Saturday, July 31, 2021

A Liberal Dose, July 29, 2021 "When White County Was Blue, Part 2"

 



A Liberal Dose

July 29, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“When White County Was Blue, part 2”

 

Last week I shared statistics about presidential elections in White County over the last 120 years. For most of that time the Democrat won by huge margins, with only a couple of exceptions (plus the unusual election of 1968, when the pro-segregation third-party candidate George Wallace beat both Republican and Democrat). But that started to change in 2004, when Bush won by the same margin he had lost in 2000. In every election since, the Democratic candidate had done progressively worse and the Republican candidate progressively better, so that now the polarities have been reversed and the Republican Party dominates by about the same percentage the Democrats did in the 20th century. What changed?

The fact that Wallace did so well in 1968 shows that race trumped everything else 50 years ago. The two 20th-century Republican victories, 1972 and (barely) 1988, could also be said to have strong racial components: Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to win the votes of Democrats angry about Civil Rights laws, and Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad that implied Dukakis was going to turn black rapists loose. Not coincidentally, Bush’s campaign was managed by Lee Atwater, whose defense of the Southern strategy is legendary. It would be logical to think that Obama’s race might have been a factor in his huge defeats in White County.

But there is more to it than that. Bush beat Kerry in 2004, after all, and -though Obama lost both times -he did very much better than either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

Something changed between 2000 -when local elections still tended to go overwhelmingly to Democrats -and 2004, when Bush ran for re-election. I think we all know what the biggest event of Bush’s first term was: 9/11. Remember a previous column, when I discussed the Bush administration’s bending of reality (AKA “lying”) to convince the American public to support his plan to invade Iraq in 2003. That effort worked because so many Americans had become terrified -even paranoid -about Muslims as a result of 9/11. Iraq had nothing to do with it, but most people didn’t care -they were lumping all Muslims, and even all dark-skinned foreigners, together, and anyone who didn’t agree with that attitude was being condemned as treasonous. I remember sitting in a barber’s chair and hearing everyone in the room cursing “sand n-----rs.”  I remember “Freedom Fries” because the French were suddenly hated since they didn’t want to help invade Iraq. I remember tabling on TTU campus with the College Democrats, raising money to send bathroom items and phone cards to U.S. troops overseas, and having multiple students cuss us out because as Democrats we were “traitors.”

And I remember something that happened a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I was living in Illinois at the time, attending grad school, and I had come home for a visit. I got in pretty late, and I stopped at an all-night restaurant in Crossville for a cup of coffee. There were two or three other customers, and they and the waitresses were discussing the fact that a large number of Katrina refugees were being allowed to stay temporarily at the old POW camp in Cumberland County (which in itself is drenched in irony). Everyone there was upset… because they hadn’t realized the refugees would be black, and now they were going to have to lock their doors and watch the cash register and maybe ask the Klan to get involved. I was vocally outraged. One waitress, trying to keep the peace, said, “Well, it’s really our own fault, we never should have got involved in that Alamo.”

Which made no sense whatsoever -until after I left and had thought about it. There were a lot of Latino migrant workers coming into the area at that time. She was conflating all dark people as the same, and as a problem. And a threat. So were many others.

Stay tuned.

 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


A complete list of Liberal Dose columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE



Friday, July 23, 2021

A Liberal Dose, July 22, 2021 "When White County Was Blue, Part 1"

 


A Liberal Dose

July 22, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“When White County Was Blue, part 1”

 

For the last several weeks, I have been talking about the gradual slide of conservatives away from objective, empirical facts. On a local level, the timeline of that transition coincides with the slide of White County, and the Upper Cumberland in general, from a solid Democratic stronghold to a solid Republican one. I found myself wondering if the two phenomena were connected. When I was a kid- and for most of my life, really -White County was so reliably blue that a Republican holding local office was practically unheard of. Of course, this had been true of the whole South -but it remained true in this county even after it had begun to change in the rest of the South and even Tennessee.

My gut reaction was to think that it was the 2008 election and the fact that a black man won the Democratic nomination. I knew several white people in White County (and around the country) who abandoned the Democratic ticket for the first time in their lives. And to this day I still hear of “respectable” members of our community using the n-word to refer to our former president.

