Monday, January 09, 2012

Republicans, Party of the proletariat?

Republicans, Party of the proletariat? That's what David "Bobo" Brooks would have us think, anyway. And someday I'm going to find out how the word "proletariat" leaked into English to mean "working class" when "working class" is a perfectly good English version. I know who transitioned it from French into German (conservative Catholic social theorist Franz von Baader), but not how it made it into English.

In any case, Charlie Pierce in This Is Why Mitt Romney Is Unemployable Esquire Politics Blog 01/09/2012 explains that the depression has brought overt class factors more to the front of American politics, despite Rick Santorum's bizarre claim that America is a classless society and therefore it's a sin for a Republican to use the phrase "middle class". Pierce:

It's becoming abundantly clear that, all Santorum aside, this election is fundamentally going to be about class. The Republicans already have talked about blue-collar jobs and middle-class anxiety more in this cycle than they have in the previous two or three combined. And, even if the Republicans had given the whole business a good leaving-alone, the White House is going to force the issue anyway. Unemployment is not going to drop below eight percent before the election. The income gap is not going to go away, either. The basic inequities forced on the country by the looting of the economy in the first decade of the century are alive and well. They are going to bite hard at both parties. But only one candidate is so uniquely vulnerable to their political effects.
He also notes with a jab at the punditocracy, "I suspect, though, it just might have a little something to do with the Occupy people who, as we all know, have no coherent agenda that anyone can identify."

Our Pod Pundits, and more generally the hermetically isolated group we still call our political press corps, are notorious for adopting "scripts" about candidates, as Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby elaborated well in the years before he fell in love with the Tea Party. As soon as Rick Santorum began to look like a serious candidate for the Republican nomination, they settled on a script for him in which he is the "working class" candidate.

Bobo flogged the idea in two columns last week. Ron Brownstein, another thoroughly conventional pundit, took it up in Santorum's Appeal National Journal 01/05/2012. Like Bobo, he wants to describe the evolving demagoguery of the Republican Party without reference to the decades-long Southern strategy that now has Republican Presidential candidates making undisguised racial appeals to their white base:

The first sign of the populists’ growing influence was in the presidential runs of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Buchanan, a brilliant if often intemperate political packager, offered a combustible mix of social conservatism, protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and populist attacks on elites that all embodied the embattled sense of decline among many blue-collar Americans. After shocking Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, Buchanan’s “peasants-with-pitchforks” crusade fizzled in South Carolina. But he demonstrated that there was an audience within the GOP for an edgy collection of views that unnerved the party’s traditional business-oriented leadership. [my emphasis]
It's part of the conceit among the Beltway Village that they are really in touch with Real Americans, aka the "white working class" in Bobo's formulation. And because they know the Real Americans so well they know that what appeals to them is that "combustible mix of social conservatism, protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and populist attacks on elites." Pat Buchanan's appeal in the Republican primaries in the 1990s turned out to be limited, as Brownstein notes there. But why let inconvenient facts spoil a good script?

This is an interesting glimpse at the Village outlook:

With equal passion, Santorum pledges both to end abortion and revive American manufacturing (albeit through tax cuts, not the trade barriers Buchanan favored). Within minutes at the same appearance, he can alternately sound like Pat Robertson and Dick Gephardt.

In 2008, the GOP primary electorate was split almost in half between voters with and without a college education, the line that generally divides the managers and the populists. Romney is a comfortable choice for all but the most ideological managers. Santorum will become a serious threat to Romney only if he can unite the populists.

In his views, style, and background, Santorum should be a much easier fit for those voters than Romney. But it’s not clear that Santorum, any more than the rest of the Republican field, has fully contemplated the implications of an electoral coalition that now relies so heavily on blue-collar and older whites. While most of those voters passionately oppose government spending they view as transfer payments to the undeserving, they are equally determined to protect the programs they believe most benefit them - Social Security and Medicare. [my emphasis]
It's an article of faith among even Village pundits (like Mark Shields) who must surely know better that it's absolutely essential that Social Security and Medicare ("entitlements") have to be slashed or done away with entirely. But here Ron Brownstein displays at least momentary awareness that these programs are very popular.

Brownstein's eliding of the Republican base into "blue-collar" Real Americans is a bit more sophisticated than Bobo's. But it's essentially the same trick. They are coming from the same assumption: the  Real Americans are uneducated and bigoted and they support the Republicans for unworthy reasons. Unlike Establishment pundits who admire Republicans for wanting to slash "entitlements" and let Grandma eat catfood.

Using college education as a dividing line between "working class" and others is common among our Pod Pundits. I haven't dug into the voting statistics recently to see just how that assumption is wrong. But it's a lazy and misleading assumption even on its face. If we use any half-reasonable definition of working class, it would include both factory and office workers in non-management roles. And a large portion of that group has some college education or a college degree. On the other side of the definition, some considerable portion of non-college educated people work as contractors, store owners, or as other kinds of small businesspeople, forming a considerable portion of the classic "lower middle class".

The advantage to Republicans of having an image around election time of being the Party for working people is obvious. Why our Big Pundits accept it so lazily is another question.

Ben Adler at The Nation does a good takedown of this notion in Rick Santorum Is Not a 'Working-Class Candidate' 01/05/2012. Will his policies really appeal to working-class voters generally? Adler writes, "The totality of Santorum’s domestic policy agenda is to cut spending. This shouldn’t even pass for conservative economic populism."

In another column, Republican Candidates Attack Labor 01/09/2012, Adler comments on the fact that the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates are overtly hostile to organized labor.

There was a time, not so long ago, that Republicans in a Presidential race would at least pretend to have some kind of tolerant attitude toward unions. Adler writes, "Gearing up for their January 21 primary in the notoriously anti-union state of South Carolina, Republican presidential candidates have recently begun demonizing organized labor."

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