Much like the distant European Pleistocene past, when modern Homo Sapiens co-existed with their brow-ier Neanderthal cousins, there are currently two species of humans in twenty-first century America: “Real” and “Fake” Americans. While many noted anthropologists, such as Dr. Sarah Palin of the University of Boonedocksville – Alaska have devoted their studies to understanding how and why these two species of Americans exist, few scholar-scientists have understood the phenomenon of bifurcated modern American humanity better than that foremost expert on U.S. political alignment: former Arkansas governor (and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan), Professor Mike Huckabee.
Dr. Huckabee holds the distinguished title of William Jennings Bryan Professor of Rubeology and Bumpkin Studies at the University of Arkansas’ Barney M. Fife School of Political Science and Aw-Shucks Gol-Darnnit-isms, where he has twice received the Jed Clampett Award for excellence in provincial numbskullery and right-wing boilerplate.
Professor Huckabee has received high praise for his most recent tome, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, in which he separates the denizens of modern America into two distinct categories. The first are the “Real” Americans who live in “Bubbaville;” that great mass of rural nirvana variously referred to as the “Heartland” or “Flyover Country.” The residents of Bubbaville go to church eight days a week, vote straight-ticket Republican at every level, from President to dog catcher, and say daily prayers to both Jesus and the free-market — not necessarily in that order. The other group of Huckabee’s Americans are the “Fake” ones who live in “Bubbleville;” those overcrowded, urban, hippie-infested cities like New York and San Francisco. Residents of “Bubbleville” are all raging Communists who hate Christianity, only eat raw tofu, vote for Democrats, and are (probably) one-hundred percent homosexual.
This tidy little division of Americans into “Real” and “Fake” camps has long been a staple of reactionary politics in the U.S. of A., because it gives white conservatives — the country’s dominant force in terms of cultural, political, and religious clout — the chance to feel like they’re actually a persecuted minority.
For example, over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore describes Huckabee’s new book as the closest thing to a modern, “full-fledged manifesto for conservative cultural resentment.” By packing “a long litany of fury at supposed liberal-elite condescension toward and malevolent designs against the Christian middle class of the Heartland” into a single book, Huckabee has stolen Sarah Palin’s title as the Right’s most self-righteous, persecution complex-affected Bubba. Thus, Gods, Guns, Grits, and Gravy accurately reflects the conservative movement’s paranoia, its penchant for historical ignorance, and its thinly veiled theocratic leanings. This persecution-complex-as-political-strategy pays big dividends, as millions of value-votin,’ firearms totin,’ liberal smotin,’ Chick-fil-A chompin,’ Church-door stompin’ Republicans accept it as dogma.
Huckabee is trafficking in a time-worn style of American political demagoguery that combines anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and white conservative provincialism into a big ole’ pot of simmering, reactionary stew. The major ingredient in this stew is the historical notion that the city and the country are vastly different worlds inhabited by people of vastly different values and assumptions. This rural-urban divide (as I discussed in a previous post) has been a hallmark of American politics since the colonial era. In modern political parlance, however, the country (and the small town) is conservative, while the city is liberal. There’s certainly truth to this division, as born out in recent electoral data, but right-wing Gomer Pyle stand-ins like Huckabee aren’t invoking data. Rather, they’re invoking an age-old nostalgic preference for a simplistic pastoral ideal: a state of Edenic American existence untainted by the dynamism of industrial capitalism, the march of equal rights, and the triumph of intellectualism and the scientific method over folk beliefs.
The United States has always been a nation born out of a paradox: founded as a pastoral, agrarian society populated by supposedly virtuous yeomen farmers, its population nonetheless embraced the dynamism of modern capitalism that pushed relentlessly towards urbanism, towards industry, and towards a world that is vastly more complex than a nation of simple farm folk could ever imagine.
No less a figure than devout agrarian Thomas Jefferson touted the supposed superiority of rural people. In a 1785 letter to John Jay, Jefferson wrote that, “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.” In his 1854 literary classic Walden, famed author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau likewise touted the virtues of the simple agrarian life. “The nation itself, with all its so- called internal improvements…is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment,” Thoreau wrote, “men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour…whether they do or not.” Thoreau believed that a necessary counterpoint to the frenzy of urbanism and industrialization was the quiet solitude of the countryside. He described his retreat to a cabin near Massachusetts’ woodland-lined Walden Pond as “a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself” where he “did not feel crowded or confined in the least. There was pasture enough for my imagination.”*
It’s not hard to hear echoes of contemporary rubeophiles like Mike Huckabee in Jefferson’s romanticizing of rural folk and Thoreau’s wistful longing for the innocence and imagination that comes with the pastoral. Not that such yearnings are entirely bad things, either. Far too many Americans are utterly removed from nature and simply don’t appreciate their role as one of billions of species that makes up the earth’s natural biosphere. But there are also downsides to this kind of small “r” pastoral romanticism: it’s prone to exaggeration; susceptible to the fog of nostalgia, and, Thoreau notwithstanding, often provides the fertile soil from which anti-intellectualism sprouts.