But. I also remembered that George W. Bush won White County in 2004, and that an article in this very newspaper remarked on how historically rare that was. So the change had begun before Obama. I have a theory about it -one that ties in with my previous discussions about facts and science -which I will explain next column. I’m going to use the remainder of this one, though, in laying out the historical facts for you. I looked at the presidential results in White County for every election between 1900 and 2020. Allow me to tell you how many times the Republican carried White County in the 20th century (25 elections).

Twice.

The first time was in 1972: Nixon vs. McGovern. Nixon won 60% to 37% (I will give all the results in terms of percentages). McGovern was shellacked in general- the only state he carried was Massachusetts, he didn’t even win his home state of South Dakota. It was the first time in history a Republican won every Southern state. Still, it was closer in White County than it was nationwide, where the margin was 68% to 30%. The only other time was 1988, when Bush, Sr. beat Dukakis on the national stage 58% to 42%. In White County, though, Bush’s victory was razor-thin: 50% to 49%, or a margin of only 82 votes.

The Democrat won White County in every election from 1900 to 1964 (we’ll discuss 1968 in a minute) by an average of 70% to 30%. Now, for the whole state of Tennessee during that time, the Republican won 5 times (Harding 1920, Hoover 1928, Eisenhower 1952 & 1956, Nixon over Kennedy in 1960)… but in White County they still lost big in those years.

After the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964, he famously said his party would lose the South for a generation as a consequence. And, in fact, Republicans started doing better in the South, in part due to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” we discussed last time.

But White County held on. Reagan won Tennessee both times (1980 & 1984), but not White County. Bill Clinton won by large margins both times. Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee to Bush, but he won White County 53% to 45%. But in 2004 Bush beat Kerry, 56% to 44% -the numbers were reversed. Obama lost in 2008 63% to 35%, 68% to 31% in 2012. Trump won 78% to 19% in 2016, 81% to 18% in 2020.

In 1968, by the way, neither Democrat nor Republican won; the county was carried by the Independent racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who ran on a platform of stopping desegregation.

But what changed in 2004?

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


A complete list of Liberal Dose columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE

Friday, July 16, 2021

Slide from Reality- Part 3, "Fear and Truthiness"

 


A Liberal Dose

July 15, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“Slide from Reality, Part 3: Fear and Truthiness”


If you haven't already, you might want to read PART 1 and PART 2

 

I’ve been talking about Republicans’ slow slide from reality, and last week I discussed how denying climate change got conservatives used to the idea of denying science and facts. Now I’m going to talk about the consequences of a huge world event: the destruction unleashed on America on September 11, 2001. I don’t think most people realize just how important that day was, and how much our whole world today was shaped by it. I’m going to talk about it in more detail, in a different context, in a later column. For today I’m going to discuss the political ramifications of it.

Most of us are old enough to remember that day, and how we felt. It was terrible. Terrible for the human suffering, yes, but also terrible for each of us on an existential level. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we were the world’s only superpower, and we felt kind of invulnerable. All of a sudden we knew how very vulnerable we were. Terrorists could potentially kill any of us at any time. Most of us felt anger, even rage; all of us felt a new kind of fear. Those feelings were expressed in different ways. There was a rash of violent incidents around the country in which people were beating, even killing, fellow Americans who were Muslim. Some weren’t even Muslim, they were just dark-skinned people from a different part of the world. We invaded Afghanistan, even though that region has a long history of being easy to invade but almost impossible to fully defeat. We willingly surrendered many of our liberties to the government in order to feel more secure.

And, in 2003, we invaded Iraq, thus fighting two wars at once. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but a large number of Americans believed they did anyhow, because it just felt like they did. Plus, the Bush administration assured us, they had weapons of mass destruction –there was absolute proof of it. The administration didn’t actually show the proof, but most of us believed them –because we were angry, and we wanted to do something, and we wanted to believe it. I say “we,” by the way, but I was opposed to the war at the time because it didn’t seem like they had any proof. Turns out, they didn’t, because there was none. We were led into war by lies disguised as facts. But the fact is, many Americans willingly chose to believe those lies at the time because they wanted to. I think more people than want to admit suspected all along there were no true facts at the heart of those claims, but didn’t care. Years later, though, many conservatives started feeling that you just can’t trust the “facts” fed to you by the establishment, even when the establishment is your own party.

In 2005, a Bush aide told a reporter that the press’s criticisms of Bush were not valid, because reporters are “in what we call the reality-based community” and believe you can solve problems and understand the world by looking at facts. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

That same year, Stephen Colbert –in the first episode of his show, which was a satire of conservative pundits –coined a new word to describe that attitude: “truthiness.” Truthiness is something that seems like truth because it is what you want to be true. Facts don’t matter, only how you feel about the subject. The word’s not in the dictionary, Colbert said, but you can’t trust dictionaries anyway. Around the same time, people started referring to the phenomenon as “post-truth politics.”

