• Peter Templeton

American Populism and Literary Pastoral

I have recently started to notice a strain of thinking in the right-wing of American politics that I have observed in literature: the pastoral, which ties in very closely to this idea of there being an urban and rural split. For those people unfamiliar with this art form, pastoral is (traditionally) poetry celebrating rural life, such as by Greek and Roman poets and, later, poets like Spenser. However, it also features in other forms such as As You Like It by Shakespeare, nineteenth-century Plantation fiction, right the way up to films such as Gone With the Wind and in more contentious examples, things like John Ford Westerns, and TV shows like All Creatures Great and Small, Hamish Macbeth and even Heartbeat. I’d say more, but there’s far more than a whole paper on what is and isn’t pastoral, but hopefully, this is enough to give you an idea of the sort of thing that might qualify.

The first thing to note is that in terms of Southern conservatism, there isn’t a vast divide that we can see in the first instance. In 2016 in the traditional Southern states, Trump wins handily almost across the board. Ted Cruz does very well further west in his heartlands of Texas and Oklahoma and does well across the plains states, but what we might think of as the real heartlands of the former Confederacy Trump wins handily except for a rather strange performance by Cruz in North Carolina, which I feel needs more investigation.

Virginia is the most prominent exception, and here we probably can see a bit of a rural and urban split, with the areas around Fairfax and Loudoun counties voting for one of the establishment figures in Marco Rubio – and crucially they are suburbs of Washington, D.C.

You could probably also point to the fact that Rubio’s only success in Georgia comes in the area of Fulton and Cobb counties, home to Atlanta, its suburbs, and other sizeable places like Marietta, and that Charleston is the lone county in South Carolina to vote for Rubio. Similarly, his sole good showing in Tennessee here is Williamson County, an affluent area and home to the large city of Nashville.

So, then, there is a trend in which certain cities in the region were more likely to vote for the so-called ‘establishment’ candidate than their rural areas. But you will note that there is still a reasonably strong regional emphasis here, as Trump wins handily across the rust belt, provides the only opposition to John Kasich in his home state, sweeps New York, and much of New England. And the map also shows that Republicans in major Southern cities like Mobile, Huntsville, Birmingham in Alabama, Augusta, Macon, Columbus in Georgia, New Orleans in Louisiana, Memphis Tennessee, Louisville Kentucky, Jacksonville Florida. All predominantly urban counties that either voted for or voted with their rural neighbours in sufficient numbers to return delegates who’d back the populist Trump.

If we undertaker a brief comparison with 2008, we see a similar picture. Mike Huckabee is the populist candidate here, and yet he only really does well in the South, and there is no performance across regional boundaries in the way that we see with Donald Trump. He swept his home state of Arkansas and won Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, and finally, Kansas. The lone exception was Iowa, the first caucus up and one in which Huckabee’s history as a Baptist minister is believed to have won over the state’s evangelicals. But while a county might be less likely to go for Huckabee if it had a large urban population, many still did in his core Southern constituencies, while not a single county in the North East, or the West Coast, did so – the vote was always split between John McCain and Mitt Romney. Four years later, there is perhaps the beginning of the trend that led to Trump, as Rick Santorum did less well in some areas of the South (possibly due to Newt Gingrich being in the race) but built on that appeal in Iowa to win more broadly across the Midwest, including some counties in Ohio.

General election comparisons are tricky, because the last time a populist was running in one, he did not do brilliantly – Ross Perot did not win a county so looking for trends in that respect are tough. But we can also say that he is not a Southerner and did less well in the South than in other areas, and consequently vote shares for the other candidates were higher in the South than in some other parts of the country in which Perot was able to poll between a quarter and a third of the vote.

To summarise this first section, cities tend to be more liberal than rural communities, and their voting record reflects that, but there is also a clear indication of a divide between Southern and Northern populists until 2012. There does seem to be a shift there, and Santorum outperformed expectations in rural counties across the Midwest. So, to amend my point from last year, when Donald Trump defies regional trends, he does so by playing into and accelerating an ongoing move away from those traditional understandings of the map.

But what is interesting here is the way that rhetoric is shaped amongst the right-wing populists in the United States, and that is by invoking a rural and urban divide in the first place. To think about this, we’ll need to use ideas of the pastoral. The first thing to establish is that there are different understandings of pastoral in a literary context, some referring to a specific form that was common in certain periods of literary history while others seem to describe something more in terms of a subject matter. These might best be thought of using words such as the Pastoral Mode, or Lawrence Buell’s Pastoralism, to distinguish them from the more precise definition of pastoral poetry, and it is these definitions that refer more specifically to a contrast between the urban and the rural that we are working with here.

As a basic recap, the pastoral ideal is of an idyllic world bounded by nature, but a nature that is somehow controlled, sedate, and placid. It is not the nature of the high-romantics, sublime in its terrible power, but is a garden, albeit one that often seems to be of divine provenance rather than one that requires work. The Garden of Eden owes as much to a pastoral tradition as do the idylls of the Greek poets or Phillip Sidney. In literary terms, most studies of American pastoral tend to reflect that there is a difference between the ‘wilderness’ of the frontier and the garden of the European pastoral that was its predecessor. But even so, I think there is a difference at work here once we leave the literary context behind.

