The Scots-Irish Vote

The populist fury aimed at President Obama and his fellow Democrats may have roots much deeper than health care. In fact, it may be that it can be traced back to the emigration of the Scots-Irish, the first white group to settle interior America.

They've been called rednecks, hillbillies and crackers. In the modern parlance of political correctness, they've been referred to as the Bubba vote. They live in Sarah Palin's "real America," and they make up the majority of Reagan Democrats. They count as distant relatives at least twelve U.S. presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and even to Barack Obama, yet the Scots-Irish remain largely ignored as an ethnic group in America.

The Scots-Irish were a group of Scots who moved to Ulster, in Northern Ireland, before moving to the U.S. and first settling in New Hampshire and parts of Maine. Within a generation, they had moved down along the Appalachian spine, from western Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio down into West Virginia, western Virginia, North Carolina, northern Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and large parts of South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many moved further south and west, down to the Gulf Coast and out to Oklahoma, Arkansas, East Texas and beyond. Eventually they migrated out to the Bakersfield region of California (think The Grapes of Wrath), and up the Great Plains to parts of Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado (James Dobson and Tom Tancredo territory, not Denver and Boulder).

An analysis of Scots-Irish may help to explain why rural white voters in many areas of the South and West often share similar viewpoints, and why they differ from rural whites in areas like New England and the upper Midwest in their cultural beliefs and voting patterns.

Brandeis Professor David Hackett Fischer writes in Albion's Seed, "90 percent of the backsettlers [in Appalachia] were either English, Irish or Scottish; and an actual majority came from Ulster, the Scottish lowlands, and the [Scots-English] north of England...they established in the southern highlands [of the U.S.] a cultural hegemony that was even greater than their proportion in the population."

Only 1.5% of the U.S. population identified as Scots-Irish in the last census, but there are many more whose origins have been lost to history, and their influence is much stronger than their sheer numbers. Anecdotally, country music is the direct descendant of Scots-Irish folk music. Many Protestants who identify as Irish are likely of Scots-Irish descent: a very high number of Irish Protestants in the 1800s were of Scottish origins. Many Scots who came over in the early years of the Republic are Scots-Irish as well. Finally, the 2000 Census map of the concentration of the 7.2 percent of U.S. citizens who identify their ethnicity as "American" in the census very closely mirrors maps of Scots-Irish settlement patterns. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), himself a proud Scots-Irishman, wrote in his book Born Fighting that approximately 10% of Americans, or 30 million people, are of Scots-Irish descent.

Unlike other ethnic groups in the U.S., the Scots-Irish do not overtly identify as an ethnic bloc in politics. As University of North Carolina professor emeritus John Shelton Reed put it, "You ask people what their ethnicity is, and a lot of Scots-Irish people either don't know or if they know it they just [don't] acknowledge it. It's not something they really identify with. They're just plain old Americans, plain vanilla. I don't think they are a self-conscious voting bloc."

Sen. Webb argues, "Few key Democrats seem even to know that the Scots-Irish exist, as this culture is so adamantly individualistic that it will never overtly form into one of the many interest groups that dominate Democratic Party politics." He blames former Vice President Al Gore's loss in 2000 on his losses in Tennessee and West Virginia, which he attributes to Gore's positions on gun rights.

Still, while the Scots-Irish may not participate in the same group politics that other ethnicities do, they still share many common cultural values that have held on in many parts of the country, especially the Appalachian South. Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, psychology professors at the University of Michigan and University of Illinois, conducted an in-depth study in the 1990s examining what they dubbed the "Culture of Honor" prevalent in the South. In trying to find out why violence rates were significantly higher in the South, they discovered that white southerners tended to be much more likely to resort to violence to defend their property or honor than whites in other parts of the country. Their studies controlled for poverty rates throughout the region, as well as for other factors including weather (warmer areas tend to be more violent) and the legacy of slavery (areas with fewer blacks actually experienced more violence amongst whites, they found). This trend was not nearly as strong in the larger, more metropolitan cities of the South but was especially prevalent in the small, more isolated and culturally distinct small cities and towns throughout Appalachia and the rural South. These are the areas where the Hatfields and McCoys, the Turners and Howards (all Scots-Irish) feuded for years. The psychologists then ran a series of experiments where they antagonized both southerners and northerners, and found that southerners were much more prone to violence when slighted.

Nisbett argues that many of the cultural traits of the modern South can be traced back to the heritage of the population's descendants. "The Scots-Irish were a herding people, while people from the north [of the U.S.] were English, German and Dutch farmers. Herding people are tough guys all over the world, and they are that because they have to establish that you can't trifle with them, and if you don't do that then you feel like you're at risk for losing your entire wealth, which is your herd. This creates a culture of honor, and the Scots-Irish are very much a culture of honor, and they carried that with them from the Deep South to the Mountain South, and then out through the western plains."

According to Nisbett, the Scots-Irish were a warlike people distrustful of a powerful central government, a result of the herder mentality as well as centuries of fighting, first against the English and Irish, then against Native Americans, then against the Yankees. As he points out, "The Scots-Irish are very much overrepresented in the military ... and you find them there because they're a fighting people."

The Scots-Irish also tend to be devoutly religious. While the Scots-Irish were originally mostly Calvinists, many are now Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., while others are Pentecostals or belong to other evangelical churches. Sen. Webb argues in his book that the "twin forces of Calvinism and populism came together to create ... the embryo of what would in the twentieth century be called America's Bible Belt."