All these factors paved the way for the radical departure from reality that the Republican Party would embark on in the 2010s.

 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


A complete list of Liberal Dose columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE

Thursday, July 8, 2021

A Liberal Dose, July 8, 2021 "Slide from Reality, Part 2- Climate Change"

 



A Liberal Dose

July 8, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“Slide from Reality, Part 2: Climate Change”

 

Last Week I talked about some of the factors in the late 20th century that helped lead to 21st century conservatives no longer accepting scientific, or other kinds of empirical, facts. The rise of political talk radio and television and the advent of the internet, both in the 1990s, made it easier to isolate oneself from alternative points of view. But there was something else that started happening in that decade, and sped up after the turn of the century, that specifically spoke to conservatives: denial of climate science.

I am a historian, not a scientist. But I do teach, and studied In my doctoral program, environmental history –so I pay particular attention to this topic. I could explain in detail the (very factual) way the greenhouse effect works, and why, but you can find that information easily. It’s not that the facts aren’t out there –it’s that some people have worked very hard to delegitimize them. 97% of climate scientists agree that Earth’s average annual temperature is getting hotter each year, and that human activity is the primary factor causing it. That number has held steady for this whole century. Do you realize how hard it is to get 97% of academics to agree on anything at all? Once upon a time in America, if 97% of the experts said something was happening, probably 97% of the general public would trust them on it. So what happened?

It was that other 3% -or, more accurately, the people who funded them. Many of that 3% wound up appearing on television talk shows –especially, but not limited to, conservative ones –and were employed by think tanks that were financed by oil and other energy companies. Because some newspapers, channels, and programs wanted to be perceived as presenting objective news and not opinion, they would have one scientist on their show who believed in climate change and one who disagreed, and let them argue about it. So viewers were exposed to venues that either showed only the 3% point of view, or one that presented the 3% and the 97% equally. That made it easy to convince a large number of Americans that the experts were divided and that both points of view were roughly equal –therefore not reliable.

That process was expedited in 2009 when over a thousand hacked emails from climatologists were released by conservative activists and offered as proof that the researchers were making up the whole thing as a way to get government money. Independent fact-checkers quickly verified that the emails had been misrepresented and taken out of context and that the accusation, not the climate research, was actually the hoax. That evidence didn’t matter, though, to those who wanted to disbelieve in climate change, if they ever even heard about it. Let me be clear here: climate science became political because if people believed in it oil companies would lose money, and it was the oil companies who bought the ads that financed the talk shows and who donated heavily to politicians (on both sides of the aisle, but especially on the right). So when the TV/radio pundits and the politicians started questioning scientific facts, the people in their base who had already gotten in the habit of only hearing one point of view started doing the same thing. The result? Such people stopped believing scientists, or scientific fact, and viewed any fact that didn’t support their party’s current worldview as a liberal hoax or even a diabolical conspiracy.

Nowadays more people believe in climate change –because we are literally seeing it. Many conservatives, though, will argue that it is not because of carbon emissions but is just a natural cycle of the earth. That’s not what the experts say –but experts no longer seem to matter. People think twenty minutes on the internet makes them as knowledgeable as someone who trained for years.

More to come.

 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 

A complete list of Liberal Dose columns can be found HERE.

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog appear HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

A Liberal Dose, July 1, 2021 "The Gradual Conservative Slide from Reality- Part 1"

 


A Liberal Dose

July 1, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“The Gradual Conservative Slide from Reality, Part 1”


Last week I addressed a question raised by a reader: why do Southerners not believe in science? I asked my TTU colleague Laura Smith, an expert in the history of medicine, what she thought. She basically said that, historically, Southerners have been no more or less likely than anyone else to believe in science, but that there is an enduring stereotype that they do not –in large part because of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee a century ago. I agree with that assessment. I would also argue that the religious fundamentalism that led to Tennessee’s state law against teaching evolution at that time, and the furor that arose when someone did, was not specifically Southern. There was a fundamentalist wave sweeping the whole country in the 1920s, largely as a reaction against the rapid post-WWI social changes of the “Jazz Age,” as evidenced by the extraordinary popularity of evangelists like Billy Sunday. And remember, the prominent retired politician who volunteered to serve as prosecutor in the Scopes case, William Jennings Bryan, was not a Southerner. He was from the Midwest. Nevertheless, journalists from other regions (most significantly, H. L. Mencken of New York) used the Scopes Trial to portray Southerners as backwards, superstitious idiots and to reinforce the “hillbilly” stereotype.

