Apparently “Joe the Plumber,” the McCain-Palin mascot for the “real [read: white, small-town, anti-elitist] America,” did not represent the political views of the majority of voters in the 2008 presidential election. Strikingly, a mixed-race, big-city, Harvard Law graduate garnered votes from more than just latte-drinking Volvo drivers.
Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates for national office made remarkable gains among small-town and rural voters in key battleground states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and even Missouri. (In Missouri, for example, 11 percent more rural voters supported Obama in 2008 than Kerry in 2004, according to exit poll data.) Whereas George W. Bush won over rural voters in battleground states by a 15 point margin in 2004, a Center for Rural Strategies poll taken just before the recent election showed Obama and McCain running neck-and-neck in rural counties in crucial states.
For those who believe that something is “the matter with Kansas,” it must be surprising that rural and small-town Americans are absconding from the Republican Party. After all, many of these same voters flooded local gun shops on November 5 seeking semi-automatic assault rifles, fearing renewed restrictions under Obama’s administration. But exit polls clearly indicate that pocketbook politics, not right-leaning rights consciousness, accounted for voters’ decisions—even in Sarah Palin’s “hard-working, very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” But why would patriotic, gun-loving, religion-clinging, small-town Americans seek economic answers from a liberal northern Democrat rather than conservative Republicans or southern Democrats, as they have done for the past 36 years?
To understand the significance of these results, we should look not to Joe the Plumber, but to Joe the Trucker.
In October 2008, Joe Wurzelbacher became America’s best-known employee of a plumbing company when he questioned Barack Obama on his tax policies, suggesting the Democrat intended to stifle the American Dream for small business owners. But back in April 2008, hundreds of independent (that is, nonunion, self-employed) truck drivers staged protests around the country, demanding that federal policymakers do something about skyrocketing diesel prices that were nearing $4 per gallon.
For reasons explained in my recent book, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, these independent truck drivers overwhelmingly trace their cultural roots, their economic hopes, and their populist politics to rural and small-town America. As I demonstrate, these archetypal red-state “asphalt cowboys” and their forebears took part in a decades-long rural revolt against New Deal economic policies from the 1930s through the 1970s. Although their “independence” from union organizers and federal regulation was itself a product of contradictory New Deal transportation policies, these “gypsy” rural truckers helped undermine the New Deal regulatory state in the mid-twentieth century.[ad#yahoo-small-biz-120px]By hauling farm products and foodstuffs to market on the nation’s largely unregulated, non-unionized rural highways, these “kings of the open road” helped to build an economy dedicated to delivering low-priced goods to price-conscious consumers with minimal government regulation, minimal support of organized labor, and maximal corporate welfare. By the 1970s, these truckers had literally helped pave the way for the neopopulist antistatism of the last third of the twentieth century.
But the response of Joe the Independent Trucker to the economic crises of 2008 may well be a bellwether for another dramatic transformation in the politics of the American Dream.
Many of the truckers in the sporadic spring 2008 protests looked not to free-market conservatives in the Republican Party but to liberals in the Democratic Party to stave off the collapse of the American Dream. In online blogs, in oath-laden CB radio chatter, and in bitter truckstop debates, many of America’s 350,000 independent truckers called for a renewal of New Deal-style government oversight of the transport economy. Truckers convinced that the Republican Party was aligned with corporate interests posted shockingly hostile anti-Bush sentiments on websites such as Drivers4Drivers.Com. Videos shot in cabs of Kenworth tractor-trailers and uploaded to YouTube.com from truckstop internet connections called for federally mandated controls on freight rates and government oversight of the unregulated freight brokerage system.
This was not the first time America’s independent truckers geared up for mass protests. Facing spiking fuel costs in the winter of 1973-74 and again in the summer of 1979, tens of thousands of owner-operators stormed America’s highways, bringing the country’s commerce to a shuddering halt. McDonald’s airlifted beef to its Midwestern restaurants, and supermarket shoppers in the Northeast went on panic-buying sprees. Immortalized in the 1978 trucker film Convoy, the renegade spirit of these highway outlaws resonated for millions of working- and middle-class Americans concerned about rising prices and stagnant economic growth.
In 1979, following a particularly violent wave of trucker protests, Mike Parkhurst, publisher of Overdrive magazine (“Voice of the American Trucker”) demanded a radical rollback of government oversight of the trucking industry. Regulation and high fuel prices, Parkhurst declared, endangered the livelihoods of independent truckers and forced consumers to pay high prices for food and other necessities.
Consumer crusader Ralph Nader agreed, as did conservative lobbyists in the National Association of Manufacturers and politicians on both sides of the congressional aisle, from Jack Kemp to Edward Kennedy. Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 in response, thereby dismantling trucking regulations in effect since the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Although President Carter signed the bill into law, legions of truckers voted for Ronald Reagan and his free-market optimism in the 1980 elections. Reagan has erroneously been remembered as the “great deregulator” ever since.
Like the angry truckers who armed themselves with shotguns and nail-studded two-by-fours to protest rising fuel prices in the 1970s, today’s independent truckers are demanding that federal politicians acknowledge their plight. But while the convoy leaders of the 1970s demanded deregulation and free markets as solutions to that era’s stagflation, many of today’s truckers seem to have lost faith in the fanatical free-market vision pursued over the past eight years. As cattle-hauling independent trucker Dan Little told interviewers on CNBC back in April, “We elect these people in Washington to stand up for us. How about they do their job once in a while and then we won’t have a problem?” Notably, such calls for re-regulation of a core component of the U.S. economy were emerging well before the financial meltdown on Wall Street brought the word “regulation” back in vogue in the mainstream media.
The prospects suddenly seem brighter than they have for decades for a revived Democratic Party that simultaneously reaches out to blue-collar, country-music-loving, um, very, um, pro-America small-town populists as well as blue-state social liberals. Democrats at every level of governance have a chance to capitalize on the heartland’s swelling frustrations with the failed economic promises of deregulators, free-marketeers, union-busters, and corporate-kowtowing conservatives. Joe the Trucker, it seems, is ready to give Barack the President a chance to deliver on his campaign promises.
Mr. Hamilton, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, is the author of Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton University Press, October, 2008).
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