Merle Haggard has always had his guitar hardwired to the gutbucket pulse of Middle America. Back in the Vietnam era, he seemed the essence of a historic political migration: white males fleeing the feminized, antiwar, politically correct Democratic Party. He was your basic Reagan Democrat, fully loaded with a resonant, iron-edged voice and the ability to write razor lyrics that stuck in the mind and the craw. His brilliant anthemOkie from Muskogeebecame a rallying cry for those who were disgusted by the "hippies out in San Francisco" smoking marijuana and burning draft cards. His next patriotic volley had this chorus: "When they're runnin' down my country, man, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me." And so when I heard that Haggard had written a song endorsing Hillary Clinton for President, which you can hear him sing on TIME.com, I was more than curious about the motivation for his apparent left turn. And Merle let me know that he was more than happy to talk politics, given that he has a new album, The Bluegrass Sessions, which seems a political and musical return to his family's Okie and New Deal Democratic roots.
He picked me up at the Holiday Inn in Redding, Calif., a wizened guy in a black T shirt and jeans driving a politically incorrect white Hummer. "Believe it or not, this is a pretty nice little town," he said as we headed out to his ranch, past a bleak, unending landscape of big-box stores that brought to mind a recent Haggard lyric: "Everything Wal-Mart all the time, no more mom and pop five and dimes... What happened, where did America go?" A vague populist annoyance with big stores and big shots is one of the themes that have led Haggard to "change labels," as he told me with a laugh. "The folks don't have a say-so anymore. They're being force-fedmusic, yeah, but every other darn thing too. I supported George W. I'm not exactly a liberal. But I know how that Texas thing works, who those oil folks are and what they wanted in Iraq... I'm a born-again Christian too, but the longer I live, the more afraid I get of some of these religious groups that have so much influence on the Republicans and want to tell us how to live our lives."
But Haggard's greatest complaint is a matter of prideand pride, in his hardscrabble past and his country, has always been his favorite song. "The thing that gets under my skin most about George W. is his intention to install fear in people," he said, after walking me down a hallway lined with gold and platinum records. "This is America. We're proud. We're not afraid of a bunch of terrorists. But this government is all about terror alerts and scaring us at airports. We're changing the Constitution out of fear. We spend all our time looking up each other's dresses. Fear's the only issue the Republican Party has. Vote for them, or the terrorists will win. That's not what Reagan was about. I hate to think about our soldiers over in Iraq fighting for a country that's slipping away."
So, the question: Is Merle Haggard indicative of a larger movement among his white male country brethren? This is a key to the next election, the subject of a new book by David Paul Kuhn, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. Kuhn accurately links the Republican dominance of the past 40 years to the loss of the Haggard vote. The percentage of white males identifying themselves as Democrats has declined from 47% in 1952 to about 25% in 2004. Much of that decline was an unavoidable consequence of two honorable positions the party took in the 1960s: in favor of civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. But civil rights slid into special preferences (for everyone, it seemed, but white men), and Vietnam slouched, all too often, into reflexive pacifism and a distrust of the military. Is it possible now, with the Republicans diving into foolish militarism and the indulgence of Thou-shalt-not killjoys, that Reagan Democrats might be tempted to come home?
They will have to be wooed, of course. Kuhn wisely suggests a ploy similar to John Kennedy's in 1960: Make the argument that we're weaker because of the Republicans.
But there is also a matter of style, of political correctness. Haggard sensed a certain reluctance among the Hillarians to embrace his endorsementin part, I imagine, because he's not shy about saying that one of the biggest things Hillary has going for her is Bill, who ranks up with Reagan in the Haggard pantheon and not only because the former President used to have a pickup truck with Astroturf in the back. "He cared about this country, about our problems," Haggard said, with a twinkle. "And I figure that whatever she doesn't know, he does."