Saturday, August 16, 2008

Paleo-Liberalism


The Newer Deal: The path to a Democratic supermajority | Salon

What happened beginning in 1968 was that one two-party system -- let us call it the Roosevelt Party versus the Hoover Party -- gave way to the present two-party system, which pits the Nixon Party versus the McGovern Party...The Roosevelt Party ran on economic issues, and didn't care whether voters were in favor of sex or against it on principle as long as they supported the New Deal. The McGovern Party, by contrast, has made social issues its litmus test. Economic conservatives have had a home in the McGovern Party, as long as they support abortion rights and affirmative action, but social democrats and populists who are pro-life or anti-affirmative action are not made nearly as welcome...

Unfortunately the upper-middle-class left, with its unerring instinct for political suicide, is probably incapable of seizing the moment and bringing more Baptists and Catholics into the Democratic Party, because it has developed an almost superstitious distaste for religious conservatives. This might make sense if the religious right were still a menace, as it was a generation ago. But with the exception of state referenda and constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, religious conservatives have lost one battle after another, from failed attempts to promote creationism on school boards to the doomed effort to repeal Roe v. Wade...

Social conservatives, having lost the culture war, should be offered not only a truce but also an opportunity to join a broad economic campaign for a middle-class America, as many of them did between 1932 and 1968. When pro-choicers and pro-lifers unite in cheering the public investment and living wage planks at the convention of the neo-Roosevelt party, we will know that the political era that began in 1968 is truly and finally over.


Exactly so. Or rather almost exactly so. The Roosevelt Party's issues were money and work, the issues that have the most bearing on quality of life. However affirmative action is precisely about money and work. Without affirmative action I might be scanning groceries or, more likely, doing boring, routine clerical work that would drive me nuts.

Still, with that qualification, this article is dead on. Money and work are important and organizing things to that people can avoid poverty and drudgery is difficult, costly and a hard political sell. "Lifestyle issues" are issues are trivial and tractable, or maybe to give neo-liberal McGovernites credit, they occupy a more elevated position on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you're financially secure and have a decent job, then you can worry about relationships and lifestyles.

It should be obvious to Democrats why the old base, the white working class, has deserted. Since the McGovernites have come to dominate the party, the message has been "Let them eat cake." Let them eat whole foods, solar panels and relationships.

Adding insult to injury, elite neo-liberals, who can afford to eat whole foods, solar panels and relationships, construe working class resentment as a manifestation of ignorance and bigotry. They worry about the stability of families and clamor for "family values"--we know what that means: fathers brutalizing their children and women barefoot and pregnant. They worry about the crime--of course that's just plain racism. They want their kids to get a "back to basics" education, with lots of discipline and drill--obviously because they don't understand the importance of critical thinking and creativity.

It's appalling that the latte-drinking elite are so provincial and have so little imagination that they don't get it. Working class people have to worry about family stability because their families are less stable. They have to be concerned about discipline because they've seen kids run amok, and because if their kids don't perform they haven't got the means to bail them out. They worry about crime because they live in or near bad neighborhoods, or because they've fled to remote exurbs but remember what the alternative was like. We don't see crime, social disintegration or failure as real and present dangers for ourselves or our families. We don't press for discipline and drill in the 3 Rs because we take it as a given that our kids will of course learn them, go to good colleges and get good jobs; they don't. We can afford what they see as frills and distractions; they can't.

Would accommodating social conservatives be selling out? Most people I know think it would. 1984 was our parents' nightmare--the nightmare vision of an authoritarian Stalinist super-state. The Handmaid's Tale is ours. They imagine that any compromise on "wedge issues" will enable Fundamentalists to take over and establish a puritanical theocracy. The first Cold War is over (though another may be brewing) but the Cold War template is still firmly in place: we've just substituted religious fundamentalism for Communism. The worry is the same: fanatic ideologues out to establish a puritanical, authoritarian regime. In the old days anti-communist books sold and there was a whole genre describing the activities of spies and double-agents. Now New Atheist books are best sellers and the media pumps out scare stories about a Fundamentalist fifth column pushing Creationism and Abstinence-only sex education, collaborating with right-wing politicians to take away our freedom, undermine our way of life and ruin our fun.

I'm not worried. Social conservatives have in fact lost the culture war, as the article notes. But even more importantly, calling a truce and working with social conservatives to promote paleo-liberal policies seems to me the most effective way to insure that what's left of social conservativism will wither away. Strong religion and social conservatism are bi-products of poverty, insecurity and social disorder because they serve the interests of the poor. If you're a working class striver and want to improve your life the best you can do for yourself is to join a conservative church or join the military. If you're on the edge, hanging on by your fingernails, you need puritanism and iron discipline to keep from falling off.

If you live in a social democratic welfare state where you're financially secure, have access to decent public education and other social services, and can avoid poverty and drudgery, you don't need puritanism and iron discipline, you won't sign on with the Fundamentalist agenda and you will be able to afford the finer things higher up on Maslow's scale. This seems to be borne out by empirical facts: Euro-socialism secularized Old Europe and established the lifestyle McGovernites want.

Progressives by and large don't seem to have figured this out, but Conservatives have. Want to promote God, guns and guts, and keep the masses scared so that they'll keep voting for you? Keep them financially insecure, keep them in debt, perpetuate the existence of a criminal underclass to threaten them, and make sure that they're brain-dead by locking them into boring, mind-numbing work so that they will keep voting for you.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds a little like what Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, is saying, minus the neo-gonzo journalism.

Have you read/seen his stuff?

H. E. said...

I did read Dear Hunting with Jesus but hadn't seen his blog until I hit your link. I was disappointed in the book--the guy isn't a very good writer, and he's a self-indulgent blowhard and poseur to boot.

More substantively, he's picked on a small, unrepresentative sample of the white working class and made them out as exotic specimens for the voyeuristic entertainment of readers. I don't think that's particularly illuminating. There was a nice article in the American Prospect which I think was more illuminating: "Did Hillary Crack the Working Class Code" at http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=did_hillary_crack_the_white_workingclass_code though I don't like the title, suggesting that there's a code to crack, that the working class is an exotic culture.

It just seems much simpler. The McGovern Party hasn't really done much for the working class. Working class Americans perceive its policies, with some justification, as the classic alliance between a romantic elite and the peasantry--in this case the urban underclass--squeezing the petit bourgeois and strivers. Democrats are now beginning to get the idea that they need to talk about supporting the interests of middle class people, which is the way most white working class Americans define themselves, but working class Americans are still skeptical, and with good reason.