Sunday, November 21, 2004
Pop Goes The Populism
David Niewert has written a very important post about Democrats and rural America that is worth reading and thinking about as we work out how we need to go forward. Ezra homes in on the point that young Democrats tend to leave rural America because there aren't many opportunities for those who are interested in progressive politics because the national party is concentrated in the urban areas. This is an important point and one that I hope party activists and organizers are thinking long and hard about. It isn't just the lack of direct political opportunity it's the lack of local opinion leaders in the media as well. Everybody listens better to their neighbors than to strangers. They have the better hand.
But, I think that Niewert has hit upon the essence of the problem when he says:
People listen to their radios a lot in rural America. Maybe it has something to do with the silence of the vast landscapes where many of them live; radios break that silence, and provide the succor of human voices.
If you drive through these landscapes, getting radio reception can sometimes be iffy at best, especially in the rural West. Often the best you can find on the dial are only one or two stations.
And the chances are that what you'll hear, at nearly any hour, in nearly any locale, is Rush Limbaugh. Or Michael Savage. Or maybe some Sean Hannity. Or maybe some more Limbaugh. Or, if you're really desperate, you can catch one of the many local mini-Limbaughs who populate what remains of the rural dial. In between, of course, there will be a country music station or two.
That's what people in rural areas have been listening to for the past 10 years and more. And nothing has been countering it.
It has to be understood that rural America is hurting, and has been for a couple of decades now. Visit any rural community now and it's palpable: The schools are run down, the roads are falling apart, the former downtowns have been gutted by the destruction of the local economies and their displacement by the new Wal-Mart economy.
People living in rural areas increasingly feel that they have become mere colonies of urban society, treated dismissively and ignored at best, the victims of an evil plot by wealthy liberal elites at worst.
Liberals, largely due to their increasing urban-centric approach to politics, have mostly ignored the problem. And conservatives have been busy exploiting it.
It's important to understand that they have been doing so not by offering any actual solutions. Indeed, Republican "solutions" like the 1995 "Freedom to Farm Act" have actually turned out to be real disasters for the nation's family farmers; the only people who have benefited from it have been in the boardrooms of corporate agribusiness, which of course bellied up first to the big federal trough offered by the law. Even conservatives admit it has been a disaster.
No, conservatives have instead employed a strategy of scapegoating. It isn't bad policy or the conservative captivity to agribusiness interests that has made life miserable in rural America -- it's liberals. Their lack of morals (especially embodied by Bill Clinton), their contempt for real, hard-working Americans, their selfish arrogance -- those are the reasons things are so bad.
These audiences are feeding on a steady diet of hate. And as with all such feedings, they never are sated, but only have their appetites whetted for more. So each day, people come back to get a fresh fill-up of hate.
People are hurting and they are told relentlessly day in and day out that liberals from big cities are the ones inflicting the pain. This would be funny if it weren't so tragic. This is the new American nativism. Minorities and immigrants have been joined by a blurry, indistinct non-American urbanite. (I suppose this is progress of a sort.)
I hear a lot about how Democrats need to stop with the so-called identity and rights based politics in favor of a populist message. It would certainly seem that that would be the way to reach these folks. They are getting the shaft from the very people for whom they are voting with a classic misdirection. It may be true that the liberal elites in the big cities don't care much about rural America, but it's the conservative elites who are actively and vigorously screwing them. But the Republicans have a way of dealing with that.
Via temple of democracy here's a classic dodge from Haley Barbour, good ole boy gazillionare lobbyist:
One of the most extensive national reports has been a New York Times Magazine piece headlined, "Mr. Washington goes to Mississippi." The story opens with Barbour getting kicked out of a cow auction, and quotes people who portray him as race-baiter, an expert schmoozer and a shrewd fund-raiser with "despicable clients."
Barbour, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, quickly denounced the story.
"I am certainly never surprised when The New York Times attacks a Southern, conservative, pro-life, Christian Republican. Ask Charles Pickering," he said, referring to the Mississippi judge whose nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was held up by Democrats who questioned the judge's record on civil rights.
"It's what I expected from The New York Times because they don't like guys like me."
And, therefore, they don't like guys like you.
Democrats will say that we need to let the red state voters know who the enemy really is. We need to stop talking about guns, god and gays (and race) and get to the meat of the matter. As Max Sawicky wrote in his article "Why a Right Winger can't be a populist,"
Culture and values, among other things, are highly contested. For the sake of this essay I put them aside to focus on Money.
The problem is that we can't put them aside and concentrate on money because culture and values dictate what people think about money. And the culture and values of a large part of this country says that when it comes to money the government always gives it to the wrong people. We have a much more complicated problem on our hands than just moral values vs economics. And it goes all the way back to the beginning.
