01 March 2009

The fight we can't afford

Joel Kotkin posts an insightful essay about the crucial faultline dividing the Democratic party: not race or religion or foreign policy, but class. Here he explains the division between the rival camps he calls "gentry liberals" and "populists":

Gentry liberals cluster largely in cities, wealthy suburbs and college towns. They include disproportionately those with graduate educations and people living on the coasts. Populists tend to be located more in middle- and working-class suburbs, the Great Plains and industrial Midwest. They include a wider spectrum of Americans, including many whose political views are somewhat changeable and less subject to ideological rigor.

Gentry liberals are very "progressive" when it comes to issues such as affirmative action, gay rights, the environment and energy policy, but are not generally well disposed to protec-tionism or auto-industry bailouts, which appeal to populists.

During last year's Democratic nomination contest, of course, this division manifested itself in the profound split between the Obama and Clinton camps. As I observed at the time, class contempt rose to ugly and dangerous levels, something not only harmful to the party, but also un-American and despicable.

The people Kotkin calls "populists" are, in other contexts, known as "swing voters". An intelligently-reformed Republican party (don't laugh, it might happen someday) could appeal to them, as Reagan did and as McCain might have done if the consequences of eight years of Republican economic incompetence had not come crashing down on the country mere weeks before the election.

The causes crucial to us "gentry liberals" -- gay rights, abortion, secularism, the environment, respect for science -- must never be sacrificed, but they don't need to be. Except for the Christian Right (which will never vote liberal no matter what we do), the country is slowly but surely coming around on those issues. Most populist concerns -- income stagnation, illegal immigration, job offshoring, elite domination of the economy, leaders too hesitant to uphold American sovereignty and American national interests against foreign claims -- are all ultimately legitimate concerns of liberals too. The Democratic party needs to address them, seriously and effectively, in order to stay in power -- and because it's the right thing to do.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I have often discussed these as "symbolic" versus "material" issues. I admit that these labels are imperfect, but here's my point.

"Liberals" get really excited about issues that symbolize progressive change, but which do not require personal sacrifice or dramatic changes in the status quo. Same-sex marriage, hate crimes laws, abortion rights, electing the nation's first black president, etc. fall into this category.

But when we start talking about income inequality, decaying schools, violence in poverty neighborhoods, outsourcing, etc., the issues are too complicated; solutions would require sacrifice among elites or could dramatically change the way "we" structure society, etc.

It is easy for wealthy liberals to condemn things like Don Imus, but fail to challenge educational inequality (except, perhaps, to pontificate about the value of diversity). Elites want to make sure the Roe v Wade remains the law, but they do not advocate use of state and federal money to make abortion accessible to all. Progressives gushed and wept because they perceive Obama's election as a racial victory, but none of them talks about the extremely high rates of unemployment among blacks (exceeding 90 percent in some categories). There are so many ways I can describe this, but I think I have said enough......

02 March, 2009 02:20  
Anonymous Nick M said...

Well, infidel. Welcome to the real world. America has a class system as much as anywhere else. If I'm honest the Clinton/Obama thing was one of the ugliest contests I have ever seen.

Well, I say like everywhere else. I don't mean it's the same exactly. It cuts party lines very differently from the way it does here. Although that might change because the GOP has to spend a lot of time in the naughty corner thinking how it all went wrong.

Hopefully they will come to the conclusion that appealing only to the "Christian Right" is a bloody stupid idea but don't count on it...

It's a bloody stupid idea for a number of reasons but I'll just cite one. The CR is not a monolith and there are many folks there who whilst probably concerned about abortion or gay marriage don't see those issues as the be all and end all. Some of them (horrors!) are more concerned about the economy.

Though there are some whackjobs out there. I call 'em Huckabees.

Two good things (and lots of spite) came out of your last election. America has a black president so that's something hopefully we can cross off the to do list. Secondly, the USA will not vote in a creationist loon. That is a huge message to the GOP. That folks is like hint one. OK, they can retreat to their "core values" and become an utter irrelevance bashing their bibles at each other 'till time is called on their antics.

And trust me Infidel, you need a strong Republican (or wouldn't this be nice - Libertarian) opposition to your Democrats. Everyone needs a strong and rational opposition. We have iDave's Tory-lite. Great.

And then hopefully something tolerably classically liberal will awake in the USA. Either from a reform movement in the Dems or from the train-wreck of the GOP. Unlike many Libertarians I can see it coming as much from the "left" as the "right". I mean you could hardly call Dubya a small government type...

Darren,
Gay marriage is not a "symbolic issue" if you are gay and want to get married. Then it's very real.

02 March, 2009 02:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick M: Secondly, the USA will not vote in a creationist loon.

I'm not sure how you arrive at that conclusion, given that George Bush was a creationist loon, and McCain was not.

I've long been aware of class differences in the US, having read Paul Fussell's entertaining book on the subject. I noted this aspect of the Clinton/Obama contest in several postings at the time.

Having read Professor Hutchinson's site for some time, I can attest that he strongly supports gay rights. I think he was using "symbolic" to refer to issues that don't require substantial monetary investment.

02 March, 2009 07:31  

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