You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma

December 27, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How should a liberal think about Oklahoma? It’s just about the most politically conservative state in the Union. Oklahomans voted nearly 2-1 for Trump. Hillary got only 29% of the vote. Oklahoma was just as conservative a half-century ago.  They don’t like liberals now, and they didn’t like them back then. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey got 32% to Nixon’s  48%. And 20% of the vote went to George Wallace, an avowed racist. Only five years earlier, Wallace had famously declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Times change. The arc of history, at least American history of the last 50 years, bends towards those liberal policies once hated by conservatives. Even in Oklahoma, nobody is campaigning to bring back Jim Crow. Other attitudes too look a lot like what Sooners opposed back then.

Claude Fischer makes this point at his excellent Made in America blog (here) by offering a retrospective on an important conservative Oklahoma document of 1969 – “Okie From Muskogee,” the Country-Western hit (with some crossover popularity) by Merle Haggard. It was a culture-war statement, defending traditional ways and attacking the 1960s urban, college-educated liberals, the counterparts of the people who today are the objects of so much resentment among Trump supporters. They resented us then, and they resent us now. But the ideas they resented us for back then they have now come to agree with. 

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

We don’t make a party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

Times change.  Hairstyles change – “long and shaggy” is now country.

Left: Chris Stapleton with his armful of CMA awards.
Right: Georgia Line, CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, who will
perform in North Carolina despite the LBGT laws.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Drugstyles change too. Even in Oklahoma, marijuana is now legal for some medical purposes.  Non-medical weed and other illegal drugs, notably oxycontin and opioids, have achieved at least a niche market of country users. As Fischer notes, current C/W hits refer openly to getting stoned and rolling joints.

As for old-timey romance (“holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo”), the percent of rural and small-town residents who say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all” has doubled since the 1970s and is now the majority opinion.

Perhaps as a consequence of this relatively recent change in attitudes, rates of teen birth, including births to the unwed, are higher among country folk than among city folk. I guess with this non-marital sex thing it takes a while to get the hang of it.

Maybe in fifty years, Sooners will look back on Trump the way they now might see George Wallace or Nixon and the Vietnam war, which they once supported.  Merle Haggard himself had a change of heart. “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song,” he said. He also supported Obama and Hillary.

Meanwhile, I know that I am supposed to realize that the good people of Oklahoma are in fact good people and that we should not deplore their ideas and political choices. The recent books by Arlie Hochschild and Kathy Cramer paint a sympathetic and understanding picture of Trump supporters in Wisconsin and Louisiana, respectively.

A similar book could probably have been written about Oklahomans – now or in 1969 – and liberal readers might have regretted their lack of empathy for the heartland. But they would also have found it hard to separate the political views from the people who held them. Would such a book back then have led liberals to thank that these Oklahomans who supported a very wrong war and who opposed civil rights were actually fine people.

I keep thinking of what an old friend, an Oklahoma native, said many years ago. He had grown up in Tulsa and still spoke with that Southwest twang. But he had left the Southwest and wound up going to universities in the great cities of the North (New York, Chicago). He never looked back. He became an educated, urban liberal. One day, there was a front-page story about a natural disaster in Oklahoma, a tornado that had killed people and destroyed homes. I noted that he seemed unconcerned, almost hard-hearted, about it. 

“It’s Tornado Alley,” he said. “That’s where the tornadoes come, and those people keep building and rebuilding their houses there.” I imagine he might be saying the same thing about the Oklahoma earthquakes today. If you keep voting for politicians who give the oil and gas companies free rein, don’t complain to me about the earthquakes their fracking causes.
“Still,” I said, “don’t you have some sympathy for their loss?”
“No,” he said.
“Why not?”
“ ’Cause they’re a bunch of fuckin’ Okies.”

No comments: