In the past two months, I have received more than a few emails, blog comments and phone calls asking why I persisted in covering Harold Ford’s almost-run for Senate in New York on Post Politics. Admittedly, the postings were frequent and, in retrospect, could have been scaled back. But I’d like to address the criticism and try to extract something useful from Ford’s flirtation.
Ford is a Tennessee political name, part of a dynasty. Junior came within three points of becoming the first African-American senator elected in the South since Reconstruction. By running in New York, he was renouncing his political home and pedigree — explicitly. He was adopting a new persona and politics, and he was attempting to run for office in a state he had not ever claimed as home during the very same cycle he was considered a possible candidate for governor right here in Tennnessee. Every aspect of that journey is interesting.
Ford may have gone on television and declared on Hardball, “I am a New Yorker.” He may have changed his voter registration and promised to start paying state taxes in New York, but he still made his bones in Tennessee politics. He claimed this state as home for the first 39 years of his life.
Ford’s attempt to become a New York politician was as much about Tennessee as it was about New York. Every move he made, every statement he parsed, every position he ran away from spoke volumes about not just him, but also about his relationship to this state.
What did it say? For starters, it said the obvious. Tennessee is a far more culturally conservative state than New York. The most important thing to take from the Ford journey from Tennessean to New Yorker, however, is not just the difference in culture between New York and Tennessee, but the difference in culture between the elite class and the rest of the us.
People were constantly trying, during this ill-fated exploration, to determine which Harold Ford was the real one. Was it the confederate-flag-respecting, camouflage-wearing populist conservative from Tennessee or the pragmatic progressive on display in New York?
The truth is that Ford is the same person he always was. Ford was neither New York nor Tennessee. Harold Ford Jr. was a child of a congressman. He went to an elite private school with children of ambassadors, lobbyists and executives. He wasn’t bred to be a Tennessean. He was bred to lead Tennesseans.
Not many people like to talk about it, but there is a class division in America. There are, in fact, two Americas, as the now-disgraced John Edwards put it. But we make a mistake when we think of the difference as purely economical. A certain amount of wealth and income are necessary to be a member of the “elite” class, but money is in many senses incidental to membership.
The two classes in America aren’t divided by money or race; they are divided by place. One America values place, the other doesn’t. America’s overclass is a deracinated nomadic tribe that, if you look closely, more and more Americans are starting to mirror.
The America that Harold Ford Jr. is a part of is about economics. It is about the cheapest, the best and the fastest. It’s about getting the best deal. It is not the location that matters. There is no bond with the patch of ground on which they were raised or on which their ancestors lived. Home for the elite is where the best job, the best college, the best parties, best women or whatever that current “best” that is being sought is. The actual place they find themselves is often incidental and disposable.
The other America is full of people who feel strongly attached to their city, their neighborhood or their state. They are placists. They don’t look for jobs in cool cities; they look for jobs in their city. They view outsiders not with hostility, but with a good, healthy suspicion. They put down strong roots and nurture them, and encourage their children and others to do the same. This is the America that values community, sustainability and, yes, tradition. This America is a shrinking America.
When we look at Harold Ford, we might see a carpetbagger — but we should also see our future. Modern America is a mobile America, and we have started to embrace the nomadic lifestyle of our leaders. Regionalism and parochialism are being replaced by universalism. Things that make each neighborhood, state and region different are slowly eroding.
Yes, Harold Ford betrayed both “his state” and his party by shedding his cultural conservatism and economic populism for that of a socially progressive capitalist, but he did not betray his class. He did what we are all implicitly encouraged to do: Search out “the best” and make it your home.
I prefer those who embrace their home and make it the best.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com's political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net