01.25.09

The Land That Obama Forgot

Inaugural fever? Not in deep-red Oklahoma, where Barack Obama failed to carry so much as one county in November. This is ground zero of the Obama resistance, and as Denver Nicks reports, it's going to take a lot to win some residents over.

With most of America still reeling from inauguration hysteria, it’s easy to forget that a sizeable minority never wanted Barack Obama to become their president. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my home state of Oklahoma. No state gave a higher percentage of its vote in November to John McCain. Obama lost every county. And while nearly every county in America went more Democratic in 2008 than in 2004, southeastern Oklahoma is in a political red sea in the center of the country that responded to “yes we can” with a resounding “I hope we don’t,” voting significantly more Republican than it did four years ago.

It’s not just that Oklahoma proved resistant to Obama’s charms. Though Obama did have a small official campaign presence in the state, Okies were largely spared the deluge of media and campaign staff that nearly every other state experienced. Thus, Obama’s image was defined without much input from Obama himself. He took a 25-point loss to Hillary Clinton in the primary, and after that what Okies what heard about him came from local media, right-wing talk radio, the national networks, and viral email.

“I don’t think the people in the Oklahoma that I know are that sold on a black leader,” one newspaper editor said. “And that scares me.”

There’s an argument to be made, then, that Oklahoma is the state most out of step with the current jubilation. As the inauguration approached, I set out on a journey to see how the state was preparing for America’s first black president.

My first stop was Wetumka, in eastern-central Oklahoma, a once prospering oil town and sometimes hideout of Pretty Boy Floyd. At the intersection of two small highways and the entrance ramp to my own family history, Wetumka is where my dad and uncles ran wild as boys during hot Oklahoma summers, where my grandmother grew up across the street from my grandfather, and where my great-grandfather was once postmaster.

Wetumka has been contracting, to employ the economist’s euphemism, for the last half-century.

With a local economy based primarily on welfare, Social Security, and subsidies from Indian tribes, it is the poorest town in one of the poorest counties in United States. It is rural America in a snow globe.

I asked a group of students at Wetumka High School what they felt about the recent election and their incoming president.

“Palin 2012,” said Jayme Pack, an outspoken, All-American seventeen-year-old girl.

“She was really down to earth, and I really think she got everybody, especially in our part of the country. I mean, she was a Carhartt-wearing, boot-wearing girl, and she knew what we were going through, better I think than John McCain did.”

With that, Pack articulated a political reality that I heard echoed over and over in Oklahoma: populism hath returned, and it looks a lot like Tina Fey.

In its early days Oklahoma was a hotbed of populism, an egalitarian and anti-intellectual strain of political thought that shook American politics around the turn of the last century and transformed the Democratic Party. My middle name, Bryan, is a family heirloom that was first given to my great-grandfather (the postmaster), who was named after William Jennings Bryan, the firebrand champion of the populist cause.

Similar to the anti-eastern-elite sentiment that gave rise to the populist movement of the late 19th century, many people in rural Oklahoma—the heart of flyover country—mistrust and resent those who reside in America’s big city powerhouses of business and culture. Under President Obama these feelings are set to intensify.

President Obama is from many places, including one (Indonesia) outside of the United States. He is a living mosaic who neither looks nor speaks like any president this country has ever seen, and represents a cosmopolitan, ultra-modern worldview that is, whether he likes it or not, in direct opposition to the essence of social conservatism. For many in Oklahoma, who prefer a president they could drink a beer with and whose identity they could pin down with familiar markers like home state, religion, and race, President Obama will be a bitter pill to swallow.

As a corollary to this new populism, another persistent theme emerged during my travels in Oklahoma. Though many people were reluctant to go on the record saying so, most agreed that racism played an important role in Obama’s especially poor showing in the state. Bill Morgan is owner, editor-and-chief, reporter, and columnist of the Hughes County Times, and has lived in Wetumka for over half a century. He is theatrically cantankerous and unabashedly Republican. The November 5 headline of his newspaper read “Hughes County, Oklahoma, ‘No Wanna’ Obama.”