Part of the reason that I am explicitly invoking right-wing populism here is that pastoral itself has long been since as a conservative genre. The argument about the inherent conservatism of the pastoral form is that it serves as a retreat from the complexities of modern living into something that valorises a simplified form of the values of the past, and as such, is a selective reflection that usually has dubious political ends. This point has been raised by some literary scholars (including Roger Sales, most famously) who suggests that pastoral has at times created a false ideology which in turn seeks to serve the status quo and those who benefit from it.

As Terry Gifford says, ‘when Pastoral loses that sense of itself as carnivalesque […] it becomes dangerously open to exploitation by a culture that might prefer to hide reality in the myth of Arcadia.’ This can manifest itself in several different ways, one of which is the temporal nature of the pastoral discourse. In the literary mode, there are two versions. One of these is a pure retreat into the past. Here, there is some recognition that this past is lost or faces extinction in the face of an irresistible wave of progress.

But there is an alternative, one projecting an image of the pastoral society into the future: by reclaiming values from the past the future might be saved. Such appeals seem to have always had a pull on the American imagination. Much of the rhetoric of the revolution is not so much revolutionary as it is about restoring a corrupted idea of Englishness free from the tyranny of eighteenth-century Britain. Many Southern secessionists in the nineteenth century built their case for an agrarian Confederacy free from the mercantile North around the same pastoral logic.

In more contemporary terms, one of the significant shifts in conservative thought is an area that some scholars do already recognize as pastoral: the Reagan years. In a comparison of the rhetorical style between Reagan and the first President Bush, Matthew Lakin has written of the ‘folksy and pastoral depictions of a prelapsarian America corrupted by the sins of 1960s permissiveness and ‘government overload.’ Reagan’s acceptance speech in 1980 spoke of the need to ‘recapture our destiny,’ and his first address as President to the RNC spoke of ‘renewal,’ and ‘destiny’ through conservative values, ideas that play into the concept of the New Jerusalem on the American continent. As Richard Jensen suggests, ‘He looked to the past with nostalgia … while projecting a future full of peace, justice, and happiness’




And we can see the same idea playing itself out in the current moment. Donald Trump and his surrogates have claimed that he is the air to Reagan’s brand of conservatism, and think, for a moment, about Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. In and of itself, this conservatism is built around a kind of millenarianism in which a degraded America can be restored to former glory by embracing conservative values. And these values are always seen as being the values of the heartland of America, figured as both rural and suburban, rather than the values of the two coasts which are – geographical inaccuracies aside – portrayed as being sites of urban moral decay. The populist argument frames cities as the privileged few who have all the advantages and still sneer at rural and small-town citizens. This is also exacerbated by the fact that state governments are located in cities such as Madison in Wisconsin. The contempt for government might be seen as recreation of pastoral opposition between the simplicity of the values of rural shepherds with the artifice and intrigue of the Royal Court. I think one key thing we’ll have to establish in advancing this idea going forward is just how far the populist ideal heartland community tracks with the pastoral, idyllic community.

To make one final point, another aspect of the idyll is that it cannot of itself contain anything malicious. The whole purpose of an idyll is that it is a paradise. If the society in question is to fall in the narrative, then the seeds of a pastoral society’s destruction must be outside itself. And pastoral literature is often fraught with this kind of threat, whether it is an enemy that is perceived as approaching or whether a wave of technological progress will end the simple, bucolic life of its inhabitants. But this is another area where American populist thought can often intersect with the pastoral because despite being a nation of migrants, there has been a strong nativist strand in American thinking for more than 200 years. Beginning with Federalist fears about the French Revolution spreading into the United States, fears around an ‘other’ undermining the American system of values and destroying their ‘manifest destiny’ have been a factor in American thinking. Through the Know-Nothing Party and Immigration Restriction League of the Nineteenth Century, the American Protective Association, anti-German fears in the two World Wars, various Red Scares and the McCarthyist fear that an external agency had corrupted Americans.

And finally, of course, we have the political positions of the Trump administration, who has run both on a Muslim travel ban and a policy of building a wall on the southern border. There are few better examples of pastoralist rhetoric than Trump’s 2015 speech in which he claimed that “[Mexico] are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and bringing crime, and they’re rapists.” In Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, the American pastoral ‘New Jerusalem’ is threatened by forces outside the idyll.

In conclusion, it seems that there’s a potentially very fruitful link between pastoralism and populism that can be drawn, and I think that the implicit rather than explicit rural setting can sometimes lead to that being overlooked. If we might borrow some terms from Aristotelean rhetoric if we think of it less in terms of its logos and more of its pathos, the emotional sensibility, and the way it makes its appeal, then I think we potentially have a valuable technique to comprehend this populist discourse.




This post is derived from a Conference Paper delivered at Liverpool Hope University in July 2018.


Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University

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