What’s the matter with Kansas, redux


When it comes to politics, I increasingly find myself with more anger than eloquence. So the occasional moments of levity are welcome. One thing that still amuses me is the cut-your-own-nose-to-spite-your-face conservatives, the slavering idiots who vote for their own economic doom and seem positively thrilled by the prospect.

These are the Midwestern morons profiled every other week by a major media outlet, thinking that they represent Trump’s base. (Maybe they do, but you don’t have to send a reporter to flyover country to interview Trump supporters when Staten Island is a 30 minute ferry ride away.) The recent genre of “we supported a trade war not realizing we’d be the first casualties” pieces has been highly entertaining. Take, for instance, the nail factory in Butler County, Missouri (which voted 79% for Trump), where orders have plummeted because of Trump’s 25% tariffs on imported steel. At the factory, there’s a veritable cornucopia of stupidity, from the guy who pooh-poohs reports of impending layoffs as fake news (““Mass layoffs? I don’t believe it’s going to happen,” said Randy Wade, 42, a supervisor for a local vending company, rolling his eyes”), to the company itself, who tries to protest the tariffs in the most servile tone imaginable (““More than any president in our time, you have shown compassion for U.S. manufacturing workers,” the letter began. “It is in your power to keep our plants running and save our jobs.”), to my favorite, the employee whose thinking has been so warped by Trump’s authoritarian force field that he sounds like a cuckold explaining why his wife fucking other men is a good thing (“He worries he may lose his job as a result of the president’s policies. But Coffer is still gung-ho about Trump. “I support him 100%,” he said last week. “In fact, I’d like to shake his hand. He’s doing a great job.”). At the Harley-Davidson plant in Wisconsin that might shut down or move offshore, there’s a similarly-minded employee who praised Trump’s trade war, saying “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.”

It’s adorable that these people think that Donald Trump has their best interests at heart. (I know, I’m keeling over in laughter too.) Why would Trump give a shit about a nail factory in Missouri, or motorcycle plant in Wisconsin, or soybean farmers in central Ohio? For all of their pretensions of anti-elitism, and taunts about “New York money” (more like “(((New York money)))”), the Trump family is full of elites, his people are outer-borough New Yorkers (like Hannity, O’Reilly, and Pirro), and the world he inhabits is awash in New York money, both the triple-parenthesized type and otherwise. In his rare moments of lucidity, Trump is even forthright about it: “We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite.”

So why does the salt of the earth stick by Trump? Surely at least some of them understand that corporate tax cuts won’t make them richer; that the repeal of the Obamacare won’t make them healthier; and that cozying up to Russia won’t make them safer. Political writer Thomas Frank’s thesis, back in the early 2000s, was that the Republicans’ message on economics appeals to their rich donors but not their base, and that the Republicans’ message on the “culture war” does the opposite. In essence, Frank postulates, the base is duped into voting against their economic interests because the GOP appeals to them with cultural/social issues like gay rights, abortion, and baristas not writing “Merry Christmas” on their Starbucks coffee cups.

There wasn’t dispositive support for Frank’s argument in 2004, when the book was written. Larry Bartels and Andrew Gelman examined the data closely and found that income was a reasonably strong predictor of Democratic party affiliation: poor white people were much less likely to vote for Republicans than rich white people, presumably because many weren’t being duped. Political scientists like Bartels and Gelman deemed Frank’s argument scientifically dubious.

But the story doesn’t end there. Look at 2016, instead of 2004, and Frank looks prescient instead of merely provocative. Lower class white voters moved away from Democrats, and not just in the South. Political scientist Seth Masket writes, “According to a Pew study, whites with no more than high school diplomas broke 45-44 in favor of Republicans in 2008 — basically a tie. By 2012, that division had split to 53-38, and this year it was 59-33, a 26-point Republican advantage. This, notably, did not start because of Donald Trump — there was a bigger jump between 2008 and 2012 than between 2012 and 2016 — although he may have magnified the trend.”

Lower class whites, like (undoubtedly) many of the workers at the Harley-Davidson plant in Wisconsin or the nail factory in Missouri, are increasingly voting against their economic interests. This has historically been the pattern in the South, but not necessarily the rest of the country.

(At this point, I should note that there are a lot of different ways to slice the data and to define “lower class” in the first place. Defining class in terms of education vs income can lead to very different conclusions.)

The explanations proposed for these shifts are varied. White socialists (of the Jacobin variety) would like you to believe that Democrats have stopped advocating for policies that improve the poor’s material condition by embracing “neoliberalism” instead; in a similar vein, other writers (like Thomas Frank himself) propose that Democrats themselves have become the elitists and limousine liberals that Richard Nixon used to caricature, and have lost their working class roots. On the other hand, progressive writers who focus on race (like Jamelle Bouie) claim that the politics of white supremacy and racial division are trumping, as they have always trumped, whatever tenuous class solidarity lower class whites might feel towards their minority brethren. These arguments have been litigated endlessly in the wake of Trump’s election, and I’m not sure I can contribute anything useful by rehashing them.