I wrote some things before (in response to the Dean campaign's insistence that you could appeal to guys with confederate flags on their pick-ups because they need health care too) about studies that show that Americans rejected the European style welfare state largely because a fair portion of our people have always believed that the government only helps the undeserving. This stems from the fact that most social programs were traditionally handled through churches and immigrant organizations which meant that the government mostly funded African American welfare programs because they didn't have the institutions or the money to do it for themselves. This led to a widely held belief in rural America that the government doesn't help the white working man and woman, it instead takes their tax dollars and gives it to blacks.
It is from this basis that modern Republicans have built their case against the liberal elites who allegedly hold Real Americans in contempt. It is the essence of the Southern Strategy and it's been highly successful for decades.
It's worth repeating that despite what Dean said in the primaries about putting the FDR coalition back together, there has never been a time when a majority of southern whites and blacks in the south voted for the same party. Blacks were not allowed to vote in the south in the 1930's. Indeed, it was only during the recent party realignment process that they overlapped at all. Let's not kid ourselves about why this is.
We cannot make a populist case to rural America as long as rural America continues to believe, as it has for centuries, that the government only takes their money and gives it to people they don't like. This belief is why people who should naturally support our programs instead vote for tax cuts. In the past, populists often shrewdly coupled their argument with nativist causes and were able to scapegoat either immigrants or blacks as part of their argument, thus partially nullifying this cultural resistence. Even FDR agreed to set aside the issue of civil rights for the duration. Needless to say, we aren't going to go down that path.
So, Democrats are left with a difficult problem of how to deal with a region that is in economic distress but whose culture traditionally believes that government only helps people unlike themselves.
Now, we could, of course, make a fetish of pointing out the awful truth --- that most federal transfers come from the blue states to the red states. But, that doesn't really address the problem, which comes down to attitudes about the big city poor (blacks) vs the rural poor (whites.) And all that is tied up with the monumental social changes of the last fifty years, which mostly benefit them but which Rush and Sean tell them is the cause of all their problems. Every day, all day, with relentless precision. The message is that liberals are taking their money, giving it to people they don't like and then forcing their decadent culture on them to the point where they ... cannot ... resist.
Yes, if people were rational about these things you could sit down and have a nice discussion with spreadsheets and diagrams showing that the rural red states benefit far more from federal redistributon of wealth than the metropolitan blue states. You could explain that many of the social changes that have happened have benefitted them in their own lives while acknowledging that there has been a cost and that changes of this magnitude can be frightening and destabilizing. You could show that the massive New Deal programs and the post war expansion benefitted primarily the middle class, not the poor. You could rally the people to the side of their own class instead of the corporations who benefit from the policies currently in place.
But, as we've seen, people are not rational. In fact, when it comes to modern American politics there seems to be a conscious embrace of the irrational, an epistomological relativism that renders such reasoned arguments completely inneffectual. People who listen to Rush or absorb his message through osmosis in their social group are operating on the basis of some very long standing tribal hueristics that have been very sophisticatedly manipulated by the real elites in this country. It will take more than fiery speeeches about sticking it to the man to penetrate this mindset.
Certainly, a populist message should work for the Democratic party. But, our populist message cannot obscure the fact that we represent blacks, urban dwellers and those who appear to be agents of rapid social change. And even if it could, the Republicans are hardly going to sit back and be quiet about it.
This problem needs some fresh thinking and I think that the article I posted about earlier about undecided voters provides us with some clues. The first is that we have to stop thinking in terms of issues or a combination of issues. People think in terms of worldview and tribal identity.
The next thing we need to recognise is that we are living in a post modern environment in which straight appeals to reason are not very effective. We have to begin to use symbols and semiotics more effectively. This means that we have to be more stylistic and sophisticated in our presentation. TV with the sound turned off.
But that won't be enough. We need to consider the American character and use it to shape our message. There is tremendous complexity in our national character and racial or social resentment is only a part of it. And there is a lot of tension, for instance between Equality/freedom --- Community/individualism. This tension has always been present and the line isn't drawn by region --- it's drawn within each person. We have to use some of these commonly understood and believed American values to illustrate our wordview in ways that people can understand hueristically instead of intellectually. We do this with a certain kind of candidate, a certain message and a certain kind of presentation. But we have to embrace this way of communicating before we can possible hope to use it to relate to Americans who are conditioned to buy and consume on the basis of their feelings not on the basis of their reason.
This is the world in which we live whether we like it or not. The Republicans are selling a vision and a sense of belonging to a certain tribe. We are selling an argument and a program. They are using 21st century tools to manipulate primal human needs and simplify the world. We are using 20th century methods to appeal to reason in a complicated way. They have the better hand.
Note: Over the past couple of weeks, I've written a few posts on this subject and others sort of tangentially related. A couple of readers asked me to put them all together in one place. Here they are.
TV With the Sound Turned Off
A Very Old Story
It Won't Work
More Culture War
digby 11/21/2004 01:16:00 PM