FiveThirtyEight’s most current Pennsylvania forecast has Democrat Josh Shapiro beating Republican Doug Mastriano 53.9% to 44.1%, almost 10 points. In a state where races are almost always much closer than that, those numbers are eye-popping. In 2020 Biden won by 1.17 and in 2016 Trump won by 0.72. Voters there seem to see Mastriano, a MAGA state Senator from the most backward part of the state, as even more extreme and over-the-top than Trump. His appeal, wrote Michael Sokolove in an feature for The Atlantic is that his supporters are angry they that can’t be terrible anymore. At least they can’t be without be looked at askance and made to feel inferior. And that ticks them off. They don’t see themselves as inferior, even though by almost any standard of measurement they are exactly that.
At a small gathering of Republicans in a small town in the middle ion the state, Sokolove listen to Mastriano promise that if he wins he’ll “strip tens of thousands of regulations off the books, including any that constrain the energy industry. ‘We’re going to dig and drill like there’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘And we’ll do it cleanly,’ he added, noting that as a former Eagle Scout he knew how to keep things clean— as if all environmental concerns could be addressed by picking up lunch wrappers and soft-drink empties at drilling sites. He accused Democrats of trying to erase cherished symbols of American history. He lambasted the ‘racism’ being taught in public schools— a reference to critical race theory, which has become a big Republican talking point even though CRT is rarely if ever a part of any K–12 curriculum… His appeal is clear. It’s directed at people who do not want to be troubled by anything that would not have been among their concerns a couple of decades ago. The list is long: global warming, George Floyd and police shootings, COVID, gender fluidity. They don’t want to be hassled and they don’t want to be judged.”
A faculty photo from the Army War College in Carlisle, from 2013 or 2014, recently surfaced in which everyone is dressed in civilian clothing or contemporary military garb except for Mastrianowho is wearing a Confederate uniform.
A week before January 6, Mastriano gave the invocation at a Zoom gathering called “Global Prayer for Election Integrity”: “God, I ask you to help us roll in these dark times,” he said. “That we fear not the darkness, that we will seize our Esther and Gideon moments, that we will stand in the gap, and when you say, ‘Who shall I send?’ we will say, ‘Send me.’”
Indeed, Mastriano chartered buses to the insurrection. He has claimed he was far from the action that day, but videos have shown him taking cellphone photos close to the violence.
Last September, Mastriano’s extremism got him kicked out of the Republican caucus in Harrisburg and barred from its internal meetings— no small feat in a body that leans far to the right. He had fought with State Senate Republican leaders whom he accused of “stonewalling” his efforts to investigate the 2020 presidential election and to subpoena voting equipment and information on individual voters. To be clear, his colleagues were also election deniers, but he was too aggressive even for them.
… It may be comforting to think that he is too far outside the mainstream to win, but what exactly is that in Pennsylvania these days? Trump won the state in 2016 and came within a whisper of doing it again four years later. With Trump’s backing, Mastriano won his party’s May primary over a field of more conventional candidates.
Another important race is happening in Pennsylvania this November— the contest for the U.S. Senate between the Democrat John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor, and the Republican Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor. The result could determine the balance of power in the Senate for the next two years.
The governor’s race, however, carries potentially greater and longer-lasting impact. If Mastriano wins, he could combine with a Republican-controlled legislature to rewrite voting laws. The secretary of state in Pennsylvania, who administers elections, is appointed by the governor. By imposing his vision of “election integrity”— or, for that matter, by calling on God to guide him to the rightful winners— Mastriano could ensure that no Democrat wins a Pennsylvania congressional seat for a generation, and that no Democratic presidential candidate captures its electoral votes.
Democrats rooted for Mastriano’s victory in the primary and spent money to strengthen his chances, because they viewed him as the weakest of their potential opponents. Shapiro ran TV spots that called Mastriano “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters” and stated that his victory would be “a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” Ostensibly attack ads, they were designed to help Mastriano by appealing to the Trump-loving base that would vote in the state’s GOP primary.
The party did the same in other races around the country. It’s a cynical and dangerous tactic for many reasons, one of which is that it legitimizes candidates like Mastriano. Even if he loses, Mastriano is likely to pull a couple of million votes. Helping him get a spot on the ballot normalizes the thought that a politician with his views could become governor.
A few hours later, The Atlantic published a related essay by David Graham, The United States Of Confederate America. “[T]hough the Civil War was a battle between two regions of the country,” he wrote, “sympathy for the Confederacy is no longer confined to states that seceded and border states. Support for Confederate symbols and monuments now exists across the country, following lines of race, religion, and education rather than geography. [Sure,] Southerners are more likely to report Confederate monuments or displays of the flag in their community; Black southerners report especially acute awareness of such monuments. White Americans are more likely than Black Americans to see Confederate symbols as expressions of southern heritage rather than racism… [But] nearly identical portions of southerners and Americans elsewhere (22 percent versus 25 percent) back reform, and nearly identical portions oppose it (17 percent versus 20 percent). The remainder are split between leaning one way or another, again closely mirrored. In other words, non-southerners feel the same way about Confederate monuments that southerners do.”
