Thursday, November 09, 2006

Updating (and Extending) the Theses

Ok, never imagine that you can conclude too much only hours after the polls have closed. Here are some more and some further thoughts.

1. More on the Blue Dogs.

As Right Democratic points out, not a single member of the (mostly rural, mostly socially conservative) Blue Dog coalition in the House lost their seat, and nine more declared future members of the coalition were added. Again, I don't think this means that socially conservative, economically populist Democrats are suddenly in a position to define their party's platform--basically, they benefited from a good night for Democrats just as everyone else did. Still, it's a pronounced enough development to have sparked the interest of bloggers like Henry Farrell and Victor Muniz-Fraticelli. The consensus is clear: there definitely are legitimate socially conservative elements that contributed to the election of thisDemocraticc congress, just as there are populist economic elements, and libertarian elements of different stripes as well. The question is: how to put them together into something that can last once the electorate's rejection of Republican incompetence has exhausted itself? More on that below.

2. Democratic Strength at the Grassroots.

It appears that the Democrats did better than I'd expected, even better than I'd hoped, at the state level, taking control of nine legislative chambers across the U.S., most of them in the Midwest. This is really important, and not just for the districting reasons which Matt Ygelsias cites. It's important because state politics has an enormous influence on determine the context within which delegates are selected to national conventions and consequently within which discussions over the nature of the party take place. When Democratic states were concentrated on the coasts, as much as the national party tried mightily (and, with Bill Clinton, to a degree successfully) to appeal to at least some portion of the rural vote, their efforts still too often struck most voters in that part of the country as foreign and condescending. Once we have more rural and Midwestern Democrats in place, the rhetoric and context of the party will change enough that you may start having more "homelanders" listening in. Speaking of which...

3. The Homelander Choice.

By this I mean a choice for both the homelanders, and the Democrats. Obviously this election shows that it is possible to get certain parts of rural America to vote along with liberal Democrats (as Brian Mann himself notes, the impressive thing about Webb's apparent win in Virginia was not his dominance of the liberal, urban/suburban Democrat vote in the northern part the state, but that he actually came within four points of taking rural, southern Virginia away from Allen as well). But can that be repeated; can the gains the Democrats have made on the state level be translated into anything that will last beyond, as Henry put it, "when the tide goes out?" John Judis writes today in The New Republic about the group whom Henry called "soft libertarians"--people who are, to Judis's mind, the same folks who voted for Ross Perot:

[These voters] include libertarian-minded professionals and small-business owners--especially in the West--and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest. They are equally uncomfortable with the feminist left and the religious right. What they dislike most is government interference in their personal lives. They see Washington as corrupt and want it reformed. They favor balanced budgets but also Social Security and Medicare. They worry about U.S. companies moving their plants to Mexico and about China exporting underpriced goods to the United States. They favor a strong military, but they want it used strictly against foreign aggression.

Now, this is the same line that Judis has peddled along with Ruy Teixeira for years: the secret to the new Democratic majority will be to let the "ideopolises" grow, inevitably turning their surrounding suburbs blue, and wait to pick up the moderates consequently driven off the (increasingly GOP-dominated) farm, as it were, and bring them into the Democratic camp. The "ignore the South" strategy is just another iteration of this. Mann's book, and the developments of Tuesday's election, make it clear that there's some real demographic sense behind this approach. But that still doesn't make me like it. My dislike for it partly arises from my desire for the success of this new, different kind of Democratic agenda: there are simply more populists out there than libertarians, so trying to focus on a particular kind of cross-over libertarian/populist niche that basically only exists in the American West strikes me as somewhat foolish (or, at least, foolishly beholden to an urban Democratic base that assuredly did not deliver the aforementioned wins in state legislatures). Ed Kilgore has more on this point.

But more importantly, I don't like it because of the egalitarian economic aspirations which I think the Democratic party ought to have. I simply doubt that any sustained egalitarian argument can be made absent a real connection with moral authority, or at the very least a reference to the sort of moral presumptions that obtain in local communities. I've argued that point way too often to go over it again here; suffice to say, it's an argument grounded in the history of ideas as well as the nature of populist thought. What populists are concerned about--what Jacob Weisberg wrongly calls economic "nationalism"--is really a matter of economic sovereignty, and as I wrote two years ago, recognizing sovereignty--recognizing collectively worked out limits and boundaries--"is essential to allowing a sense of affection for one's lived context to develop," which is what all communitarianism whether economic or moral requires. Of course, if one's notion of social and economic justice has no collective aspect to it whatsoever, then this plea is nonsensical. But if it does include such an aspect, then one needs to keep in mind the linkages between conservatism and populism, linkages that some think are simply random and thus irrelevant, but which are in fact regularly demonstrated, such as by the fact that there are more populists of every type in the American South than in any other part of the country, or the fact that across the country the two most consistently popular ballot initiatives this year were those taking a conservative line on marriage and those taking a "liberal" line on wages.

