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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Home for the Holiday

To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young...
Our house / Is a very very very fine house / With three trees in the yard / Life used to be so hard / Now everything is easy / 'Cause of you...

As I frequently do, I've let a lot of time slip by since my last post. But this time, I've actually got a pretty good excuse. On November 20, after much (I suppose typical) scrambling and bargaining and inspecting and worrying, we became homeowners. For this Thanksgiving, we have a place we can truly call our own. Now that is something to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody (those of you who are in the U.S. and celebrating it, that is). I'll try to get a couple of long delayed posts out before the month ends next week. In the meantime, enjoy your meal, and count your blessings. We look forward to doing both.

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.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Theses on 2006

Am I happy? Of course I'm happy! (Not as happy as I'd be if Harold Ford, Jr., had won, but happy enough.) But rather than dancing about in delight and at length, let me try to keep this short for once.

1. Blue Dogs and Populists?

While a part of me really wants Rod Dreher and Larry Kudlow to be correct, I strongly suspect that Matt Yglesias's take on the election is much more accurate: "the overall impact is clearly to shift the composition of the House to the left without having any particularly dramatic impact on the balance within the Democratic caucus." (Though Jacob Weisberg suggests that, if you leave social conservatism out of the mix, the economic nationalist strain amongst the Democrats has definitely grown this election cycle.) I still stand by all my previously expressed hopes (both on Monday and two years ago), but I've no illusion that last night saw us populist communitarians cross over some sort of Rubicon and into the mainstream. Thanks to various Democratic wins, there are now a few more socially conservative, economically liberal folks in the House and the Senate than before, and that's a very good thing, but their victories do not appear to have had much to do with their particular mix of views (consider that Jim Webb, strong basher of open borders and free trade, drew most of his support from the Democratic northern Virginia suburbs, which is surely the most cosmopolitan and least populist part of the state). This election isn't telling us anything, unfortunately, about an emerging populist/left conservative movement; it's merely telling us that the Democrats, this time around, were more somewhat more willing than in the past to recruit, work with, and build a national campaign alongside such candidates.

2. The New Democratic Party?

Clearly the party has some momentum now, and momentum means a lot when you're doing the difficult, complicated work of simultaneously cultivating ideas and constructing an organization. But I'm going to want to wait and see data on more state races before I claim too much for the Democrats. Here in Kansas, it was a very good day for the party: Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general won, and the party picked up several seats in the House (including one race where one of my students was the candidate's campaign manager!). But if you look through other state-wide races, you'll find Democratic coattails to have been pretty short. I suspect that will be the case throughout the nation: to the extent that Democratic candidates could plus themselves into the anti-Republican mood (as the Kansas Democratic candidate for attorney general did, making the race into a referendum on the huge influence which the anti-abortion lobby has on Republican politics in this state), they did well; when such connections couldn't be drawn, the results were far less impressive (but still, as above, worth noting and building upon, where possible).

3. Whither the "homelanders"?

The best book this political season as far as I'm concerned was Brian Mann's Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution. It's not a perfect book by any means--much of his research is sloppy, or at the very least confusing presented--but it does two things very, very well: it actually sympathetically considers the coherence and the motivations behind the white, rural, Protestant embrace of socially conservative and religious priorities (thus showing far more imagination Thomas Frank and many of his imitators); and it explains in detail exactly how much of a minority this perspective is. Eight out of 10 Americans live in either cities or suburbs; the number of Americans that constitute the exurban and rural "homelander" (as Mann calls them) base makes up, at most, perhaps 50 million people, only about 15 million of whom can be reliably counted on to vote Republican on Election Day. Which is still, when it comes to building coalitions, nothing to sneeze at: John Kerry received only 12 million African-American votes in 2004. Nonetheless, the homelanders don't constitute a stand-alone majority. While they aren't going to just go away anytime soon--which is good; I don't want America to lose the religious, communitarian, small-town sensibility they can bring to our society--but they've definitely punched far above their weight in recent years, almost solely because our political structure (with the Senate, the Electoral College, etc.) has allowed their hard work and activism to translate into a great deal of power when united under a single banner--namely, the Republican party. The question is what they will do as the Democratic party wises up and starts doing more to appeal to moderates and religious believers in the exurbs and even some rural areas. (See, for example, Bob Casey winning the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, and Nancy Boyda winning over moderate Republicans here in Kansas.) The homelanders, like I've long said about the South in general, can and should be a big part of any change in the Democratic party; but if the homelanders refuse to rethink their allegiance, and thus rethink their own priorities, they may lose out as the Democrats realize that populist economics and social conservatism isn't the sole province of white, Southern Baptist farmers from Oklahoma.