This would surely come as a surprise to the men who professed fidelity to state and region above national identity when they sided with the Confederacy in 1861. But it’s the product of a dynamic in which white, rural Americans around the country have adopted the culture of white, rural southerners. This is only one piece of the region’s heritage, a rich, cosmopolitan, and multiracial mix that has shaped the entire country’s music, food, and culture, though it is also the one that has become the go-to stereotype of the region’s identity.
The journalist Will Wilkinson, who is from Iowa, wrote about this in his Substack newsletter last summer, recalling how during his childhood, driving from Minnesota to Missouri would produce a spectrum of cultural signifiers and regional drawls. No more: “Everywhere it’s the same cloying pop country, the same aggressively oversized Ford F-150s, the same tumbledown Wal-Marts and Dollar Generals, the same eagle-heavy fashion, the same confused, aggrieved air of relentless material decline. Even the accents are more and more the same, trending toward a generalized Larry the Cable Guy twang.”
You don’t have to agree with Wilkinson’s verdict on contemporary Nashville music to accept the overall picture he paints. He pins the blame for this on cable, but the culprit isn’t just news channels but also sports. There’s a reason that the SEC football guru Paul Finebaum is now a national television personality on ESPN.
One product of this southernification is that you can now find rebel flags hanging in states like Michigan (which lost 13,000 sons in service of the Union cause), Ohio (31,000), Wisconsin (11,000), and Pennsylvania (27,000). Other, less malign signs of the same sort of cultural homogeneity include the ease of finding a country-music station on the FM dial pretty much anywhere in America, or the popularity of NASCAR around the country (the racing league claims that its fans are roughly proportional to the population of the U.S. by region, and four of its top 10 markets are in the upper Midwest). In 2020, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.
Affinity for the Confederacy inside northern states isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. The post–Civil War lost-cause ideology, along with things like misbegotten paeans to the nobility of Robert E. Lee, took root far outside the South, a testament to the power of intellectual ideas to succeed where muskets and rifles could not. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s inventory of Confederate memorials and monuments includes a surprising number outside the South. A plaque celebrating Lee in Brooklyn (yes, that one with the Dodgers and the tree growing and the hipsters) was removed only in 2017; in August, a Pentagon commission reported on KKK imagery at West Point, the military academy.
Southernization coincides with a geographic sorting in the United States. Not long ago, there were Democrats in both rural and urban areas and in every region of the country; the same was true of Republicans. But now Democrats are largely extinct as a political force in rural areas throughout the country, and few and far between in statewide offices across the South. Republicans, meanwhile, are wholly marginalized in almost every large city and have vanished from the Northeast. The GOP is a mostly white party; overwhelming portions of Black voters cast ballots for Democrats. The result is that the backbone of the Republican Party is a group of Americans who are white, rural, and conservative; many have lower educational attainment than Democrats (though not necessarily lower income), and they typically identify as evangelical Christian.
The heydays for erecting Confederate monuments came at times of white backlash to Black demands for rights, both in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then again during the civil-rights movement. The current support for Confederate monuments is another instance of white backlash to social change. As the political scientist Ashley Jardina has noted, the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, helped birth a wave of what she calls “white identity politics.” Trump, in turn, harnessed that wave to sweep himself into office. [Sweep? Hardly; Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million and only even got that far with help from the Kremlin. “Stole” might be a better word than “sweep.”]
Jardina finds that white identity politics doesn’t necessarily require racial animus, but it’s also clear that Trump and many of his followers do harbor racial animus.
…This nationalization doesn’t apply just to rural Americans; urban Americans are also more similar to their urban peers halfway across the country than to those who live only a few miles out of town. I’ve written before on the tensions between conservative state governments and progressive local populations in cities across the South. Where regional gradations once existed within the parties, white voters in southern urban centers are more likely to hold political views that parallel those of white urban voters elsewhere in the country. In a state like North Carolina, where roughly half of adults were born out of state, white urbanites aren’t just more like their northern counterparts; there’s a good chance they moved from there. Despite this homogenization across rural and urban areas, stark differences in politics and quality of life manifest across blue and red states depending on which population dominates, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein wrote this summer.
One product of the divide among white voters is a big split about views of the Confederacy between the parties. Only 1 percent of white Republicans want Confederate monuments removed, but 16 percent of white Democrats do—nearly identical to the 17 percent of Democrats overall who support removal, though still less than the 28 percent of Black Democrats who do. In North Carolina, where many urban centers have seen Confederate monuments torn down, demands for change have been powered in part by a coalition of Black from-heres and white come-heres.
Where fights over monuments have broken out, their defenders have often fallen back on the old argument that the statues and plaques and flags are symbols not of racist hate but of heritage and regional pride. This argument has always had its flaws. The heritage is not that of Black southerners, and you seldom hear them defending the Confederate flag. (Per the PRRI-EPU survey, just 16 percent of Black Americans see the flag as a sign of pride, not racism, versus half of Americans overall.) But the heritage argument is even harder to credit when support for Confederate symbols is as strong in states that fought to preserve the union. The South is everywhere now, and so are its worst political pathologies.