Who dislikes a murder ballad? Besides the lyrical victim, of course. Don’t get cute with your guest Weekend Politics Thread header host.
Songs in which narrators make fatal choices when faced with intolerable situations involving objects of desire proliferate in many cultures.1 This subgenre of folk music particularly predominates in places predominantly populated by people of Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English descent—precincts such as Appalachia, Australia, and, peculiarly, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England.
Zoom in on Ohio. J.D. Vance2 got exactly one thing correct in the otherwise execrable Hillbilly Elegy: A significant percentage of Ohioans live in Appalachia and share a significant percentage of characteristics with other residents of the region. Hell, the Buckeye, Blue Grass, Mountaineer, Tarheel, and Old Dominion states even even claim the same bird.3
Republican lawmakers in Ohio definitely act like their neo-Confederate counterparts. The latest example of this played out over the summer of 2023, when GOP operatives compelled voters to answer the question of whether to require supermajority approval of referendums. Rounding, 57 percent of the voting population repulsed that naked assault on direct democracy. And good on those good people who put the tune teased in the WPT title into Uvular’s tête.
But focus on the 43 percent. Who goes fascist when literally asked, “Hey, wanna go fascist?” Toning down the rhetoric to a dull roar, who affirmatively opts to limit their own rights and freedoms?
Too many, actually. Freedom House research reveals a full retreat from even residual small-R republicanism. To quote the organization’s press release quoting its 2021 Freedom in the World Report,
[T]he share of countries designated Not Free has reached its highest level since the deterioration of democracy began in 2006, and that countries with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered those with gains by the largest margin recorded during the 15-year period. The report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, representing 75 percent of the global population. Those affected include not just authoritarian states like China, Belarus, and Venezuela, but also troubled democracies like the United States4 and India.
Why? In the forthcoming The Cultural Roots of Democratic Backsliding, Pippa Norris applies congruence theory5 and concludes that a lot of folks view dismantling democratic institutions as an exercise in preserving traditional societal structures.
In the very short, not-at-all-academic version, people vote their prejudices; they install presidents and prime ministers who hate and hurt the groups they disfavor and wish to harm.
Norris dresses this up, writing:
In cases of progressive democratization,6 authoritarian regimes are conventionally expected to be more vulnerable to challenge from below, and even breakdown, in cases such as Iran, Hong Kong and Mexico, where ordinary citizens protest to demand democracy, freedom, and human rights. Cases of democratic backsliding involve reverse types of non-congruent cases, however, including states with democratic constitutions where informal norms underpinning these institutions have been gradually eroded by popular support for authoritarian values, institutions, and leaders.7
Which—again simplifying for the simplistic Uve—means favoring class/group dominance, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and theocracy translates into disfavoring democracy.
And speaking of traditional cultural artifacts best consigned to dustbins of history, murder ballads8 describe temporary seizures of control during already already-lost battles. The narrating killer appears to have won, but they always suffer lifetimes of regret, recriminations, and not-uncommonly, physical and legal consequences.
Rightwingers composed a swan song for democracy in Ohio, and a solid majority refused to sing along. One could romantically ascribed the victory to an American tradition of granting one person one vote, holding governments responsible to constituents, and fighting literal Nazis.
So, let’s. Just for goddamned one fucking time, let us celebrate the reign of Myth America. Because, surely, antieducation activists across the United States would not strive so strenuously to sledgehammer history, psychology, political science, and literature curricula if teaching kids the tenets of democratic governance did not instill some basic reflex toward civil responsibility.
Defend the proper traditions. Just like those Ohio voters did.