WHAT A BYGONE COMMENTARY CAN TELL US
ABOUT THIS YEAR’S ELECTION.
Joe Bageant’s book Deer Hunting with Jesus, a rural Virginia native’s emic look—and deft analysis—of the political mindset, faithfully Republican as it is, of working-class America, came out in 2007. Back in those days this country was in the late-afternoon—not quite twilight, mind you—of George W. Bush’s eight years in office, and had still another year of unbridled prosperity ahead before the economic tidal shift we now call the Great Recession. Shoot, cousin, things are a whole lot different now.
Bageant, for one, is dead. (He succumbed to an unexpected and tragically expeditious cancer early last year at just sixty-four.) That economic Prosperity has given way to an Austerity that is redefining the American financial landscape. And we are approaching the end of Barack Obama’s first term at the helm, his four years having demonstrated the political alternative, in most respects, to his predecessor. Yet, with another presidential election looming, and the discourse between the two major political parties and their chosen candidates this year representing an alarming—and seemingly irreconcilable—polarity, I wonder what Bageant’s acclaimed “Dispatches From America’s Class War” (the book’s subtitle, even then, unabashedly suggesting battlefield reportage) can impart to us now.
Five years later, I’ve found, his words abide and are still notably appropriate—perhaps even more so than when they were penned—in describing the counter-intuitive conservative worldview of working, rural Southern America (at least the white demographic, at least from the liberal POV).
Bageant’s own story frames the investigation that fuels the book, lending it the personal narrative bend and fervor of gonzo-journalism, a connection many made when it was published. Joe grew up in Winchester, Virginia—population 26,203 (in 2010; it was under 13,000 in the decade Bageant was born, the 1940s)—also the hometown of George Washington, Willa Cather, Patsy Cline, and Rick Santorum. Joe left Winchester “penniless and dumber than tree bark” in his early twenties. He shipped out to California where he plied the journalist’s trade for three decades and cultivated, along with his writing abilities, an intensely liberal skepticism. Then, in 2001, he came on home. And that’s where Deer Hunting sets off, at his confrontation with the ingrained neoconservative zealotry that defines the population of his hometown. For the folks in Winchester, the author’s own family and old friends included, political temperament is so embedded and homogenous it may as well be in the water.
His conclusions obviously (and admittedly) cater to educated, city-dwelling liberals, but the book’s insights also objectively assess the political history that has shaped small-town Republican-toting ideology. Bageant plainly bemoans the culture of America at-large, the left included, that instigated this thinking in working-class towns like Winchester the country over. The blame is distributed—put on Republicans for touting the fiction of “personal responsibility” and advancing non-education to keep down the working masses, and on Democrats for abandoning the labor movement, never getting national healthcare through during all their years of majority in congress, and not taking up the “tough fight” of widespread education reform.
Deer Hunting With Jesus effectively alternates between these kinds of ranging criticisms of the socio-political machine—for which convincing statistics and a scholarly grasp of history are readily offered in support—and poignant portraits and sketches of life in Winchester, which are the real wealth of the book. We are asked to consider not just the principles, predilections, and politics themselves, but their effects on real people.
Tom Henderson is one. Once a high-school buddy of the author, Henderson ended up in a line of work common to Winchester folk: He works for Rubbermaid, at the huge plant outside of town. “A walking contradiction,” as Bageant describes him, Henderson was once a liberal-minded hippie kid, a “hillbilly hipster,” but decades of hard labor and conservative propaganda have turned him into an anti-union “ironclad hard-ass.” Bageant dutifully unpacks Tom’s worldview, wondering why he “cannot distinguish his own political interests,” why he is subscribed to the notion of gumption over government. He has a theory:
One of the slickest things the right ever did was to label necessary social costs as “entitlements.” Through thirty years of repetition, the Republicans have managed to associate the term with laziness in Americans’ minds. To the ear of hardworking blue-collar and service workers, it means “something for nothing.” …The current political narratives are constructed by well-paid public relations professionals. Their job is made easy by the fact that Tom has neither the time nor the experience to deal with political complexity or with anything else other than his job.
So Tom Henderson, who works an under-paying labor-intensive job, eats without caution, and smokes a pack a day, is made to believe not in health care or education, but simply that “Life is tough. Suck it in. Don’t take chances. Be conservative and stick with what you know.” But, as Bageant explains, there is little room for the alternative:
Getting a lousy education, then spending a lifetime pitted against your fellow workers in the gladiatorial theatre of the free market economy does not make for optimism or open-mindedness, both hallmarks of liberalism.
Tom’s story reveals the political entrenchment of the working-class from one angle. Bageant supplies plenty of other narratives to illustrate the various sides of this multifaceted and comprehensive oppression (other chapters deal with housing and mortgaging, gun ownership, religion, war, healthcare, and retirement). He crafted Deer Hunting to read like a series of essays, each addressing the simple question posed in the introduction: “How in the hell can it be that one part of a nation knows so little about the lives of the other?” Sure, the working-class, rural “rednecks” of his hometown are dumb, he claims, but the gravest crime of ignorance is in the middle- and upper-class failure to consider, let alone comprehend, these exploited folks. That understanding is his mission.
By book’s end, Bageant has transcended party and economic lines. He is witness to a general decline in critical-thinking and individuality at the hands of convenience superstores and pre-packaged media that infects all of us. He uses Winchester as a springboard to criticize not just the small-town, working-class swath of America, but the entire machine. “Our culture is based on two things: television and petroleum,” he laments, and that certainly hasn’t changed. Despite the disparateness of these stories from the city liberal way of life, a cringing recognition awaits when Bageant backs off to cast a wider gaze. He calls it the “American hologram”: in which our cultural identity is spoon-fed by corporate-sponsored media outlets that are “spinning out mythology like cotton candy.” And in the hologram, he warns, “You never know you are in prison unless you try the door.”
Remember, this book hails from a different time—the last decade, the Bush years. It was then still tenable, it seems, for a small-towner to cling to a point or two of earnest (albeit misplaced, according to Bageant) solidarity with their conservative leader. Tom Henderson, the Rubbermaid super, fondly cites the image of President Bush cutting brush on his Texas ranch as pretense enough to offer his vote. But these days? Now the party’s figurehead is a big city, private school-educated Mormon billionaire (and a Northerner, while we’re at it) who seems to possess no capacity to relate to fellow party leaders, let alone the common American. If the election results do reveal more of the same, unerring Republican support from the white working class, Bagaent’s observations in Deer Hunting will be confirmed, and emphatically so.
That Joe Bageant cannot weigh in on this election or provide a sequel, epilogue, or new edition of Deer Hunting with Jesus is lamentable, because he was clearly just the sort of embedded reporter equipped to cover this ideological warzone. (His take on Barack Obama, quoted in Socialist Review, for what it’s worth: “I always say that if Obama was delivered to the White House with Jesus Christ, a five-piece band and six gilded seraphims holding up his fucking balls he still won't be able to do anything because the country's broke and Congress is bought and sold.”) We ought to reconsider, for today, not just Bageant’s conclusions and frustrations, but his erudite investigation of a working class whose votes (and they do vote, he stresses) are still essential to American politics. The narrative endures. Come November, the sequel will write itself.