In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, the literary critic Leo Marx described the pastoral as an innate American urge to “idealize a simple, rural environment” by people who paradoxically lived in “an intricately organized, urban, industrial nuclear-armed society.”* Pastoralism, Marx observed, is a form of fantasy — an amorphous, vaguely realized expression of the need to create order out of chaos. “Wherever people turn away from the hard social and technological realities,” Marx wrote, the “obscure sentiment” of pastoralism emerges. It’s amidst this contrast — between the need for nostalgic simplicity in a sea of modern complexity — that anti-intellectualism breeds, especially in the form of religious fundamentalism.
Back in 1963, the historian Richard Hofstadter recognized the connection between fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism that currently serves as the bread-and-butter of the conservative movement as embodied by Mike Huckabee. Writing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter discussed how America’s open society and tolerance of religious pluralism nonetheless made it ripe for an abuse of the Lutheran notion of the “priesthood of all believers.” The First Great Awakening, he wrote, achieved “a religious style congenial to the common man and giving him an alternative to the establishments run by and largely for the comfortable classes.”* Evangelicalism took strong root in rural communities, where learned clergy were few-and far-between and America’s democratic impulses tended to favor spiritually guided, salt-of-the-earth folk wisdom over the ramblings of professionally educated eggheads — secular or sectarian.
Nineteenth and twentieth-century American evangelicals, fueled by the Second Great Awakening, carried this reverence for the common man and suspicion of swelled heads with them to use as weapons in the “Revolt Against Modernity.” They fought hard against scientific and intellectual developments such as Darwinism, industrial capitalism, socialism, textual criticism of the bible and other perceived heresies that threatened to complicate simplistic American folk notions about biblical inerrancy and the supposed virtue of American rural life. The militant fundamentalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries started off as a vocal minority, but, as Hofstadter notes, “their animus plainly reflected the feelings of still larger numbers, who, however reluctant to join in their reactionary crusade, none the less shared their disquiet about the trend of the times, their fear of the cosmopolitan mentality, of critical intelligence, of experimentalism in morals and literature.”* Such animus saw little need to accommodate the multiple perceived heresies wrought by American liberalism.
Thus, the contemporary conservative movement — embodied as it is by an anti-modern, southern Baptist-pastor-turned-Republican politician like Mike Huckabee — is the result of a perfect melding of nostalgic American pastoralism with a fundamentalist approach to all aspects of modernity, from religion, to the economy, to sexuality — all wrapped up into one good ole’ boy package. Well, it’s almost perfect. There’s still the thorny issue of capitalism. Unfortunately for rural, small-town boosters like Huckabee, the arch of modern capitalism bends inexorably towards urbanism.
This is the paradox of conservatives’ political mythology. Their unfettered devotion to unfettered market capitalism leaves them in a constant reactionary stance as they try to reconcile the loss of pastoral innocence and folk knowledge with the market’s relentless push in the direction of city-based technological advancement and educational specialization. Thus, they have no choice but to shout into the wind as Mayberry dies and New York expands; as traditions are upended and cultural capital shifts to new power players. They’ve made their market beds, but they don’t want to sleep in them, so they double down on fundamentalist worldviews. Hence, the bible is infallible; homosexuality is a “choice” because human sexuality, like everything else, must be black or white, and the extant conservative folk wisdom floating like jetsam in the cultural streams of America’s countryside will always be superior to the cultural anarchy espoused by urban liberals.
The same type of relentless capitalism that drove the telegraphs and railroads of the nineteenth century, which Thoreau looked upon with so much weariness, continues unabated to this day, and conservatives like Huckabee can’t quite accept their role in promoting it. So, to compensate, they separate Americans into “Real” and “Fake” camps — “Bubbaville” and “Bubbleville” — and in the process they reveal the simplified duality with which they resist a modern America — and a modern world — that refuses to accommodate their black-and-white beliefs. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being urban or even suburban, just as there’s nothing wrong with being rural. These environments and cultures all contribute to the rich tapestry that is modern America, and they all have something to offer. But to fundamentalists like Mike Huckabee and others in the right-wing echo-chamber, society can only be a “Bubbas” vs. “Bubbles” Thunderdome of constant culture war — and we all pay the price.
* See Mike Huckabee, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (St. Martin’s, 2015), 1-4.
* See Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), 14, 17-18.
* See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 4-5.
* See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 74, 130.