However, it is true that there has been a slow, yet dramatic, shift among conservatives in recent decades to disbelieve, not only science, but facts in general. This is a relatively new phenomenon in its present form. Since a large majority of Southerners are conservative, this can initially make it seem like a Southern thing –but it is just as true in every region of the country nowadays. And it was not always the case. Throughout most of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives –while they might disagree strenuously on policy matters –at least agreed on what the empirical facts were. The big question is, when and how did that change?

I think a few factors got the ball rolling, one as early as the 1960s, but I’m going to save that one and focus first on a couple from the 1990s. The first of those was the proliferation of hyper-partisan news and opinion outlets on talk radio and cable television, due to the fact Reagan ended the FCC Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This meant that, for the first time in most people’s lifetime, you could tune in to political news that was tailored solely to your belief system, without hearing an opposing view. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh benefited from this a lot more than any liberal pundits did. By the end of the 90s, most people were on the internet, where there was even more opportunity to be isolated in your own chosen bubble of perceived reality. Bill Clinton’s sex scandal in the late 90s drove more people than ever to cable news channels, and Fox in particular flourished. Clinton did not help, by the way, with his metaphysical attempts to writhe out of his scandal by saying, under oath, “It depends on what the word ‘is’ means.” However, no one then supported that excuse. By which I mean, you didn’t find huge numbers of Clinton supporters saying things like “Hey, he's right, no one even knows what ‘is’ means! I don’t even think it’s a word!”

The 1960s factor I mentioned earlier was the Nixon strategy, crafted by aides like Lee Atwater and Pat Buchanan, which historians call the “Southern Strategy.” This was the effort to reach out to racists angry about civil rights progress –without seeming to be reaching out to them, but rather by “dogwhistles”… phrases that the intended audience clearly understands, but which offer “plausible deniability” and saying that the reality of their meaning isn’t “real” at all. We’ll come back to that soon.

Cable news, the internet, Nixon, Clinton. It really sounds, so far, like either side was as inclined to move away from objective facts as the other. So why do I argue that it was ultimately conservatives who did so? What was the tipping factor? Turns out, it was science.

Stay tuned.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


A complete list of "A Liberal Dose" columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Liberal Dose, June 24, 2021 "Why Do So Many Southerners Not Trust Science?"

 


A Liberal Dose

June 24, 2021

Troy D. Smith

“Why Do So Many Southerners Not Trust Science?”

 

 

A reader who moved into the area a few years ago recently asked if I would use my column to address their question: Why do so many Southerners not believe in science? I decided that I would first turn to an expert in this area, so I asked my colleague from Tennessee Tech, Laura Smith (no relation), who also lives in Sparta. Laura teaches at Tech, and is finishing up her history dissertation for her PhD. I’m going to share with you what she said, then –in probably the next two columns –I will give my take on it.

Laura Smith:

“I’ve been in the classroom teaching about science and medicine for years, and it never fails that each semester a student will ask me why Southerners are so opposed to science.  Like many myths in history, the idea that Southerners are opposed to science is an overgeneralization, but also like many other myths in history, its roots lie not in the past but more in the present.  In my dissertation, I study the founding of medical schools in the nineteenth century American South and deal with that question: were Southerners against medical schools because they were against science?  The answer depends on who you asked, but it has more to do with race and class than it does with being from the South.  African Americans, poor people, and women have historically been the people to suffer most from the ‘progress’ of science and medicine.  They were long victims of experimentation, careless healthcare, and even bodysnatching for instruction in medical schools.  But Southerners in general and especially white males were not enemies of science.  Doctors and lay people largely associated medicine and science with social progress.  Most interestingly, they believed that Southerners needed to study medicine so that they could better understand specifically Southern diseases, and local communities donated large amounts of money to ensuring their success.

