Can Bar-Stool Democracy Save America?

Originally published in The New York Times, April 27, 2019

Last week I saw my cardiologist. He told me I drink too much.

This wasn’t a shock. I live on Martha’s Vineyard, by the wine-dark sea, where drink animates the bleak winter months — and lays down a base for the heroic imbibing of the summer social season.

Also, I’m a writer, a trade unrenowned for temperance. William Styron, my former island neighbor, spoke of drinking “abundantly, almost mercilessly” as a “magical conduit” to his literary imagination.

Styron, however, was a novelist. I write nonfiction, on sober subjects like the Civil War and the abolitionist John Brown, a teetotaler. Nonetheless, I do feel the need to frequent bars. Frequently.

My latest book follows Frederick Law Olmsted, who became a landscape architect after an unlikely apprenticeship: touring the 1850s South as an undercover correspondent for this newspaper, which had just opened shop with a pledge “to be temperate and measured” in its coverage. My journey in Olmsted’s wake opens in a seedy tavern — O.K., two taverns — and a lot of beer flows before I drain the last, at a casino bar in Texas. My travels with Fred could reasonably be cast as a pub crawl across the old Confederacy.

“If you want to know about a culture,” Ernest Hemingway supposedly said, “spend a night in its bars.” Olmsted believed this, too. As a Connecticut Yankee in the slave states, he often felt stonewalled by “planters & gentlemen” he interviewed. Not so the plain folk he met at rough-hewed watering holes across the South.

“My best finds,” he wrote, “were coarse men with whom I could take a glass of toddy in the barroom,” including “third-rate tavern keepers” and itinerant peddlers. Also, “Innkeepers’ wives are not to be neglected.”

I didn’t consciously follow this bar stool guidance while trailing Olmsted from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. To get my bearings, I often stopped first at a chamber of commerce or small-town newspaper office. But my best sources were cultivated after hours, at dive bars and pool halls like those I visited upon arriving in West Virginia on Halloween night a few years ago.

“Don’t see many new faces around here,” a mechanic said, buying me beer before sharing tales of the state’s drug epidemic and mobile labs exploding in flames in midday traffic. A woman explained why I hadn’t seen any trick-or-treaters on the streets. “Parents didn’t want their kids out on a Friday,” she said, with all the “meth-heads partying it up.”

Material like this can be hard to come by at the chamber of commerce.

One of my frankest exchanges about race occurred at a black-owned bookie parlor and bar in Mississippi, where the proprietor said of his white neighbors, “we wave, make nice, and that’s it. We still don’t know each other.” He also felt a black president had failed to improve the lives of African-Americans in the Delta.

“Moneywise,” he said, “we’re still at the bottom.”

At another back-room establishment, the only bar in an East Texas county with 87 churches, the white bartender told of her troubled marriage to a member of the Aryan Brotherhood — then giggled over puppy pictures with the bar’s black manager. Others regaled me with tales of the racial and religious intolerance that lurked beneath the county’s genial surface. “It’s somewhere between Mayberry and ‘Deliverance,’” the bartender said.

In a less Gothic vein, bars often introduced me to the patois and subcultures of a region that was never one South. At a tavern by the railroad tracks in Donaldsonville, La., I was met by drinkers who seemed to speak a foreign tongue, except for the barkeep, who gruffly demanded to know if I was “a tourist or Yankee,” with an expletive for emphasis. When I answered “both,” he piled plates with spicy shrimp, chicken and boudin sausage — on the house, along with the beer — while patrons jovially tutored me on Cajun lingo and customs.

Olmsted had many such encounters, in an era when “ardent spirits” and “grog-shops” were so ubiquitous that even the landscape seemed tipsy to him. “The whole concern,” he wrote of a Virginia shanty, lurched to one side, “as if too much whiskey had been drank in it.”

Alcohol also lubricated political talk and campaigns for office. This remained true well into the 20th century, North and South, with ward heelers courting and sometimes buying drinkers’ votes. Not so long ago, presidential candidates flocked to working men’s bars, to be photographed downing a beer with “Joe Six Pack” — a name that connoted manual labor rather than gym-hardened abs.

