Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 5, 2008

Jefferson Gets Blamed for Everything! Even the Creation Museum

Filed under: Christianity,Conservatives,Founders,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:38 am

Joseph Clarke’s interesting/frightening article on “The Creation Museum” in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati is well worth reading, but I must protest once again about innocent Founders being dragged in to get blamed or credited for everything that a given writer likes or dislikes about American culture.

The Creation Museum is an expensive, high-tech send-up of modern scientific thought about natural history, devoted to presenting the text of the Bible as literal scientific fact and instilling visitors with fear and loathing of the post-Enlightenment world. Yet guess who gets named by the article’s author as one of the museum’s intellectual progenitors? Poor Thomas Jefferson, whose liberal religious views and avid interest in Enlightenment science were constantly ridiculed and condemned during his lifetime. Jefferson clipped all the miracles and supernatural references out of the Gospels for nothing, apparently. Here is the offending passage:

But while the Creation Museum undoubtedly reflects these recent trends, moralistic distrust of city life has a rich history in America. When, in 1925, John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwinism to a high school science class in violation of Tennessee law, the case against him was argued by William Jennings Bryan, a luminary of the young fundamentalist movement and a staunch agrarian. In Bryan’s view, urban industrial capitalism was inextricable from the social Darwinist credo of survival of the fittest and the cultural ills to which it gave rise. Before Bryan, Thomas Jefferson argued against Alexander Hamilton that the cold rationality of economic development would lead to social waywardness unless held in check by a thriving agrarian culture: “Corruption of morals…is the mark set upon those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers.” Jefferson’s proposed design for the Great Seal of the United States depicted the nation of Israel journeying through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.

Admittedly there is a lot more to the article than this dig at Jefferson, and even the quoted passage is part of Clarke’s on-the-whole rather trenchant effort to link the Creation Museum’s worldview to the American tradition of sentimentally valorizing an imagined, Edenic rural life. But it still seems a little unfair and wrong-headed to cram Jefferson into the intellectual heritage of hard-core Biblical literalism on any grounds. Trying to be both a Jeffersonian and a Fundamentalist was William Jennings Bryan’s damage, not the Sage of Monticello’s.


November 20, 2008

The GOP’s Southern No-Exit Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Regionalism,Voting — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:45 pm

From Brad DeLong’s most prodigious of all blogs by a working academic, there is some support for my “William Jennings Bryan coalition” post of a few days ago, with heavy-duty social science graphs.  As I understand it, the graphs show that 2008 southern voters were radically more responsive to race than voters in other regions, with the Midwest as the next most similar region, but not very similar. (It was the relatively underpopulated Plains that went for McCain, not the cities of the [post-] industrial Midwest.) Brad opines:

The whites in the heartland of today’s Republican Party just do not vote–and do not think–like the rest of us do. Richard Nixon wanted the Republican Party to lock up the South. Now it looks as though the South has locked up the Republican Party.

The post does not get any deeper into the history of the GOP’s southern problem, and emphasizes racism more than I did; yet one must note that for all Bryan’s humanism and good Christian intentions, southern racists were his hard-core base of support.  In his last run in 1908, Bryan pulled more than 70% of the vote in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and over 90% in those last two.


November 16, 2008

Congratulations, GOP, You’ve Won the William Jennings Bryan Coalition

While last week’s NYT article on the South’s waning influence in national elections was one more example of the bigot hunt that the media has been on ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, it nevertheless makes a good point about the dead end the GOP has rushed into by over-relying for too long on the Southern strategy of somewhat indirectly stirring up the racial and cultural antipathies of southern, rural, and less educated voters. “They’ve maxed out on the South,” political scientist Merle Black is quoted saying in the story, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.” The underlying problem is that while there seem to be NASCAR fans and mega-churches everywhere these days, the South’s fundamentalist political style does not travel all that well, or age gracefully when it does. Non-southerners (and a non-trivial minority of southerners) get tired of being harangued and bullied after a while. More than that, perhaps, the high emotional key and folksy inflection just do not suit voters without the necessary white, rural, evangelical Protestant background/mindset. Life in the big city seems to foster a more complicated view of the world.

