Three Imaginary Girls

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Drive-By Truckers straddle Two Americas.

With John Kerry’s recent choice of North Carolina senator John Edwards as his running mate, Edwards’ future as a rising star in the Democratic party is secured. Deservedly so, and not just because he lobbied so hard for the gig, though that lobbying effort must be taken into account in his favor. He played the game masterfully: speeding into the gap left by Howard Dean’s sudden flame-out, making enough of an impression once the media created the Edwards-Kerry rivalry (which, let’s face it, it never really existed) to lend credibility to his campaign but never stepping over the line to attack Kerry, then dropping out of the race once his point was made and immediately campaigning heavily for his former rival. Add to this political agility his Clintonian charm and grace under debate-style pressure, and you have all the makings of a promising future run. But most importantly, Edwards has a message that even now, so soon after his emergence onto the national stage, shows signs of being the sort of redefinition of core values that the Dems need.

Edwards’ primary theme is that there are Two Americas. He is right, but in fact there are many ‘Two Americas,’ and the dividing line varies depending on your vantage point. There may be Two Americas depending on your race, your religion, your economic status, your geographical locale, your education, your musical tastes, your choice of sneakers, etc., etc. Of course, the two parties draw the line in different places.

But the Republicans have done a much better job in defining which is the true America and which is the Other. The true Americans are those that don’t question their president; that rally behind the troops, hang yellow ribbons, and don’t see ‘flag-waving’ as a pejorative term; the ones that know that, sure, we respect all faiths and have a separation of church and state, but really we’re a Christian nation at heart; the ones that know that truth can only be found in the pages of the Bible; the ones that respect ‘tradition’. The Other America is out there in the northeast and in Hollywood, reading the New York Times and listening to NPR; watching Michael Moore movies and blaspheming; hating (the real) America.

Take a look at that solid block of red covering the bottom half of the map; the message works. And it works nowhere better than in the south. The fact that John Edwards is from North Carolina and speaks with a drawl has raised the hopes of many Dems for reclaiming at least some small portion of the south this November, but that is unlikely even with a southerner on the ticket. As Patterson Hood explained to me via email (The full interview will be posted on the soon-to-be-launched!), “[It’s not likely that] anything will win them back, except the natural pendulum swing that will inevitably occur after the last farm has been auctioned off and the entire southern populace is working for Wal-Mart. Possibly not even then.”

Patterson Hood is one of three singer/songwriter/guitarists that make up the front line of the Drive-By Truckers, and thematically, the band is Hood’s brainchild. Currently about the best all-around knock-down, drag-out, rock ‘n’ roll band in America, DBT mix southern rock roots (4 out of 5 members are from the famed Muscle Shoals area of Alabama) with the cinematic story-telling of The Band and a kick-ass hard rock attitude to try and tell the true story of the misunderstood South. Never sentimental, the Truckers’ songs are mostly compelling character studies, dealing mostly with people just trying to survive in America. This concept culminated in 2002’s 2-disc magnum opus, Southern Rock Opera, combining autobiography with the Lynyrd Skynyrd legend to tell the story of a young rocker growing up in the south and coming to terms with its legacy, especially as perceived by the rest of the country. DBT returned in 2003 with Decoration Day, an album of songs “about choices people make and living with the ramifications of those choices.”

August 24 will see the release of their latest, The Dirty South (review to follow soon), which Hood describes as dealing in part with “some social / economic issues and how the working class of the country is being sold down the road for short-sighted corporate gain. [The album] also illustrates how ‘The Powers That Be’ has used our religious beliefs to gain our fervent support while exploiting us.” But as he realizes, while “no region in the country has been poorer historically than ours…[this problem] isn’t necessarily a Southern Thing, it’s a rural middle America thing.”

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans view themselves as middle class. Conservatives have succeeded in redefining the terms to such an extent that when politicians talk about the have-nots or the working poor, those people with the most to gain or lose by the relevant policies assume that they’re talking about someone else. And that someone else is a lazy Welfare cheat benefiting from their hard-earned tax dollars. There is also the expectation in many people that prosperity is just around the corner, that they will soon join the hallowed ranks of the wealthy. With that in mind, they have a knee-jerk opposition to policies that they see as giving hand-outs to people who don’t share their ambition, despite the fact that these same policies would help them in their current situation. Unwavering faith in the American Dream is the very obstacle that is preventing many from achieving it.

“It’s certainly in the Right Wing’s best interest to keep as many of us as stupid as possible,” continues Patterson Hood. “[They have] no qualms with laying out whatever bullshit it takes to win those folks over…they know they can use The Ten Commandments and The Rebel Flag to keep ‘The God Fearing Populace’ voting their way.” The way the Right has defined their True America is an over-lapping Venn Diagram of disadvantaged Americans, converging on people’s fears and prejudices. And they’ve managed to distill this into one word: Values.

When you talk about sharing someone’s values, you don’t have to admit to sharing their intolerance, though too often it comes down to the same thing. It’s no longer politically viable to speak out against blacks or Muslims or homosexuals (okay, that one actually is still safe), but when you wink at the right group’s Values, they can read all, any, or none of the above into that one word. Meanwhile, Bush and his cronies can go back to the real business of making things real easy for their CEO friends.

This is why Edwards’ message is a step in the right direction. The debate needs to shift from a focus on cultural values to socio-economic on
es. The Democrats need to point out, and forcefully, that while the Republicans have been thumping their Bibles and ‘protecting’ their marriages, they have been robbing the lower classes blind in order to enrich corporate interests. This has been blatant and egregious enough to serve as a clear, simple message for the Left. But they have been reluctant to make it.

John Edwards’ Two Americas theme is a start, but only a start. John Kerry should integrate it further into his own message and, should the Democratic ticket win come November, Edwards should use his time in the Vice President’s office to continually hammer the theme home, priming him for a run at the top office. Other Dems in Congress need to pick it up as well. Make it the identity of the party. Forget the Vision Thing. Forget lofty ideals. What the Democrats need to do is articulate a message of change that speaks to the narrator of DBT’sPuttin’ People on the Moon.” This song, from their new album, is the story of a man trying to support his wife and child despite being unemployed in the Reagan era, who resorts to selling drugs until his wife, along with many in his community, contracts cancer from chemicals dumped into their drinking water. His ordeal, as articulated by Patterson Hood, perfectly summarizes the litany of wrongs with which the Dems should be able, easily, to tar the Republicans in the minds of many: “If I could solve the world’s problems I’d probably start with hers and mine / But they can put a man on the moon / and I’m stuck down here just scraping by.”


Hooray for Imaginary Shaun! He's our political correspondent for "Election 2004" and we're extremely pleased that he'll be checking in every week or so to reflect on recent events in the political campaigns.

Three wholeheartedly supports this report but opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect opinions or policies of the girls {although, as igLiz says, "It doesn't necessarily not reflect our opinions…}"