“If you want to know about a culture,” Ernest Hemingway supposedly said, “spend a night in its bars.”

Such optics are rarer now, for reasons that include abstemiousness, dying industries and a bar culture not always welcoming to women and minorities. Elizabeth Warren struck a blue-collar note by cracking a beer upon announcing her presidential bid. But she did so in her kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., for an Instagram audience.

This migration from social to virtual drinking spaces may be good for our livers, but not for our body politic. At a campaign office in Wheeling, W.Va., I met a veteran union leader who recalled the days when “folks watched network news and talked politics at the beer joint.” Now, he said, “everyone’s in the car or at home, tuning in their favorite rants. We’re just shouting past each other.”

Olmsted lamented this disconnect in his own polarized era, as Americans retreated into hostile camps that denounced and demonized each other. In going south, he sought “reliable understanding of the sentiments and hopes and fears” of Americans on the other side of the nation’s widening divide. He also hoped his factual, firsthand dispatches would “promote the mutual acquaintance of the North and South,” enabling reasoned dialogue rather than invective.

 This literary statesmanship failed. Olmsted ultimately despaired of finding common ground with white Southerners he judged implacable on slavery. Instead, he decided the North should enlarge the freedom of its own citizens, by creating public parks and other spaces that would uplift and “assimilate” people of all classes and backgrounds. In designing Central Park with Calvert Vaux, Olmsted was in large part a social engineer, rebuking the slave South with a democratic space that The Atlantic Monthly hailed on the eve of the Civil War as “the most striking evidence of the sovereignty of the people yet afforded in the history of free institutions.”

Our current national fracture isn’t over slavery and freedom, or so clearly defined by region. But I came away from my travels feeling that there’s still great value in seeking, as Olmsted did, to cross geographic and ideological divides and engage with fellow Americans as individuals rather than as stereotypes.

Wandering into red-state Southern bars with a reporter’s notebook, to quiz drinkers about race or guns or immigration, isn’t always a walk in an Olmsted-designed park. I’ve been assailed as a “libtard” and an agent of the “lying media,” and once had to flee a biker bar in Tennessee when a leather-clad giant ate my notes and credibly threatened to beat me to a pulp.

But I can count such hostile receptions on one hand. In almost every other instance, I’ve been met affably, by drinkers open about their views and curious to know mine, as a visiting writer from “Taxachusetts.” Often I hear opinions I don’t expect, like self-described right-wingers dissenting from Trumpian orthodoxy on health care or a border wall. More often, we disagree across the board, vigorously. In two years of travel on Olmsted’s trail, I doubt I changed anyone’s mind, nor did they sway me from my political stance.

But I like to think we did our modest bit toward “the mutual acquaintance” of opposed Americans and lowered the temperature on the overheated national debate over our differences. This doesn’t mean accommodating or papering over hateful policies and speech. Like Olmsted, I sometimes felt we’ve reached an impasse that can’t be civilly bridged and despaired over what he called “the drift of things” in America. But shouting through bullhorns from our respective bunkers isn’t an answer. It only deepens hostility and hardens allegiance to modern-day “fire-eaters” who spout lies and divisive rhetoric.

Now that I’m back home in Massachusetts, I listen differently when I hear comments that cast blue-collar conservatives as some sort of alien, monolithic species. I conjure instead the three-dimensional individuals I drank and debated with in factory towns, Gulf Coast oil fields and distressed rural crossroads.

And I hope they occasionally remember me. Not as a Fox-induced boogeyman on the bar TV, one of those “coastal elites” dripping with contempt and condescension toward Middle America. But rather, as that guy from “up north” who appeared on the next bar stool one Friday after work, asked about their job and life and hopes for the future, and thought what they said was important enough to write down.

Tony Horwitz (@TonyHorwitz) is the author of “Confederates in the Attic,” “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War” and  “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide,” from which this essay is adapted.

 A version of this article appears in print on April 28, 2019, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Can Bar-Stool Democracy Save America?

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *