Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kathleen Parker, Blut und Boden and the "culture war" (Pt 1 of 2)

"Elitist" textile workers striking in Lawrence MA back when - some of them were no doubt less than 100% Americans (by Kathleen Parker's definition)

Washington Post Writer's Group Columnist Kathleen Parker, whose specialty has long been to phrase nasty prejudices for respectable white folks to use in polite company, may be losing her touch. In Full-blooded Americans Orlando Sentinel 05/14/08, she uses an approach that may embarrass some of their disciples here and there.

Glenn Greenwald (High Standards at the Washington Post Op-Ed page Salon 05/17/08) calls it her White Power column. Although I would say that its only a slightly more egregious example than her standard efforts.

But I suppose I should be grateful to her for giving me an in-the-headlines opening for a follow-up post on historian Christopher Lasch's ideas on the "culture war". Parker's latest says - with attempted polite language, of course - that white folks shouldn't vote against Obama because he's a scary black man, but because Great American McCain has a longer American ancestry.

Here she makes a stock "culture war" pitch phrased for white folks who think of themselves as the polite middle-class:

Contributing to the growing unease among yesterday's Americans is the failure of the federal government to deal with the illegal-immigration fiasco. It isn't necessarily racist or nativist to worry about what these new demographics mean to the larger American story.

Yet, white Americans primarily - and Southerners, rural and small-town folks especially - have been put on the defensive for their throwback concerns with "guns, God and gays," as Howard Dean put it in 2003. And more recently, for clinging to "guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," as Obama described white, working-class Pennsylvanians who preferred his opponent.

The "guns, God and gays" trope has haunted Democrats, and Republicans have enjoyed dusting it off when needed to rile the locals. It's an easy play.

But so-called ordinary Americans aren't so easily manipulated and they don't need interpreters. They can spot a poser a mile off and they have a hound's nose for snootiness. They've got no truck with people who condescend nor tolerance for that down-the-nose glance from people who don't know the things they know. (my emphasis)
The phrase I bolded makes it a nonpartisan criticism of those nasty elitists, you see. And it also let middle-class white folks who don't want to be completely identified with "rednecks" or with - mercy me! - low-class types who might join unions a way to remind their listeners that while they themselves aren't part of such a class of people, they still respect them as the salt of the earth and all as against those "elitists" in the "Democrat Party".

I posted before about Christopher Lasch's 1991 book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. In that book, he was addressing the question that engaged conventional wisdom so intensely at the time, of how the Democrats could ever win the Presidency again in the face of the Republicans' successful "culture war" appeals.

A large part of that discussion, then and now, missed or ignored some bedrock basics about the American political scene. Two major regional political shifts have occurred in American politics since Richard Nixon began the Republican Southern Strategy in 1968. The South now votes Republican in national elections. And California votes Democratic.

The later shift had not yet occurred in 1991. Bill Clinton carried California in 1992. And that fool Republican Governor Pete Wilson had the dandy idea to support the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. Since the polite language of nice white ladies like Kathleen Parker couldn't hide the nativist and racial bigotry displayed by many of Prop 187's supporters, it had the effect of galvanizing Latino voters to register and go to the polls in higher proportions than ever before, a habit that has continued. It also reminded them dramatically that the Republican Party is the one that doesn't like black and brown people all that much and thinks Spanish is some kind of sinister plot against regular white Americans.

Since then, the state that gave the country Presidents Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon has generally voted Democratic in statewide elections ever since, the Rovian political coup of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 and his re-election in 2006 being exceptions.

Now Democrats cannot expect to win the Presidency without carrying California. That fact sometimes gets obscured by press discusses of "the West" leaning Democratic. But California's huge electoral vote prize and the significance of Silicon Valley and Hollywood fundraising clout for the Democrats means that the Dems have to keep California Democrats reasonably happy. And while California voters rejected gay marriage in a statewide referendum - unconstitutionally so, as the state supreme court happily just ruled - the need to keep California in the Democratic column means that the national Democratic Party can't afford to pander too heavily to conservative hot-button issues.

And what had already become true in 1991 is that the South was something close to a Solid South for Republicans. And today, the Republicans are more dependent on the South, both in Presidential races and in their Congressional delegations, than the Democrats ever were.

The Democratic Party prior to the Second World War involved a coalition of Southern segregationists with Northern liberals, city-dwellers and the labor movement. That doesn't mean that there was no support for liberal economic ideas among Southern whites, on the contrary. Mississippi's Theodore Bilbo, who was to become one of the Senate's most notorious racists ever, entered the Senate as a New Deal partisan.

But while the postwar Democratic Party in the South remained the protector of segregation, the contradictions in the national party increasingly showed. Truman in 1948 faced party splits on the left with Henry Wallace and his Progressives and on the right from Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats. Democrats in the 1970s assumed that the recently-enfranchised African-American vote might give them a shot at holding on to the South. However we weigh the role of race and the so-called "white backlash" in the shift to the Republicans in the South, voters there clearly trended more conservative.

So as long as black voter participation in the South was relatively low compared to whites, and as long as California was presumed to be a more-or-less safe state for Republicans in Presidential elections, the national Democratic Party felt strong pressure to mitigate the effect of "culture war" issues in the South. It also meant that there was more pressure to bring swing voters in states outside the South into the Democratic column.

In other words, the idea of a massive cultural shift among working-class voters or voters in smaller cities from Democrats to Republicans nationally can be highly misleading. At least according to one count I've seen discussed recently, working-class voters (the definition of which can vary greatly) nationally vote more consistently Democratic today than 40 years ago. And that makes perfect sense. In the 1960s, the now-extinct species called "liberal Republicans" was still extant in the person of politicians like Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jacob Javits of New York and John Lindsey of New York City (who switched to the Democrats later).

Failure to take that distinction into account leads astray a lot of the writing from the last 25 years or so on how Democrats can deal with "culture war" issues. And to a certain extent, that happened with Christopher Lasch's book, as well.

In Part 2: Liberal "elitists", race and the "culture war"

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