However, I find it striking that this isn’t the first time these complaints have arisen. There is a region of the country where capitalism has historically been opposed by “capitalism-lite”/neoliberalism, as socialists lament, and where the politics of race have predominated everything else, as the racial progressives decry. That region is the South. So, in this discussion, I’m reminded of this review (in 1950!) by Richard Hofstadter of V. O. Key’s book on Southern politics:

The one-party system in the South is the political corollary of the master-race complex. Its fundamental concern in local affairs is white supremacy; the one indispensable function of the Southern Democratic party in Washington is to make certain that these local arrangements will not be disturbed from outside.

The hub of the classic liberal interpretation of society has been the idea of competition, especially among political parties. The essence of “good” liberal politics is that it manages first to raise issues in a fairly coherent form for debate and then to compromise them in the process of policy-formation without resort to violence and without causing excessive instability in political institutions. Theoretically the party of the “outs” under the two-party system is supposed to organize the various social interests that have been offended in one way or another by the policies of the “ins,” until at last enough have been forged together to oust the “ins” and rectify a good proportion of the grievances. I believe this mechanism has not worked nearly as well in our national history as it does in the theoretical model that the political scientists have constructed for their classrooms; but it has had a rough kind of working order, and its failures are probably due as much to other deficiencies in our political culture as to the party mechanism itself.

At any rate, the South does not have this kind of party politics; it has a variety of political factionalism in which the internal and local issues of Southern society have been driven underground. There is no coherent party of the “outs” and little more than the rudiments of a mass electorate. Political opposition is thus diverted from what might be, and ought to be, major issues of policy bearing upon the public welfare. Political leaders frequently have no clear association with ideas and policies, and in some cases even with each other. Politically active people move more or less freely, but without this having much more than a personal meaning, from faction to faction. They are like a negative caricature of the independent voter who may flourish where there is a vigorous two-party battle; where he keeps his independence so that he is free to vote in accordance with the issues, they are independent because there are no issues. Even under the two-party system the issues actually raised in campaigns have frequently been factitious, to be sure; but the Southern one-party system almost guarantees that they will be. In the absence of meaningful issues, campaigns center on personalities or cliques, on outstanding demagogues who can draw crowds primarily in their capacity as entertainers. The absence of parties and issues isolates state from national politics; thus it is extremely difficult to inject significant national issues into the state arena and vitalize the Southern political mind from outside. As a result, the South has “no system or practice of political organization and leadership adequate to cope with its problems.”

Certainly, the comparison isn’t perfect, or even close. National politics today are rather different from the one-party system that existed in the South in the post-Reconstruction era: most importantly, there is a “coherent party of the “outs”” who constitute the political opposition. Yet I find myself nodding in agreement when I read about “major issues of policy bearing upon the public welfare” being sublimated in favor of “personalities or cliques…outstanding demagogues who can draw crowds primarily in their capacity as entertainers”.

Hofstadter and Key rightly identified this as a failure of the Southern political system, and I think we are experiencing something similar now in America. In the South, a politics based on economic interests was never possible: racial divisions always superseded class-based ones; labor unions, who have been at the vanguard of reforms to capitalism, never flourished; and the electoral system was rigged to depress the votes of poor people and minorities (and the lack of a political options in the first place made voting seem almost meaningless).

I’m not the first to make this point, but American politics at large has been undergoing a Southernization over the last 40-odd years. The right-to-work movement has spread to the Midwest, and membership in (private) labor unions has fallen precipitously since the heydays of the Truman era. The politics of race have become nationalized as well; now it’s not just black people we should be afraid of, but also Mexicans and Muslims and refugees from shithole countries, and not just in the South or inner cities, but even in places with hardly any minorities at all. And the rigging of the electoral system, too, has become a national movement.

Ultimately, the only way out of this political misery is to forge a successful politics based on both racial and economic progressivism (no easy task!). Democrats have historically sacrificed the former in favor of the latter, but, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said: “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.” I agree, and I hope (although I am not confident) that that message can resonate in both Queens County and Butler County. If it doesn’t, the future will be a bleak one, where the pundits convince the Democratic leadership that leftism is an electoral non-starter, Republicanism contends against Republicanism-lite, Chuck Schumer tries endlessly to appeal to his imaginary reasonable white suburban family, and we have a de facto one-party system run by clowns and charlatans (even more so than Senator Kid Rock). In short, George Wallace’s prophecy will have come true: “Alabama has not joined the nation, the nation has joined Alabama!”


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