4. And Next?

No major thoughts at the moment, except that I hope 1) the Pelosi and Reid will be able to resist the calls to fill the next two years with investigations and subpenas, and 2) that I hope Harold Ford, about whom Josh Marshall says the right things here, will stick around his state for the next two years, taking folks about to dinner, building up favors, developing a little more local cred in Nashville, and will give it another shot against Lamar Alexander in two years. It won't be nearly as positive an environment in 2008, with Alexander as an incumbent and a presidential race to boot. But Ford is too impressive an individual not to try make use of; he's hoping the Democratic party keeps him as front and center as possible.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Joining the Party

Well, the midterm elections are upon us here in the U.S. Let's hope that, come tomorrow night, President Bush will find himself confronted with a Democratic House of Representatives, and maybe a Democratic Senate too. I'm not a Democrat, but this time around, the Democrats are a vehicle for not only providing a desperately necessary rebuke to and limitation upon the current administration, but also--and more importantly, to my mind--an opportunity for populist, socially-traditional-yet-economically-progressive, "left conservative" communitarians like myself (all eight or nine of us) to actually see some real expression of our ideas. Not as much as we'd get if the Christian Democratic Union suddenly swept into power, but hey...baby steps.

The truth is, like most Americans these days, I'm not registered with any particular political party. There was a time when this didn't bother me; I liked to style myself an "independent" who voted on the basis of issues and candidates, not the party, and I took that as a sign of political maturity. I suppose, to the extent that I connected my habits to any larger theory of politics, my motivation was vaguely republican in the classical sense: "party politics" meant professionalized politics, meaning impersonal and corrupt politics, and as one who believed that proper self-government required civic virtues like prudence and personal involvement, I figured that by refusing to support party organizations in any formal I was doing my bit to support more responsible elections. There was probably a fair amount of general religious and/or moral distaste for the power-hungry, coalition-building aspects of parties in there as well; I thought politics and political ideas were important, of course (I mean, I've studied them them whole life!), but I didn't see them as so serious as to mandate the kind of desperate, ethically compromising shenanigans that parties give rise to. So better to downplay that aspect of the political game as much as possible, I thought.

In a lot of ways, I still think that way. I'm a goo-goo at heart, concerned about voter turnout and campaign finance rules and media bias and state boundaries and a dozen other issues that have more to do with the process and effects of politics than the outcome of any given election. (See here and here and here for examples.) But I suppose there came a point where I stopped fitting the pure good-government stereotype. I never could sign on with term-limits in principle, for example; while I suppose I recognize them as a useful tool for increasing turnover and thus preventing professionalization (and hence corruption) in political office, and something that ought be able to be legitimately imposed if democratically chosen, in general I've always thought they were much too blunt an instrument: why not actually address the failures and limitations in our voting habits and options, instead of arbitrarily restricting who the people can vote for at any certain point? And there were other deviations on my part as well--as much as I've agreed with campaign reform efforts, for example, it's become clear to me that addressing the distorting power of wealth in a democracy has to begin with thinking about ways to empower all citizens, rather than merely restricting those citizens who happen to be in a position of influence. Basically, I've become a lot more democratic, a lot more populist and expressive in my political outlook over the years, and that means I've become a lot more sympathetic to parties.

