Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out By Steve Jarding & Dave “Mudcat” Saunders (Touchstone, 336 pages, $24)
As the 2006 elections near, it’s a safe bet that before long your local Barnes & Nobles will be inundated with political books of every stripe. There will be the personality books: Hillary has come down from on High to deliver us from Evil; Hillary is, if not the anti-Christ, certainly one of his dark agents. There will be the policy-wonk books: declining marginal tax-rates will spur a bearish economy; declining marginal tax-rates will spur a bullish economy. And there will of course be shelves and shelves of political-strategy books: the Republicans will lose, unless they take [insert conservative pundit’s name here]’s advice; Democrats will lose, unless they take [insert liberal pundit’s name]’s advice. About the only thing that can be said for this mostly inchoate bleating mass is that a great deal of these tomes–most, in fact–will be little more than boilerplate partisan screeds. Luckily, the printing presses haven’t kicked into high gear yet.
Unluckily, some books have started to trickle out, and if the one that landed on my desk is any indication, there will be a lot of trees needlessly killed in the run-up to November. Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out is Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders’s contribution. They’ve picked a topic ripe for discussion, and with their expertise–both are well known political strategists who focus on Southern and rural voters–this book ought to have potential. After all, the Democrats’ failure in the South in many ways reflects the broader message problems the party faces. The perception, right or wrong, is that Democrats cannot connect with the large cross-section of America that embraces strong morals, patriotism, and individualism, among other nebulous adjectives under the “values” rubric. The South, inasmuch as it is also a proxy for rural America, reflects the deepening electoral crisis Democrats face (or might face, if Republicans weren’t quite so keen to fall on their own swords).
Certainly an interesting subject. But Foxes is a most uninteresting book. Actually, that’s being charitable: It is awful, and its awfulness arises primarily because it takes a fascinating topic and dolls it up with clownish make-up, submerging any serious points–and there are quite a few hidden in the mud–beneath a deluge of ill-advised, excessive pejoratives. The entire book reads as if the authors hired Michael Moore to sex up their prose: Jarding and Saunders seek to “unmask dozens of Republican leaders and cheerleader fools, hypocrites, and charlatans,” chief among them “the dangerously insecure head case George W. Bush,” “libido-crazed Bill O’Reilly,” and “the headline-grabbing-in-the-face-of-tragedy Rudy Giuliani.” If platitudes were MoonPies, and you somehow managed to consume this entire book, you’d be hard-pressed to drag your 400-pound gut off the sofa.
It’s hard to take a book seriously that explicitly asks the reader not to take it seriously. Be that as it may, the hyperbole is interlarded with some serious discussions–and there’s a mound of data scattered throughout that supposedly backs up the authors’ claim that Republican policies have harmed the South and Southerners on a broad range of issues, from home ownership to wages to health insurance. While castigating Republicans, Foxes simultaneously pumps up classic Democratic policies, like FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. The data is murky, but the message is clear: Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to remind voters of these successes, especially in improving conditions in the South. That’s fine and dandy, but it probably won’t help much with modern elections: Voters aren’t as interested in who started Social Security as they are in who is going to fix it. (And, it should be noted, nostalgia’s track record in breaking up voting coalitions is pretty sorry; a Republican president may have ended slavery, but that fact hasn’t delivered the black vote.) Jarding and Saunders’s primary solutions are likewise simplistic: “Learn How to Count”; “Define Yourself and Define Your Opponent (Not the Other Way Around)”; “Show Some Passion!”; “When Someone Assassinates Your Character, Retaliate!”; “Talk to People Where They Live–About Their Lives, Their Fears, and Their Interests.” This is the stuff of intro political-science classes, not a serious book on politics.
If there’s anything of practical use in this book, it’s in the sections discussing how to connect with the rural voter. The primary foil is the Mark Warner campaign, on which the authors worked. In that campaign, a Democrat won the governorship, and he did it in part by targeting–and winning–the rural Virginia vote. The campaign strategists used NASCAR to spread their message; they wrote lyrics to a bluegrass tune, and had a “hillbilly band” play the theme around the state. Warner went after outdoorsmen. It was grassroots outreach, and it worked.
As strategy, this is fine–and certainly promising for Democrats. They have to do something to compete in rural areas, and Foxes offers a few creative ideas that have actually worked. But the key word here is strategy. As much as Jarding and Saunders moan about the cynicism of the Southern Strategy, and how Republicans have tricked Southerners into voting Right, they’re still more focused on novel strategies than on novel ideas. And the declamation of their strategy has the same elitist tone Jarding and Saunders attribute to other Democrats. Take chapter four as a prime example. It’s called “Getting to know the Culture of Rural America,” and it opens with a hilarious effort to define a Bubba, as opposed to a redneck. Bubbas vote; rednecks don’t, because “[t]hey’re simply too ignorant to care.” “Churchgoing Bubbas . . . keep God in their hearts”; “churchgoing rednecks wear rhinestone crosses, ask you constantly if you know Jesus, and of course, bumper-sticker their vehicles with displays of spiritual self-righteousness.” Even an effort to understand rural culture, written by self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiasts and NASCAR fans, comes across as pretentious, over-bearing, and incredibly sanctimonious–to Bubbas and rednecks alike. And people wonder why Democrats are losing the South.
In reducing the South to nothing more than political strategy, Saunders and Jarding only scratch the surface of a topic they obviously know well. They present the South as simply God, NASCAR, and hunting–and suggest that Democrats latch onto just those things that can be easily seen and defined. If that’s done right, you may win some elections. But when the national media bears down in a presidential race, a lot of folks–both Bubbas and rednecks–will surely note how easy it is to spot a phony, no matter how slick his outreach program is. It’s the difference between being and seeming. And it’s often the difference between winning and losing.
What the Democrats need now are ideas, not half-baked strategies. If the ideas are robust, then the strategy will emerge naturally from and complement the ideas. There are a few welcome calls for moderation in this book, and Jarding and Saunders’s defense of outdoorsmen and guns is laudable. But one has to wonder, Just who is this book intended for? If party strategists need Foxes to reach the simpleminded conclusions it outlines, then the Democratic party has officially flat-lined. The activist wing of the party may swallow those rhetorical MoonPies whole, but they probably won’t be psyched to discuss any moderation. And Republicans who read this . . . never mind.
Steve Jarding and Mudcat Saunders want to treat the symptoms of the Democratic malaise–not the disease. But in an ironic twist, they become yet another symptom. Luckily for the patient, this year promises many more diagnostic books–and a host of them are bound to be better than this dunderheaded, jejune volume.
–Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor at National Review.