The states that are dominated by the Scots-Irish and Scots-Irish culture have voting patterns atypical to the rest of the U.S. Voters there, once solidly New Deal Democrats, have been voting increasingly for Republicans at the national level since the 1960s, as the Democratic Party has grown increasingly socially liberal and dovish. It is worth noting that many Scots-Irish broke for George Wallace's militarism, tough on crime message and racism before they moved on to vote for Nixon and Reagan, although Wallace's supporters tended to be in the Deep South and not in the parts of Central Appalachia that had supported the Union during the Civil War. Wallace did poorly in West Virginia, for instance.

Republicans have had success in actively courting these voters. As Sen. Webb writes, "The GOP strategy is heavily directed toward keeping peace with this culture, which every four years is seduced by the siren song of guns, God, flag, opposition to abortion and success in war."

Still, in many of these areas Democrats have done well, at least on the local level. Arkansas, which voted for McCain over Obama by a 59%-39% margin, still has two Democratic senators and more Democratic than Republican House members, as does West Virginia, where McCain beat Obama 56%-43%. Emory Professor Merle Black: "They [southern Democrats] are moderate to conservative Democrats, they're not liberal Democrats, and voters really see a huge difference between national elections and state and local elections, especially in these places like Arkansas, parts of Tennessee, Virginia, most of western North Carolina ... when the national Democrats come in and run very liberal programs, most of these local Democrats put some distance between themselves and the national candidates."

These Democrats are often Blue Dogs (and in the recent past were Boll Weevils and Yellow Dogs), and often look and sound like Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC): they are pro-gun, pro-life, anti-free trade, and loudly critical of both the national Democratic and Republican Parties. Shuler, for instance, vehemently opposed Obama's stimulus package, criticizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi's handling of the bill. Still, he and other Democrats in Scots-Irish territory are high on Republican target lists heading into 2010.

The split between Obama and Clinton in the primaries closely mirrors the schism between Scots-Irish "Bubba voters" and what can be called "Mondale Democrats." While Obama took the states with high minority populations or with white voters from mostly WASP, Scandinavian or Germanic heritage, such as in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, Clinton won every state with a significant Scots-Irish population and low concentrations of African American voters. Even in Scots-Irish states like North Carolina and Virginia where Obama easily won, the Appalachian counties broke decisively for Clinton.

Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a self-described "Scots-Irish hillbilly," is a former senior adviser to Sen. Webb, Sen. (then Gov.) Mark Warner (D-VA), and former Sen. John Edwards's (D-NC) second presidential campaign. As Saunders points out, "If you had told me in 2005 that by that time the 2008 nominating battles had come along that Hillary Clinton would redefine herself as pro-gun and anti-trade, I would've told them that they were crazy. But she did it -- she redefined herself. At the same time, they redefined Barack Obama as a globalist, 'secret meeting with the Canadians,' 'gonna take your gun right now'... it was cultural issues" that gave Clinton the edge with the Scots-Irish.

In the general election, while McCain was losing voters who had gone for George W. Bush in droves across the nation, the only regions where he outperformed Bush were the Deep South and Appalachia. McCain easily increased Bush's margins of victories in areas from East Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas up to West Virginia. The only other areas where McCain routinely did better than Bush were in his and Palin's home states, Arizona and Alaska, and in Catholic southern Louisiana.

Democrats saw their share of the white vote fall from 19% to 10% in Alabama and remain unchanged in Georgia despite Obama's strong campaign operation there and John Kerry ignoring the state in 2004. Obama also ran roughly even with or slightly trailed Kerry's numbers in Appalachian North Carolina and Virginia, despite campaigning heavily there as well.

John Murtha (D-PA) took a lot of heat for his assertion before the last election that Obama would perform poorly in Murtha's 12th district because "there's no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area." Yet Murtha may have been correct -- the 12th, in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, went narrowly for McCain after both John Kerry and Al Gore had won it.

As Saunders put it, "There ain't fifty cents' difference in a Scots-Irish redneck up there and one down here. They want their guns, it's just who we are. And everybody thinks of going after the Scots-Irish vote in a geographic sense, 'Go into southern Appalachia and the South.' Listen, you can get a lot of 'Yankee' votes with that too, and Midwestern votes, Southwestern votes."

Black argues that racism only played a small part in the 2008 election. "If there's a racial difference, it may be 4 to 5 points ... the vote in '08 [from whites in the Deep South] actually looks very much like the Reagan-Mondale vote."

Still, that Obama won three large states in the South despite losing badly among Scots-Irish voters indicates that Democrats may no longer need the Scots-Irish in the same way they once did. The Southern states where Obama won have large African American populations, as well as large numbers of immigrants, from other parts of the U.S. as well as from overseas. Northern Virginia, the research triangle of North Carolina and urban and suburban Florida are populated by many non-natives who have not been heavily influenced by the local, Scots-Irish and Southern culture.

The Republican Party, in wooing Scots-Irish Reagan Democrats with foreign policy and social issues, has made them an increasingly important part of their coalition. If Democrats want to better compete for these voters, they need to better understand them. As Saunders stated, "There is a definite thirst for understanding on how the Democrats might get to the culture."

Still, even the Scots-Irish themselves might be changing. As Nisbett put it, "I think the tectonic plates are shifting in the South. People are becoming more cosmopolitan, and cosmopolitanism is not consistent with most fundamentalist aspects of the religious right or with the South. I have the suspicion that some of the traditional culture is being reexamined in some of these changing areas."