Of course, to some people an "expressive" defense of parties makes no sense; a party is an organizing tool of elite interests, nothing more. Admittedly, if your understanding of democracy is a pluralist or protective one, then you probably think elections are entirely about who governs, and believe that the ideal democracy is one which channels the people's will into various groupings which are constructed so as to ensure the protection of individual rights and the larger economic and administrative structure of society. In that case, there really is no such thing as an expressive political party--but then, in that case, you're probably against all populism and expressivism in politics anyway. My understanding of democracy is a lot more beholden to participatory and developmental models; I think elections are about governing, yes, but are also--and more importantly--about creating and maintaining those assumptions and perspectives within which we recognize good government. Voting alone can't do that, of course--there are a hundred important ways in which citizens can participate in the generation of potential political worldviews. But contributing to, supporting, and voting for parties is perhaps the most time-tested and important of all those ways. (And no, I don't think that means contenting oneself with merely "strategic" options at voting time; my votes for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000 were not deluded attempts to disrupt the party system, but small but sincere effort to give expression to views that need to be included in it.) Hence, I've found myself becoming a party person--sometimes even complete with the buttons and funny hats. Democratic politics is about building a party through your vote and other efforts which carry and thereby refine your ideas, not waiting for the perfect vehicle which can express those which you've refined all on your own. (In short: what Todd Gitlin says.)

So fine, I'm willing to commit myself to parties. But why the Democrats? Have they moved any closer to where I wanted them to be two years ago? To some degree, actually yes, they have. The Democrats of 2006 have are in the position they are today primarily because the faults of President Bush and his administration in the handling of Iraq have become manifest to many more people, but that is not the only reason. In fact, when it comes to particular races, running against the Republican management of Iraq alone is, as Senator Lieberman's all-but-inevitable trouncing of Ned Lamont in Connecticut is making clear, far from sufficient. Down in the trenches, what you have are Democrats who have also benefited from their party leadership having spent two years thinking about all the moral and religious and cultural values arguments over the past couple of years, whether expressed in connection with abortion or immigration or outsourcing or same-sex marriage or school choice or a dozen other issues that have resonance with rural, small town, and exurban voters far beyond what elite economic and political opinion usually acknowledges. The result is that the Democratic party has gotten behind some great people, like Senate candidates Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee, James Webb in Virginia, and Bob Casey, Jr., in Pennsylvania, as well as dozens of similar House candidates. Conservative Democrats, of course, have always trumpeted these folks, but even mainstream secular Democrats seem increasingly aware of their value to a stronger, more populist, more religious party coalition. An genuinely Democratic argument against unlimited abortion rights exists in embryo out there, one that can be properly combined with a smarter, progressive argument about human rights and personal dignity. A lot of success by some of these candidates, and it could grow in strength.

Of course, all the success in the world by these and similarly minded folks won't mean a complete change in the whole platform of the Democratic party. As such, that means that this time around I'm supporting a party that is going to probably do a mildly better job than the Republicans at expressing my interests and aspirations in regards to matters of social justice, especially in regards to trade, education, job creation, social insurance and welfare, international affairs, and so forth, but a much worse job at defending religious and moral priorities, promoting moral and family-friendly media and cultural reforms, etc. Does that mean I'm prioritizing my economic and egalitarian concerns over social and traditional ones? I don't think so; I think I'm saying that, while also doing something good for the county's political health, I can potentially do something long-term for my preferred vision by supporting a party that doesn't admittedly doesn't adhere to those parts of it I perhaps care most about. If those parts really were on the line this election, my feelings might be different. But what I'll see on my ballot tomorrow is indicative of the larger reality in which party thinking becomes necessary. I've got a choice before me for Kansas House District 95. On the one hand, an experienced Democrat, Tom Sawyer (yes, that is his name)--an accountant, responsible legislator, predictable Democratic supporter. On the other hand, a nice old fellow put up by the Republicans by the name of Benny Boman. In some ways, I much prefer his direct and hard-line approaches to abortion and casinos in Kansas (basically, "stop abortion" and "no casinos") over Sawyer's Democratic boilerplate...yet Boman, if elected, would surely go to Topeka and be lined up with the same evolution-obsessed, tax-bashing Republican machine which has run the state government for decades. Sawyer, besides all the obvious good things he'll do (like promote decent educational standards), will be part of a minority, and thus will have to be creative, and maybe that'll even mean he'll have to be open-minded. And with open-mindedness comes change: change in a party's approach, and even--and more importantly in my book--in their ideas.

It may be happening nationally; certainly it's happened here in Kansas, where the Democrats, though far from wielding real power, have nonetheless changed the landscape somewhat by picking up voters that single-issue Republicans have left behind. It's not enough to get me to register as a Democrat; I'm still holding out for the Christian Democratic Union to start running some local candidates. But in the meantime, for this election at least, I figure there's a party worth joining, and voting for. I hope enough others do the same.