Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Michael Lind goes on a Blue Dog Dem rant

Michael Lind has written some of the more perceptive things I've ever seen about the effects of segregationist traditions in the American South on present-day Republican Party politics.

So it's kind of sad seeing him fret so much over the fact that Democrats today are actually trying to find a voice to address the Republican town hall mob movement. And it's also sad to see him doing so in prose that sounds like "concern troll" talk, as he unfortunately does in Are liberals seceding from sanity? Salon 08/11/09.

Back in the 1960s, Seymour Martin Lipset and Richard Hofstadter and other liberal sociologists, historians and political scientists, puzzled that anyone could support Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson, concluded that Goldwater supporters were deranged. They didn't say so directly, of course. They said that members of the radical right were emotionally disturbed victims of "status anxiety." The evidence? They didn't vote the way that Lipset and other academics thought that they should vote. Therefore they had to be crazy.

In the decades since, far better scholars than Hofstadter and Lipset, for whom history and sociology are not exercises in partisan Democratic mythmaking, have established that Goldwater and Reagan Republicans often were highly educated, socially secure individuals who happened not to share the values of liberal professors and journalists. This scholarship has been wasted, to judge by the glee with which the liberal blogosphere, in the aftermath of the ephemeral "Birther" flap, has dusted off the old conservatives-are-crazy meme, and revised it to suggest that all white Southerners are crazy.
Let's start here. Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006) may have been a Dem back in the day. But he was a pretty conservative political scientist, in a profession that in the US has tended to skew conservative. When he died in 2006, he was a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, one of the high temples of neoconservatism.

Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) was an historian who was best known for his writing on anti-intellectualism in American history and for an essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", which described and analyzed the influence of far-right ideology, conspiracy theories and counterfactual convictions on Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 Republican candidacy for the Presidency, the seminal event of what is now known as "movement conservatism". That essay clearly talks about a political style. No reasonably honest reading of it could conclude that he was commenting about the mental health of those who voted for the Republican ticket in 1964.

Lind also employs a common but superficial trick here. Any sociological analysis of trends among the population can be cherry-picked to make it sound "elitist". After all, a sociological study involves somebody, usually some annoying intellectual, looking at data about some phenomenon affecting human populations and attempting to make some judgments about what might be causing it. Any such study can be stereotyped as some know-it-all assuming he or she knows better than everyone else what people are thinking and blah, blah. Also, sociological writing often requires the use of words with more than two syllables, which can also be taken as a sign of snobbish elitism.

Lind's article is surprising in the disappointing sense. It really is a stock recital of whiny-white-guy arguments for getting all huffy about any liberal saying anything touching on the subject of white racism. He rags on "liberal pundits" and the "liberal blogosphere" for trashing white Southerners as a group. His examples are exactly four: the two deceased professors already mentioned; Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum; and, (gulp) Kathleen Parker. Yes, that would be Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers Group, who for years devoted her columns to providing respectable-white-lady versions of hardline Republican policies. Just within the last year or so, she's started to rebrand herself as a kinda-sorta moderate Democrat. And what he cites from Drum is a comment on a Parker column about what conservative Republican Ohio Sen. George Voinovich said about Southern Republicans.

Now, it's true that Beltway Village celebrity pundits are pretty much as flaky when they write about race as they are about everything else. That quality was on display last year around Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign and this year around the Gates incident. But if Lind wants us to worry that liberals in general and the Democratic Party are trashing white Southerners - he says Kevin Drum expresses "creepy bigotry" - he needs to make a case that such a thing is actually happening. In the end, his only evidence for such a trend is that a Mother Jones blogger made what at worst was a mildly clumsy attempt to talk about the role of racism among white Southern Republicans.

The article is so uncharacteristically light for Michael Lind that it makes me wonder if he isn't considering a rebranding of his own.

At the end of his piece, he makes what on the surface looks like a Blue Dog Democratic argument for downplaying "culture war" themes:

Here's how I see it. Liberals should respect and promote the interests of working Americans of all races and regions, including those who despise liberals. They are erring neighbors to be won over, not cretins to be mocked.

The majority of Southerners, white and black, including the black Southern diaspora in other regions of the country, are victims of the South's historic caste and class system, just as many Latino immigrants come from families and regions oppressed by Latin American oligarchies. Needless to say, Southern blacks suffered far more from slavery, segregation and the inequality that has persisted even after the abolition of the formal caste system. But Southern whites reduced to debt peonage after the Civil War, and the half of the white Southern electorate that effectively was disfranchised by the Southern elite in the South between the 1900s and the 1960s, were victims of the oligarchs as well. It is only to be expected that people, black and white, who have been deprived of adequate education will be more likely than educated people to believe in nonsense like Birther conspiracy theories and AIDS conspiracy theories. And it is only to be expected that people, black and white, who have been frozen out of politics by oligarchic elites will turn to flamboyant populist tribunes as their leaders, including theatrical preachers like Pat Robertson and Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton and Jerry Falwell.

The traditional liberal solution to such alienation is economic reform, education and political empowerment. But reform is difficult and expensive. And it is much less fun than caricaturing entire ethnic or regional groups, particularly those whose members tend to have less money, less education and less power than those who lampoon them.
Compare that argument to his opening two paragraphs about the dead professors. If I were to characterize Lind's closing argument using the analysis-by-scorn method he uses in his article against his liberal strawmen, I would say that he shows shocking elitism. Why, those dumb Southern Republicans, he says, they're too stupid to recognize their own economic self-interest! They're just too dang unejicated to understand that geniuses like Michael Lind know what's best for them. And yadda, yadda, yadda.

More realistically, Lind's closing pitch is a ready-made argument for the Democrats to downplay issues like combating racial discrimination, gay rights and abortion. In the end, it comes down to the idea that the Dems should try to look and sound more like Republicans but have economic policies more favorable to working families.

But if we're talking about getting loyal white Republican voters to switch parties, in the South or elsewhere, the Democrats can't afford to ignore those touchy "culture war" issues. Because if some of those voters are actually voting against their own economic self-interest - as even the supposedly non-elitist Michael Lind thinks they are - then the Dems can't ignore that there are other than purely economic issues affecting their voting behavior. After all, the Republicans were successful at building a "Southern Strategy" based on exploiting those kinds of issues.

And if that successful Southern Strategy should really wind up leaving the Republicans as a Southern regional party, then Lind's Blue Dog strategy makes even less sense. Why should the Dems in a country that's demographically significantly different (i.e., a larger proportion of non-white minorities) try to copy a strategy that today threatens to prevent the Republicans from being a national Party at all?

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