THE STORY SO FAR: Karl Rove is constantly feeding the press the storyline that George W. Bush will—Real Soon Now!—make a historic breakthrough and convert vast numbers of minorities into Republicans. It didn't happen in 2000 or 2002 and there's no evidence it will happen in 2004. Moreover, it wouldn't much matter to GOP fortunes if it did. For example, according to the Census Bureau, in 2000 the much-hyped Mexican-American vote turns out to have been only 1/27th the size of the non-Hispanic white vote.
So why is he doing it? Can't he count?
NOW READ ON: One theory: Rove can indeed count. But this line of chatter distracts the pundits (who generally can't) from noticing what's going on.
Which is actually quite interesting. But you won't hear about it much from a press hamstrung by its prejudice that some voter's votes aren't worth as much – morally - as others.
Rove is riding high now because George W. Bush has managed to electrify and even seemingly embody one particular ethnic group - a group with high standards of self-sacrifice, to which Americans have traditionally turned in perilous times. It's not a group you hear much about these days. In fact, it's just one of the four WASP ethnic groups that came to America from in the 1600s.
In our modern multiculturalist America multiculturalism, the old-fashioned regional ways of life brought to America by British colonists in the 1600s should no longer matter, right? Yet historian David Hackett Fischer's landmark 1989 book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America documents in overwhelming detail (it's 946 pages long) that cultural patterns laid down by different groups of settlers before 1776 explain much about today's politics.
Fisher identified four "folkways" from Britain that spread out across the continent westward at roughly the latitudes at which their ancestors first settled. They remain highly influential in American politics to this day.
The bourgeois Puritans, intellectual and moralistic, largely originated in Eastern England. From 1629 to 1640, they settled New England, and their descendents later spread across northern tier states like Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon. (The most famous representatives are the Adams family.)
Cavalier aristocrats and their indentured servants from class-ridden Southern England moved to the lowland South from 1642-1675. George Washington and George Wallace illustrate the South's gentleman and populist sides, respectively.
Calm and business-like Quakers and others from the North Midlands of England and Wales settled Pennsylvania and the rest of the Delaware Valley in 1675-1725. They invited German Mennonites and others of compatible habits to join them. Pennsylvanians spread out across the Middle West. Although he was born in Boston, Ben Franklin became their ideal.
Finally, the bellicose folks from the violent Scottish-English border region - and especially their descendents who had settled Ulster - came to the Appalachian backcountry from 1718 to 1775. Their descendents spread west across the upper South. The prototype: the ferocious Andy Jackson. They're typically called "Scots-Irish," although Fischer doesn't like the term because it makes them sound as if they spoke Celtic languages, when they actually spoke English and were culturally quite different from Scottish Highlanders or Irish Catholics.
The two Southern groups have been the most belligerent. And the Scots-Irish in a class by themselves in their taste for raising hell - both at home and abroad. Patriotism and physical courage are both central to the backcountry tradition, as reflected in the very high rates of military enlistment among the Scots-Irish. (Stock car racing, which was originally dominated by fearless ex-moonshine runners like Junior Johnson, is the backcountry's signature sport.)
Perhaps because of this culture of courage, the backcountry Scots-Irish are the ethnic group that Americans most look toward for Presidential leadership, especially in times of foreign threat.
"The predominance of backcountry Presidents is remarkable," Fischer told me. "There have been more than from any other British group." (All Presidents except Martin Van Buren and John F. Kennedy had a large number of British ancestors.) Fischer discovered that 19 American Presidents were descended in large part from Appalachian settlers.
"The family tree of George W. Bush is as close to pure Yankee Puritan as any Presidential candidate's in many decades," the Brandeis professor observed. Dubya's New England-raised father, President George Bush, always had to battle against "the wimp factor." Despite having been the youngest aircraft carrier pilot in WWII, the captain of the Yale baseball team, and a successful Texas oilman, President Bush's prep school mannerisms struck many Americans as effete.
In contrast, although racially Puritan, the second President Bush is culturally mostly backcountry. Although the younger Bush benefits from his family's powerful connections in the Northeast, his personal style is radically different. "Bush has mastered the idioms of the backcountry culture he grew up in down in Midland, Texas," Fischer pointed out. "His subsequent education at Andover and Yale didn't seem to much affect his down-home manner."
This style of speech and behavior, brought to the Appalachian highlands by tough Protestant pioneers from Northern Ireland and the Scottish-English border region, has spread westward across the mid-southern latitudes of the U.S. "There's something about that style that appeals well to other regions," noted Fischer. He suggested that it struck Americans as unaffected, masculine, and decisive.
In turn, in 2000 Bush succeeded most impressively not with any minority group, but in backcountry states. He beat Al Gore in his home state of Tennessee, took Bill Clinton's Arkansas, and won traditionally yellow dog Democrat West Virginia.
Historian Walter Russell Mead recently proposed his own Dixie Chicks for dissing him.
And, while many entertainment forms, such as rock, rap, and movies, are aimed primarily at young people, country fans come in all ages, including the heavy-voting older cohorts. Being somewhat less educated and more blue collar on average, though, they don't always vote. If they can be inspired to show up at the polls, however, they can push a campaign over the top. That's exactly what happened last November.
However, there are at least three problems with this theory of Rove's motivations – let's call it the Rove Rationale.
For a long time, most of them lived far enough north of the border for illegal immigration to not have that much downward impact on their blue collar members' wages. But they are increasingly being driven out of California's Central Valley by illegal immigration. (See classical historian Victor Davis Hanson's excellent new book Mexifornia.)
Further, illegal aliens are finally moving en masse to the upper South backcountry.
Eventually, America's Scotch-Irish will look out not just for their country's interests abroad—but for their own interests at home.