Saturday, June 25, 2005

Welcome to Teheran, Kansas

Hard-Liner Urges Reconciliation After Victory in Iranian Vote - New York Times

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- The winner of Iran's presidential election, whose landslide victory dealt a setback to reformers, said Saturday he seeks to make his country a ''modern, advanced, powerful, and Islamic'' model for the world...The victory gives conservatives control of Iran's two highest elected offices -- the presidency and parliament -- enabling the non-elected theocracy to rule with a freer hand...Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, presented himself as the humble alternative to Rafsanjani, whose family runs a large business empire. He has promised Iran's underclass higher wages, more development funds for rural areas, expanded health insurance and more social benefits for women.

Deja vu...again. Thomas Frank imagined that working class Americans' support for a conservative religious candidate who banged the drum of patriotism and promised get-tough policies, as anomalous--something that required explanation. Hardly. The proles and peasants almost always support alpha-males (or facsimiles) who promise protection and patronage. Whether in the US or in Iran, in Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, or in medieval Europe, they back tribal war lords and charismatic cult figures--because they're ignorant, cynical, fatalistic and desperate.

The amazing thing is that for a fairly brief period of time in human history, following the Enlightenment in Europe and America , at least some of the peasants actually supported humane, egalitarian political and social policies. That's what cries out for explanation and if Democrats can figure that one out there may be hope.


acb said...

All right: here's a really cynical explanation. The underlying dynamic is that of a war band: we will plunder the enemy and share the spoils. In this scenario, progressive politics worked because they were understood in a context of class warfare: they would impoverish the rich and share the spioils among the poor. This stops being a winner as soon as everyone supposes themselves rich.

H. E. said...
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H. E. said...

Probably right. The peculiar thing is that most Americans imagine that they're rich when median household income is comparable to European social democracies, social mobility is lower than, e.g. France, Americans are assuming much more risk and paying more for education, health care and other essential services in the market then they would if they paid for these services through taxes. The figures are disputable--see, e.g. Quiggen--but it doesn't take an economist to see that Europeans' standard of living is comparable to Americans'.

To be even more cynical, the difference may be that the US institutionalizes a permanent underclass--the latest wave of immigrants and until recently all blacks. For Europeans mass immigration is an anomaly (see David Goodhart Too Diverse?)--in the US it's the norm; Europeans have a class system--Americans have a racial caste system. Every indigenous white American is privileged and until recently every indigenous white American knew that there was a an economic and social line below which he could not fall. For white working class Americans segregation was THE social safety net. Until recently, blacks were completely out of the competition so working class whites were operating within the white class system and could see progressive policies as supporting their interests vis-a-vis rich whites.

The civil rights movement, undermined the caste system, brought blacks into the competition. So now working class whites aren't at the bottom of a segregated class system but in the middle of an integrated class system where they have to fight to retain privilege vis-a-vis blacks and immigrants who are still, on the average, at the bottom of the heap. The income gap is widening but working class Americans aren't comparing themselves to the rich--they're comparing themselves to the underclass who they see as aiming to plunder and impoverish them with the collusion of bleeding heart liberals.

Americans remember the Long Hot Summers, have the sense that there's a roiling mass of savages out to rape and pillage, that during the '60s the lid was taken off, that liberals not only refuse to keep them under control but are financing them with tax money, etc. It's not wholly racism but the idea that the poor will always be with us, that there will always be a substantial underclass, possibly a quarter of the population, racial and ethnic composition may vary, who will inevitably be violent and unproductive, who cannot be educated, civilized or assimilated and have to be controlled. It's at least partly being permanently geared up for ongoing mass immigration, regarding ethnic ghettos and urban no-go areas as the norm, as inevitable. It isn't ethnic prejudice as such but the unshakable conviction that there will always be a community of unsalvagable outsiders who can only be contained, that efforts by progressives to fix that are naive, wasteful--and dangerous.

The Republican's Social Security screw-up could have some impact if Democrats play it right because it's perceived as a benefit for the middle class. It looks like, cynically, the only way progressives can win is by convincing American voters that they are writing off the underclass. Americans don't seriously want Bush's "ownership society": they want social democracy for the majority and private charity and prisons for the minority.