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January 01, 2006


Chris Brooke

Which came first, though, the rejection of Haggard by "the left", or the embrace of "Okie" by Nixon's "silent majority"?

I think I've read that when Johnny Cash went to perform at the Nixon White House, Nixon's aides wanted him to play "Okie...", creating a dilemma for Cash, who didn't want to play that song, but didn't want to be rude to the President, either. And Johnny Cash wasn't exactly the kind of leftist who thought that white working class guys weren't underdogs, too.

Ah, yes, the relevant snippet from Cash's autobiog is here:



Sorry, Chris, but you've taken false premises and built a bad argument on them. There's no contradiction between Haggard's populist sympathies with the hard-done-by working man and his Republicanism; what you're describing isn't radicalism in any form, it's simple populism. In the USA, conservative populism occupies a lot of cultural space which would be occupied by the Left over here; this phenomenon has nothing to do with Bono, as it's at least a century old (perhaps as old as the USA itself). All that's changed recently is that conservative populism has been actively - and cynically - used to mobilise against the Left, portrayed as effete over-privileged college kids. See the Gretchen Wilson song quoted by Ellis Sharp at

I’m for the low man on the totem pole
And I’m for the underdog God bless his soul
And I’m for the guys still pulling third shift
And the single mom raisin’ her kids
I’m for the preachers who stay on their knees
And I’m for the sinner who finally believes
And I’m for the farmer with dirt on his hands
And the soldiers who fight for this land

The song's a duet with Merle Haggard, oddly enough. The chorus goes like this:

And I’m for the Bible and I’m for the flag
And I’m for the working man, me and ol’ Hag
I’m just one of many
Who can’t get no respect
Politically uncorrect

(Inchoate popular resistance to managerialism? Up to a point.)


My, this certainly brings back the old days. For those too young to remember, it useful to recall that working class males had felt used & abused for quite some time before Nixon--Joe McCarthy got a good deal of working class support, and what kind of workers' party would nominate a pantywaist like Adlai Stevenson, anyway? The big issue, and the one easiest to misunderstand, was "race." Before you object, you bet there was a lot of working class racism -- still is--but these guys felt that the left was determined to integrate schools, housing, etc., on their backs and at their expense. Tne guy who understood this stuff best was and is Kevin Phillips--and recall that he has made himself a high-visibility Bush hater. Speaking of being used and abused...

Ric Locke

All three commenters, above, make good points, but there's another component.

It has been clear to everyone that the United States has not been an imperialist power at least since WWII, and arguably since 1919. But because the dogma of the Left indisputably declares that capitalists must of necessity be imperialist, some plausible workaround had to be discovered, and the one chosen was "cultural imperialism".

Islington is more like Arlington than it is like Bandar Abbas; many other sets could be described. The point is that a prosperous, relatively free society will in many respects look like every other prosperous, relatively free society, and on the record so far that means suburbia -- individual housing, cars, consumerism. The doctrine of cultural imperialism declares that all those things are the evil result of the United States forcing its way of doing things on the rest of the world.

So far, so good -- but it places the Left in the position of deprecating or opposing wealth and freedom, and supporting and promoting the oligarchs and elites whose positions are challenged by the rise of a wealthy, relatively free society.

In the U.S., at least, the Left has as a result lost the allegiance of that part of Labor which has not taken on the position of an oligarchy requiring payment and admission to the club in order to have a job. For anyone else who has, or even considers credible, hope for prosperity and relative freedom the Left is an enemy. Since Merle Haggard is sympathetic to those who have or wish to have hope for such conditions, Merle Haggard is an antagonist of the Left.



Phil - I take your point about the power of conservative populism. But does Haggard really fit into this? There's nothing populist about sympathizing with convicts. And Chris Willman quotes Steve Earle (admittedly biased) as claiming that Haggard is a "yellow dog Democrat".
And this only raises the question: why has the right been able to mobilize populism? Could it be because the left took the turns I described?


Ric, it is really quite hard to understand anything that has happened in Latin America and much of what has happened in Southeast Asia since the war if we start with your premis that the USA has only had "cultural" influence in those parts of the world.


Also, Chris' thesis here appears to be that the working class has disgusting views on the subject of gays, immigrants and women and stupid views on the subject of the effects of US foreign policy and "the left" ought to have pretended that these views weren't disgusting or stupid. I don't agree with any of these three statements.

You could put it another way and point out that "the left" has in fact won the culture wars on racism, sexism and homophobia which is not a bad showing for thirty years' work and that shedding the ballast of people like Merle Haggard was probably a good idea.

btw, the concept of "managerialism" as used on this blog is in very grave danger of turning into the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. If Chris Martin and Bono (both of whom could not possibly sell as many records as they do without selling at least a few to the working class) are now to be counted as "managerialists" then I am buggered if I can think of anyone who isn't.

Ric Locke

drsquared, I couldn't agree more, but the influence the U.S. has had and sought is not derived from imperialist goals. This is not a claim of any sort of virtue, BTW. We aren't imperialists because there isn't any money in it.