What the 2008 Electoral College map shows more than ever is that the Republicans now find themselves with the coalition the Democrats had at the beginning of one of their least competitive periods a century or more ago. That would be the William Jennings Bryan coalition of the Solid South plus the Plains and mining West, the Great Commoner’s ticket to presidential election losses in 1896, 1900, and 1908. While Bryan was far more intelligent and humane than either John McCain or Sarah Palin, he appealed heavily to rural Protestant self-righteousness, building on the remains of the Populist Party, and lost crucial northeastern working-class Catholic votes that the Democrats have always needed to win national elections.  Twisting the Populist platform of economic reform into the nostrum of “Free Silver,” with an assist from western mining interests, the Bryan Democrats were defeated in 1896 by William McKinley and his “Full Dinner Pail” of typical Federalist/Whig/GOP trickle-down economics, which seemed the safe and rational alternative when contrasted with Bryan’s emotionalism.

Far from learning from their mistake, the Bryan Democrats nominated their favorite two more times and saw him beaten even more badly each outing. In his later years, Bryan made his alliance with evangelical Protestantism (and status as a political ancestor of modern Christian conservatism) even clearer by stumping against evolution and taking the anti-monkey (I mean, anti-evolution) side in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.  Coming from Nebraska, Bryan also forged the political and cultural connection between the Plains states and the South that disappeared for a time at mid-century but reemerged with a vengeance in the the GOP culture wars that have raged ever since the Clinton sex scandals.

Let’s go to the maps. From Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, here’s the election of 1896 (note the historically correct use of red for the Democrats and blue for the GOP):

Now 2008:

The South’s larger, migration-fueled population in recent times made the Bryan coalition a bit more winnable for the modern GOP than it was for the Bryan Democrats. That is, until one consequence of northern migration below the Mason-Dixon inevitably made itself felt: as educated Northeasterners moved further south down I-95 into northern Virginia and then fanned out into the burgeoning cities of central North Carolina, they brought some of their more tolerant attitudes and modernity-friendly politics with them. This effect is certain to spread in the future. The solid South will go back to its loser status and stay there for awhile as key parts of it become more diverse and break away, and the rest gets more and more offensive to everyone else.

After the jump, a salute to the sort of “culture and heritage” that today’s GOP increasingly follows in the footsteps of:



February 22, 2008

Crosses and Gold

Filed under: Economy,Missouri,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:25 pm

William Jennings Bryan with his Cross of GoldThere is an interesting map up at Newsweek‘s web site illustrating what the magazine calls “a surprising correlation between the geographic density of payday lenders [a.k.a. storefront loan-sharking operations] and the political clout of conservative Christians.” South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, and, naturally, Missouri were among the leaders in both categories, followed by nearby southern and western states. Ironically, the Christian usury belt roughly tracks with the William Jennings Bryan coalition.

This correlation will not come as a surprise to anyone who has driven U.S. 231 through Alabama (Cottondale to Montgomery on our way back to the Midwest from Tallahassee) or any highway through just about any small city in Missouri. Evangelical churches and storefront lenders are right up there with convenience stores and Subway sandwich shops as your most common roadside attractions. In Alabama, I would throw in BBQ places and pawn shops.

I would not argue that there is any real connection between legal loan-sharking and evangelicalism, if that is the proper term, but the two phenomena do seem to depend on similar markets: economically stressed, poorly educated people who are perhaps a little too trusting or naive in dealing with their local authority figures, be they payday lenders, preachers, or state legislators. That last category is probably the key one. If there was some way to make a map showing “penetration of state government by predatory ‘small business’ interests,” I suspect it would look very much like the one in Newsweek.


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