Country music superstar Toby Keith passed away last week at the age of 62, following a long battle with stomach cancer. Keith was best known outside of the country music community for his handful of explicitly patriotic songs and the controversies they occasionally sparked. In the wake of his passing, the general consensus among music critics and mainstream media types has been that Keith was “so much more than [those] controversies,” that despite the “jingoistic” nature of his music, his politics were “complex,” “complicated,” and less “clear-cut [than] you might think.” This is inarguably true. Keith’s politics were complicated. But then, his politics were no more complicated than American politics in general. Indeed, Toby Keith and his politics were very much 21st-century American politics in microcosm, a sad and muddy tale of ideological realignment and partisan breakdown.
As many of his obituaries note, Toby Keith was a Democrat for most of his life and was never a Republican, changing his partisan affiliation to Independent in 2008. He voted for Bill Clinton twice, and while he never said whether he voted for McCain or Obama, he did call Obama “the best Democratic candidate we’ve had since Bill Clinton.” Granted, there were only two other Democratic presidential nominees between Clinton and Obama (Gore and Kerry). Still, that’s fairly high praise from the man best known for wanting to “boot in the a**” of the terrorists involved in 9/11.
Before becoming a country music icon, Keith was as blue-collar as they come. After graduating from high school, he went to work immediately in the oil fields of his home state, Oklahoma, never attending, much less graduating from college. When the oil business went south in the early 1980s, Keith found himself unemployed and made ends meet by playing semi-pro football. Later in life, he would refer to himself as “oil-field trash” or, more famously, “white trash with money.”
A working-class oil man from flyover country who actively supported America’s troops and whose brother is a Baptist preacher, Hillary Clinton would, by contrast, have referred to Keith as “deplorable.” And that, unfortunately, is the point.
Like Ronald Reagan, Toby Keith did not leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left him. The Democratic Party, historically, was the party of labor, the party of the working man. It was the party of farmers and factory workers and, of course, derrick hands from the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas. It was the party of Ma and Pa and especially Tom Joad, the personification of the beleaguered working man.
All of that began to change in the 1960s, however, with the advent of the “New Left.” Between the antiwar movement and the impact of the Frankfurt School/Critical Theory, the left began the slow but remorseless process of abandoning its defense of labor and of economics more generally, choosing instead to focus on culture and controlling the institutions of cultural transmission.
By the start of the new century, the Democrats’ transformation from the party of the blue-collar working man to that of the overeducated white-collar elite was nearly complete—as Toby Keith found out the hard way. After 9/11, Keith wrote his most famous and controversial song, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which expressed the anger and indignation of the American people in the wake of the craven attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 of their fellow countrymen. For his trouble, Keith was called “tactless” and “ignorant” by Natalie Maines, the Bush-hating, left-leaning lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. ABC News planned a special celebration for Independence Day 2002, the first since the attacks, and invited Keith to perform to lead off the festivities with “Courtesy.” That plan was vetoed, however, by the network’s senior news anchor, Peter Jennings, who reportedly objected to the “lyrical content” of Keith’s song.
Ironically, in response to Jennings’ snub, Keith responded with a defense of free speech—not his own, but Jennings’. Keith conceded that it was, essentially, Jennings’s stage and that the newsman was, therefore, entitled to determine the acts who would appear on that stage. “And hey, he has right,” Keith told CNN, “let’s don’t forget he has a right, as an American, to veto me.”
Nevertheless, over the next several months, the mainstream media called Keith a bigot, a jingoist, a redneck, a Bush sycophant, and heaven knows what else. All the while, Keith continued to call himself a Democrat. Eventually, however, he changed his partisan affiliation, acknowledging that the Democratic Party of the early 21st century is not the Democratic Party of his youth. “They’ve lost any sensibility that they had,” Keith said, defending his decision to leave the party. “They’ve allowed all the kooks in.”
In January 2017, Keith again defied the Democratic establishment’s new rules and appeared at the inauguration of President Donald Trump. By 2018, he was doing fundraisers for a Trump-affiliated Super Pac. On January 13, 2021, just a week after the purported “insurrection” and the day on which Trump was impeached for the second time, Keith accepted the National Medal of the Arts from the president.
In sum, then, over the course of the 21st century, Toby Keith saw his Democratic Party abandon the idea of a strong national defense, abandon its support for the poor and working class, abandon its support for armed service members, and abandon its support for free speech—all values it had previously supported and which he continued to support. In other words, Keith, like millions of other Americans, was himself abandoned by the Democratic Party, as it firmly embraced the politics of cultural disruption and anti-realism.
Toby Keith wasn’t just a country music singer. He was also the embodiment of hard-scrabble, working-class Democrats. Or at least he was before hard-scrabble, working-class Democrats no longer existed. In the great ideological realignment of the 21st century, Toby Keith was the perfect case study. Yes, his politics were “complicated,” but only because his party abandoned him, leaving him politically homeless.