“I don’t think the people in the Oklahoma that I know are that sold on a black leader. And that scares me,” Morgan said.

“I think the same thing would’ve been true if it had been a Hispanic. You’ve got a lot of people in Oklahoma that are afraid of the Mexican population.”

Greg Rock, who ran the small Obama campaign operation in Pittsburg County, southeast of Hughes County, described encountering racism more often than not while campaigning. “A lot of people just bristled at the thought of an African American becoming president, or even just running,” he said.

I traveled further southeast, to a region called Little Dixie, where I thought the nexus of the new populism and racism would seen in a brighter light, expressed with fewer reservations. An impoverished region that exemplifies rural isolation, it was settled largely by displaced Choctaw Indians in the early 19th century, and displaced southerners after the Civil War and Reconstruction. With about a 250,000 inhabitants scattered over more than 11,000 square miles of low-lying mountains, it retains a sort of Southern/Appalachian feel.

I traveled into the Kiamichi Mountains, where the settlements along the highway begin to feel more like isolated mountain hamlets than Midwestern towns. On the night of the college football national championship between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Florida Gators—a sort of statewide occasion that lands somewhere between Thanksgiving and Mardi Gras—I stopped in the small town of Talihina to catch the game.

Talihina’s only bar is a spartan establishment with a jukebox and a pool table. Neon signs, a flat screen TV, and a lamp hanging from the plywood ceiling light the interior. Before kickoff, racial jokes popped up amid the hollering and cheering. After making an unpopular call, the black referee was known as “Obama” for most of the game. A commercial featuring a black preacher brought on comparisons to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As one player managed a difficult catch I heard talk of “nigger riggin’” from a table a few feet away: an idiom meaning, essentially, to fix something with whatever materials available without regard to appearance. The atmosphere turned briefly sour as it became clear that Oklahoma would lose their third national championship game in a row, then picked up again, the loss soon forgotten, as the music kicked on and one patron bought a round for everyone in the bar.

I asked one man what he thought of Barack Obama.

“I’m surprised he hadn’t got killed yet,” he said.

Later, I sat down to talk to a woman, whom I’ll call Irene, from the “nigger riggin’” table.

Irene is white, in her early 50s, widowed with three adult children, and works two jobs at minimum wage. I asked her what she thought of this new President Obama coming to Washington. She responded proudly, before I finished the question.

“I voted for him! He’s gonna do good for us poor people. He’s gonna help us.”

Racism was an obvious fact of life in this scene in Talihina, expressed openly and jovially, though not un-self-consciously, as people were sometimes laughingly scolded for using racial epithets. If racism played a role in Obama’s poor performance in this and in similar parts of the country—and it almost certainly did for some—then it was merely a factor among the many that boil down, ultimately, to one: he ain’t like us.

Obama, in addition to being black, represents the progressive world of big cities and elite universities, and sees the grey areas in an increasingly polarized world. He is anathema to social conservatism as it exists today. In the years to come we will likely see a neo-populist revival among social conservatives, as their government, which for so long spoke their vernacular and pandered to their preferences, no longer does.

The question is then, is this inevitable? Though he fared poorly in southeastern Oklahoma, around 30 percent of the region, including people like Irene, voted for Obama. What racism there still is seems conquerable: a development that would bode well for both parties and the country as a whole. With early approval ratings over 80 percent, can President Obama win over these holdouts, at least enough to prevent an anti-intellectual populist backlash within the GOP?

In Holdenville, the Hughes County seat back west out of the mountains, I wandered into a restaurant in the early afternoon. The only light in the mostly empty room was hanging over a table near the back, around which four men were fiercely playing dominoes, like a group of country mobsters. I asked them about their incoming president.

“I voted for him,” said one immense man in a camo hat and overalls, trailing off into an unintelligible mumble.

Another spoke up. “I don’t think he has the experience to lead the country. I guess we’ll just have to see what he does. Don’t know what to tell you, bud.”

Denver Nicks is a freelance writer currently based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.