But here I am oversimplifying, and making things too easy for the white, rural, mostly Southern homelanders as well. An exchange I got into with Steve Lebonne on Henry's Crooked Timber thread unintentionally makes this clear: is Jon Tester, the new Democratic senator from Montana (farmer, church-goer, gun-owner, pro-choice, fair-trader, stem-cell-research-supporter), a homelander-type populist or a Perot-admiring soft libertarian? Well, he's both; speaking in broad, ideological terms, he's someone who feels that the best way keep one's communities fair and moral is to prevent the concentration of power, whether in business or the national government. Perhaps a truly committed opponent of abortion rights would question that principle, and perhaps the result would be to oppose Tester. Then again, perhaps such a person might acknowledge that defending farms and small towns, keeping their economies alive, is a good way to keep local churches and schools alive as well, with their ability to instruct and guide the next generation outside the influence of (equally power hungry) cities and media empires. At the very least, there could be a real conversation there, one that wouldn't be possible if the traditionalist homelander had been marginalized from the get-go. Or worse, if the homelanders had marginalized themselves.

And here's where the choice becomes one for those 15 million or so white Protestant voters in rural areas that have become key to the GOP's strategy over the past couple of decades: to what degree will their votes and their sense of identity be continue to be locked into an understanding of Christian morality and social responsibility that, frankly, is way too Southern and way too theocratic and way too statist for their own good? Even establishment Republicans are recognizing that their party's recent reliance upon, not all populists and religious believers, but rather mostly just those confined to the South, has allowed similar groups of voters to reasonably decide that they've had enough of the Republicans and their big-spending, top-heavy, ineffectual ways. Yet it is the organized base of Republican activists, spread out amongst America's sparsely populated yet electorally powerful rural states, that have driven the party in that direction. There were and still are hopes amongst Republican operatives that the Hispanics (supposedly all good Catholics) would come to the Republicans' salvation here, and they might yet, but with the politics of immigration complicating things for both Democrats and Republicans, I wouldn't count on it. So the ball, I think, at this moment lays squarely in the homelanders' court.

I sincerely hope that the way the Democrats govern will continue to allow both traditionalists and populists to find a foothold in and thus shape the party's agenda, both because I think it is the right thing to do and because I think it makes more electoral sense. But to a degree, that possibility is contingent upon the demographic slice of the country where left conservatism arguably makes the most sense--the farming states of the Midwest, Great Plains, and the South. If the homelanders refuse to shake themselves from their narrow party allegiancess, refuse to begin to rethink what their religion might mean, then the possibilities of this election--or at least, the possibilities which would be best for them, as well as the country--are going to be that less likely to be realized, if they are ever to be realized at all.


Invective in Verse said...

The Bald Eagle

I saw an eagle, flying low,
All bald and ponderous, and slow
But still a quite disturbing sight
For both its wings were on its right.

It could not help but circle 'round
And spiral down towards the ground,
Then when upon the ground it lay
Its wings fell off in rank decay. 

Posted by Invective in Verse

Doug said...

A teeny tiny comparative point: Poles, roughly 80 percent of whom are supposedly good Catholics, have been electing post-Communists on a regular basis since the mid-1990s. Expecting American Hispanics, with widely varying national backgrounds and numerous other cleavages, to choose one party solidly for sectarian reasons strikes me as foolhardy. So I agree with you on that one, but would take the point further. 

Posted by Doug

Russell Arben Fox said...

I think you're right, Doug; the Republican hope for the Hispanic vote hasn't ever been based, I think, on any actual familiarity with how the Hispanic population in the U.S. is evolving. It's entirely possible that the Catholic Hispanic population will provide a lot of ground troops to socially conservative causes in the long run, but there's no reason to think the majority of them will prioritize those causes in the same way that white Protestant leadership of the social conservative movement has!

Anonymous said...

I think you are onto something when you say (if you are saying) that this election was about the rise of Democratic populism rather than the rise of "conservative" Democrats. These so-called conservative Democrats were supported by none other than the "far-left" Ned Lamont-loving netroots. It's a movement that doesn't have any problem with a Harold Ford or a John Tester, but can't stand the corporate financed DLC types or the war-supporting Lieberman. It's a type of centrism, and yet a repudiation of some aspects of Clintonism.

This movement is good because it involves taking something away from the right (namely the mantle of rural and working class populism) rather than merely pulling even with them on something ('social conservatism').

"an understanding of Christian morality and social responsibility that, frankly, is way too Southern and way too theocratic and way too statist for their own good"

A good way to describe some of the problems with American right-socal conservatism (say more about this subject!). Previously you've pointed out how it's not *enough* of something--namely not enough of a 'whole cloth'. But it is also, as you allude to here, *too much* of a lot of things. I think too sectarian--not religiously sectarian by any means (some evangelicals have practically swallowed certain aspects of Catholic social teaching whole) but politically sectarian, if you will. Sectarian, because it evaluates political parties, candidates, proposals, etc. with reference to a credo rather than broad goals and principles. Things that are not directly referenced to the credo are of no concern. This may be an extension of the fact that evangelicals have only been seriously involved in politics for a generation or so. They only got involved, reluctantly, in order to go to war over a limited few issues. So they have much less patience with gradual change, limited partnerships, partial victories. Christian conservatism looks for this reason like a proto-political movement from many angles.


Posted by Jeremiah J.