely to turn out to vote. His very best voters are self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats. It’s a coalition that’s concentrated in the South, Appalachia and the industrial North, according to data provided to The Upshot by Civis Analytics, a Democratic data firm.
In other words, a repeat of George Wallace.

It was encouraging to see the writers over at FiveThirtyEight at least acknowledging ("The Meaning Of Donald Trump") the similarity of the Trump phenomenon to that of George Wallace in 1968, though they stick to mainstream talking points of why Trump won't win the Republican nomination (without providing any insight into who will). As I've mentioned before, these talking points usually reduce to a faith that the infrequent voters who provide the bedrock of Trump's support will not show up to the polls in 2016; that, and the unstated proposition that the American political system is not truly democratic, that it is a private enterprise administered by two exclusive clubs that can bar entry to whichever candidate it chooses.

The touts at FiveThirtyEight fail and fail miserably because they see history as nothing more than a big, flat data set. (For instance, they bat about Buchanan '92 as being on the same level as Wallace '68. Poppycock! Wallace '68 created the current GOP Congressional majority.) But history isn't flat. History has a distinct shape. And if that shape taking form shows Trump to be similar to Wallace in 1968, then analysts would be wise to look again.

Well, you will say, "No worries for the GOP. Wallace didn't win. Tricky Dick won in a nail-biter. Who is to say that this doesn't augur the same for Ted Cruz?"

The difference is that Wallace, a Democrat governor from the Deep South, ran as a third-party candidate. Trump isn't running as a independent or third-party candidate. Trump is running as a Republican, and he is running ahead among Republicans, even the wealthy ones.

The other huge blind spot in the conventional wisdom, and something that I was surprised to see go unmentioned by the FiveThirtyEighters, is the failure of the Obama presidency. This is never accorded the weight that it deserves. Obama was elected in two landslides as an avatar of hope and change. The promise of his presidency is that we are all in this together, that we are a community; that America stands for honesty and peace and prosperity. We bought that ticket. And it didn't bring us to the promised land; at the end of the Obama road was just the same old Bush-Cheney killing floor.

People are mad. They want to shatter the system because the system doesn't work. Trump is the vehicle to bring this about.

The Road (2006) is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the great Cormac McCarthy. It is a story about a father and son surviving in a brutal post-apocalyptic landscape. The book was made into a less than successful film starring Viggo Mortenson. But the film score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is a good one. Listening to it last week, I realized that movie soundtracks have been an important feature of my sonic landscape the last five years. I have probably listened to Robbie Robertson's soundtrack to Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010), not to mention the more recent film score to The Rover (2014) by Anthony Partos, as much as any record. 

I think a good film score is an ambient register of the soup we swim in, sort of a sonic amniotic fluid. The Road, Shutter Island and The Rover all point to very difficult bitter times ahead.

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