The later, more refined notion of "hegemonism" might have gained more traction had not the Left incorporated the Greens with such glad enthusiasm. Greens are specifically and directly anti-prosperity, and since people, left to themselves, will violate Green precepts with a will, are naturally pro-tyranny as well.

It still leaves the Left as clearly opposed to prosperity and even relative freedom.



Naturally pro-tyranny, eh? When did you quit the Central Committee's Department of Ideological Purification?


dsquared - I fear you misinterpret me on two counts. I'm not saying that the white working class has "disgusting views" at all. If anything, I'm accusing some middle-class pseudo-leftists of making this attribution.
And I 'm not attributing managerialism to Chris Martin or Bono. I mention these only because they are seen as "politically correct" popstars, whereas Haggard is not - a contrast you'd never notice from the lyrics of their songs. The managerialists I had in mind were Kerry and Gore.


[I mention these only because they are seen as "politically correct" popstars, whereas Haggard is not - a contrast you'd never notice from the lyrics of their songs]

You in fact would, because Bono and Chris Martin don't make derogatory references to men with long hair suggesting that they are effeminate or unmanly, or that anyone who disagrees with a war fought by the USA ought to leave the country.

Looking at the actual lyrics of those two songs, the first has ...

I read about some squirrely guy,
Who claims, he just don't believe in fightin'.
An' I wonder just how long,
The rest of us can count on bein' free.
They love our milk an' honey,
But they preach about some other way of livin'.

and the second gives us ...

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen.
Football's still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still respect the college dean

The context for the first is the Vietnam War; the second could be all manner of things, but quite likely racial integration of campuses and/or the sexual revolution. Even the lyrics of the songs about "the downtrodden" certainly don't recognise any political dimension to the unfortunateness of poverty; you'll look a long way in Merle Haggard for anything approaching Woody Guthrie's suggestions that there might be some blame to assign or some case for forcible redistribution of wealth.

In any case, I've been to Muskogee and there are plenty of white working class men there (and in Caernarfon too) who have made the decision that keeping the blacks and the fags down is more important to them than economic equality. If the middle class left reacted to this by saying "well bollocks to you then", then they made the right decision and should not be called "pseudo" for having done so. Gore and Kerry (among others) are on the right side of history on this one.

Ric Locke

I see the Recitation of the Dogma has begun, accompanied by the obligatory self-congratulations for being a Superior Form of Life. In this way one insulates onesself from un(un)Godly influences.

I'll leave you to it. Happy new year!



[There's nothing populist about sympathizing with convicts.]

"The old town looks the same
As I step down from the train..."

It's not a move that comes naturally to British populism, granted, but the US has a much stronger tradition of working-class populism - and a much larger prison population.

[Chris Willman quotes Steve Earle (admittedly biased) as claiming that Haggard is a "yellow dog Democrat".]

He's made a campaign contribution to a Republican candidate & is quoted as saying Reagan was the greatest modern POTUS, so I don't think 'yellow dog' quite sticks.

More to the point, Dem:Rep maps very badly onto Left:Right. From Reconstruction to Nixon, the Democrats were a party of the Right (in British terms) in all respects except their alignment with organised (white) labour - and, from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans had a serious claim to be a party of the Left (albeit the pro-finance, anti-union Left). To be a yellow-dog Democrat doesn't necessarily have anything to do with being on the Left.

Admittedly, the Dem/Rep split does correspond fairly consistently to differing degrees of hostility to organised labour. But organised labour in the US doesn't have much to do with the Left or with class politics; this is partly because the Left was defeated in the US some time before anyone reading this was born.

[And this only raises the question: why has the right been able to mobilize populism? Could it be because the left took the turns I described?]

The weakness of the Left in the US has more to do with Pinkerton's than with Bono/Michael Moore/Jane Fonda/your hate-figure here.

Angry Economist

I always thought Merle Haggard's Okie from Muskogee was to poke a lot of fun at hippies, college students, and California trends than a populist slogan for supremacist working class folks.

Mind you, there's many great political songs in the C&W genre. I might not agree with all the messages, but at least its interesting, rather than owt by U2 or Coldplay, which is by comparison as deep and meaningful as half an inch of fluff.

Wasn't Merle enthused into becoming a C&W singer by, as an inmate, watching Johnny Cash perform at a prison?


Why do you assume that Haggard's politics have stayed constant? He himself has said on occasion "Okie" was a stupid reactionary song he frequently wishes he hadn't written -- and Neil Young is a repentant Reaganite. Merle's gotten more radical over the past while. That may change -- he's not a political philosopher, nor does consistency seem particularly important to him.

That, and the fact that this sentence -- "The left forgot what Haggard and George Orwell recognized – that one could regard one’s country as like one’s family, except with the wrong people in charge." -- is most likely plagiarized from David Brooks, suggests that you're not too plugged into the left over here. It's the Orwell that's the tip off. Not that I don't like Thomas Frank.

Chris Bertram

Haggard discusses his politics a bit in this Onion AV club interview:


He certainly hasn't been a Republican recently!