So if it’s not true that Southerners have always opposed science, why do so many people think that?  The answer lies not in the distant past but in the twentieth century Scopes trial.  The Scopes trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee where a high school teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was tried for violating a recent Tennessee act that banned teaching human evolution in public schools.  Up to this point, most people thought that it was fine to believe both in science and their religious convictions.  But by the early 1900s, media coverage of the fossil evidence for human evolution was growing as was the passion of Christian fundamentalists who believed in a literal as opposed to symbolic interpretation of the Bible.  At the same time, more Southern children were attending public schools for the first time and hearing Darwin’s theories.  Fundamentalists pushed for the act which carried with it the strong implication that any teaching other than creationism was atheistic.  The trial was a spectacle that made money for all involved.  Thus, right here in Tennessee there began a manufactured fight pitting science and Southern religion.  It is a narrative that has been picked up by conservative politicians appealing to Southern voters not to trust scientists to this day.  It’s important to remember that many Christian scientists have argued a reconciliation of evolution and religion by placing God as the controlling force choosing favorable traits that would pass to further generations.  It’s up to you what you believe, but the history of the evolution debate as well as the media coverage of this Southern trial has subconsciously shaded the way we view science and the South ever since.”

I agree with my friend Laura that distrust in science is not specifically a Southern phenomenon.  Or was it, traditionally, a liberal or conservative one –but it has become a conservative one in the 21st century, not just in the South but all over the country. Why?

Stay tuned.

 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 

A complete list of "A Liberal Dose" columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com



Thursday, June 17, 2021

A Liberal Dose, June 17, 2021 "Orwell Said It Best: The New Lost Cause Ideology"

 



A Liberal Dose, June 17, 2021

Troy D. Smith

"Orwell Said It Best: The New Lost Cause Ideology"


This is the conclusion of a three-part discussion- click here to see PART ONE and PART TWO,


I’ve been talking the last couple of times about “Lost Cause Ideology” and the fact that so many 21st Century Americans don’t want to admit the Civil War was fought over slavery. Another aspect of that, which we’ve been seeing for about the last 25 years or so, is the assertion that thousands of black men volunteered to take up arms and fight in defense of the Confederacy –a claim which historians reject and which is easily disproven. Why, then, has it become so popular the last couple of decades? I’ll give you a hint. The “Black Confederate” memes spiked on twitter during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014.

Here’s the answer: if black people supported the Confederacy, then the Confederacy (and the war) was not about slavery. If it was not about slavery, it was not about race. If it was not about race, we can believe our country doesn’t really have a race problem –and therefore there is no further need for social change. Remember, conservatives by definition want to either conserve the status quo or go back to how things used to be –it is progressives who want social change to move forward.

And if we pass laws preventing teachers from teaching students the complex issues surrounding slavery and race, we can pretend like it never happened (or that it was not that bad a thing), simultaneously making ourselves feel good and preventing the possibility of further social change. All this, despite the fact that historians know the words of the very people who formed the Confederacy, and their explicit admission that it was all about slavery and race. In other words, conservatives could construct an alternate reality built on what they want to hear. If it all sounds rather Orwellian, it should. Let’s throw in a couple of George Orwell quotes from the novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” And: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

This has set me to thinking about the insurrection at our Capitol on January 6. We all watched it live on television; we know what happened. Most Americans were shocked and outraged, and some were embarrassed because the rioters were on their side politically. Some were already trying to spin it, saying (and there is absolutely no evidence of this) that the violent crowd was made up of antifa members in disguise. On that day, beleaguered GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vigorously denied this claim to Trump himself on the phone: “It’s MAGA. I know, I was there.” Several Republican leaders condemned the president’s role in stirring up the murderous crowd, and in the “Big Lie” that he actually won the election.

But now, five months later, it is a different story. All but a handful of those Republican leaders have backtracked on what they said the day of the insurrection (and the ones who have not are being punished). Conservative commentators are blaming nonexistent antifa spies for all the violence, and saying the MAGA crowd that day was, at best, a little “rambunctious.”

What about Republican voters? A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted just one month ago shows that 53% of them believe Trump is the “true president.” 66% believe the election was stolen by Democrats. 20% believe those crazy QAnon conspiracy theories. Those numbers seem to be growing instead of shrinking.

It is the new Lost Cause Ideology. Conservatives are so desperate to keep things going their way (and avoid charges of treason) that they have made up a bizarre fantasy world and moved into it. Sadly, like with the original, if they keep repeating it long enough they may get most other people to believe it, too. Will Republican state legislators ban teachers from teaching the truth about that, as well?

This is a real threat to democracy.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


A complete list of "A Liberal Dose" columns can be found HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com