On Okie from Mukogee:

"I must have been an idiot. It's documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time, and I mirror that. I always have. Staying in touch with the working class."

and on the first GWB election:

"I wasn't happy with the count myself. I thought it was pretty damn obvious that we had a situation there where it made no difference what the American public thought. They intended to be in office, and they are in office. That's the bottom line, and we've been manipulated. I feel really violated as a citizen."

Chris Bertram


you'll look a long way in Merle Haggard for anything approaching Woody Guthrie's suggestions that there might be some blame to assign or some case for forcible redistribution of wealth.

Well "Big City" doesn't say so explicitly, I guess but:

I've been working every day since I was twenty
I ain't got a thing to show for anything I've done
Some folks never work and they've got plenty
I think it's time guys like me had some fun.


The American left condemns white blue-collar Americans as racist and uneducated, and then cannot figure out why blue collar workers do not flock to vote for John Kerry.

Also, anyone with any conservative, traditional religious views is vilified by the left, which is overwhelmingly pro-abortion.

Reminds me of one of my college professors, he railed against stereotypes and then proceeded to stereotype anyone who didn't agree with his leftist views.

Haggard was an inmate, and was influenced by Johnny Cash, but I'm not certain if he actually saw the famous concert.

Being a son of Dustbowl Okies, I can empathize with Haggard. Most people have no idea what real poverty is about.


As is pretty obvious, Haggards Okie from Muskogee was heavily influenced by the line Pasolini was taking at the same time. You'll remember that Pasolini expressed sympathy for the working class cops battling the children of privilege. Perhaps it isn't as widely known that Haggard and "Pas", as he called him, were penpals. Apparently the line, "we all watch Theorema at the Bijou" was excised from Okie from Muskogee at the last minute.

Michael Blowhard

Heavens, y'all are taking the supposed political views of an entertainer mighty seriously. Small hunch: he's an entertainer! And he likes his audience, and he likes it when his audience likes him. And, whatever his views of "Okie From Muskogee" are now, I'm pretty sure I've read interviews with him where he clamed that the song was intended a joke -- as a satire of the guy doing the singing, in the way that Randy Newman is often satirizing the "narrator" of his songs.

Oops! You mean Merle has changed his story since? Wow, he'd certainly be the very first entertainer to do such a thing.

I write as a very big fan of Merle Haggard, btw ...

Christina Bowling

As a die hard country music fan, I always have love the Hag but I saw his show last night at Southern Junction in Rockwall Texas and I was sadly disappointed in the man and how he treated his fans. He was also one hour late getting on stage and then only played for an hour. After waiting for over 2 hours for him to get on stage. He did put on a good show for the most part. But, my mother and other old fans waited in the rain and wind to get an autograph ( which they were told to wait by his bus by his people) for over an hour to only leave with no autograph and sadly disappointed. People like my mom and the others is what made the man as famous as he his. My mom has followed his career from the beginning. I gained my love of his music by listening to him through childhood to now I am thirty five. Also, trying to take pictures was an ordeal because the people were profiled by security. If you weren't young and tight assed and big breasted you were told to leave away from the stage. My mom isn't a groupie just a die hard fan because she has been happily married for 37 years to the same man( my dad). All she wanted was his atograph, among the other 10 or so waiting as told only to walk away from the experienced jaded by Merle . It's sad that is certain. No air where he lives I guess. The crowd treated him with a huge Texas welcome only to be treated like dirt. Screw you Merle.

Brenda Chance

I went to see Merle Haggard last night and was very sad and very angry at the way the show went. First he showed up over an hour late, and only stayed on stage for about one hour. I have wanted to see one of his shows for over 30 years, as I could not spend the money on a show, when we had to kids, and a United States Marine, which in the 70's did not make the money to spare. I am very proud of my husband as he stayed to serve our country for 20 years, and has retired from the Marines and working somewhere else for almost 17 years. And he took me I was so happy and could hardly wait to see Merle in person. WE ALL GAVE HIM A BIG TEXAS welome and then he said that he had a few drinks and could not rember the words to some of the songs, which turned out to be most of them. And then after the show we waited for over an hour in the rain sign our things we bought at the show, only for the bus to leave us standing there, and have the bus shower us with dirt and wind on top of the rain. There was about 10 or 15 people waiting by the bus, because of his people telling us he would be out to sign our things. Well I do not know about the rest of them, but as for me I would never pay a penney to see the man again, and if I ever see him I would walk the other way, because I have lost all rescept for him. I am sorry for Merle as he was in such a hurry to leave that he left his fans waiting for him, when he did not plan to come out to meet his fans, and I felt let down, as I took my daughter to see him for her birthday, only she cried, and so did I. Maybe he was to good to talk to a small crowd of people in a small town.


P.S. I have seen a few singings at the same place as last night, and I would be happy to go back to see them again, as they cared about their fans and sign the things we bought., plus talk to us.

A fan

A correction... Johnny Cash declined to sing "Okie..." at the White House simply because he couldn't remember the lyrics, ref. his autobiography. Like Cash would deny to sing any of his great friend Hag's songs! He, of all, knew the twisted satire in that song.


Oh he's conservative, all right. And so is the rest of the country.




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