[Updated to clarify final paragraph.]
Big Tent Democrat of TalkLeft posted this morning a not entirely rhetorical question asking if the A-list Blogger Boyz (poster child – Josh Marshall of TPM) hate Hillary Clinton so much that they would destroy the party to guarantee her defeat. Well, duh, of course they would. It’s what they are doing right now. Then they will deploy the excuse used by domestic abusers around the world – you made me treat you like this - to justify the violence done to both.
But this is not an interesting question. I have written for years (since before the 2006 elections) that the “netroots” is not that liberal nor is it a trustworthy political partner to Democrats, so I am 100% unsurprised by what I’m seeing now. If you had been reading my blog all along, you would have known this as well. These guys are easy to explain. They are made up of the demographic most likely to support Obama (young, white, male, college educated, usually with some graduate school, and with enormous upper-middle class earnings/earning potential). These are people for whom political choices rarely have immediate life altering consequences for them. In the case of the Blogger Boyz, they have hitched their wagons to Obama’s star in a very public way. If he fails, he takes them and their credibility with him. Their problems with powerful women I have discussed in greater depth elsewhere.
The interesting question is why people like Howard Dean appear willing to destroy the Democratic Party rather than permit a Clinton victory. What’s up with the party power brokers? There is nothing I have said as a point of analysis on my blog that Howard Dean doesn’t already know. He’s a smart guy even if you hate what he’s doing. What I’m going to talk about is mostly speculation on my part. I’m not trying to address the horse race going on (Simple – count Michigan and Florida and let the chips fall where they may, or else lose by a landslide in November.) , but instead try to understand why we are in this situation without reducing it to individual personalities or the power mad fantasies of this or that individual. Parties do not engage in internal battles like this for simple reasons.
This is also part of my long term thinking about politics in America, and relates to my shifting views of “The South” in the liberal imagination.
I think we are seeing the North/South split among party power brokers, but not so much physical geography as much as “North” and “South” as modes of political thought, clans of political actors, and styles of political strategy. As articulated by outstanding liberal thinkers like Paul Krugman, Mark Schmitt and Rick Perlstein, the major parties have gone through a tectonic realignment starting with FDR and due almost entirely to a reversal in their stances about race and their pursuit of white Southern votes. The Republicans took advantage of the racist exodus from the Democrats and incorporated it almost without modification, whereas the Democrats have declared that mentality as “not us” and engaged in a simple but absolutely necessary rejection of that legacy. However, what the Democrats have yet to do is to articulate the ways and conditions under which we will say “us” and include the South. This is the third act of our multi-generational political drama. Act one was from FDR to LBJ. Act two was from LBJ to WJC. How will the Democrats handle their Southern problem?
The other part of this internal battle (and it is no mistake that we tend to deal with these two issues in tandem), is the tension between the “elite” and the “lunch-bucket” Democratic partisans. The terminology is misleading, of course, and engages in some unhelpful stereotypes. Anyone who is a high-ranking member of the Democratic Party leadership these days could only be considered an “elite” – college educated, professional class, with a higher likelihood than the general Democratic population of coming from that kind of background and of being part of a political family. The dynastic and multi-generational upper class affiliation would be greater in the Republican Party, but it is still present in the Democrats. Perhaps we can call these broad and often over-lapping groups within the party the Truman contingent and the Stevenson contingent. Perhaps we can call it class. As much as North and South look askance at each other, these constituents of the Democratic coalition do not always see eye to eye.
FDR was supremely successful at bridging the class division, bringing workers and eggheads, unions and academia, to mutual advantage in the New Deal, though he did so to a saddening degree by leaving race untouched. The bigotry of the base (and even more so the bigotry of the elite) was left unchallenged in tacit exchange for their support at the ballot box. Paul Krugman goes into a good amount of detail about this festering sore upon the New Deal, and the way in which everyone knew it was going to have to be addressed. Then, LBJ brought down the curtain on that act with the Voting Rights Act. It took a Southerner to do that, someone for whom the experience of racial privilege was not alien or academic and who knew in the depths of his soul why it was so appealing to its beneficiaries. It kept you from the bottom, no matter how low you were, if you had even a sliver of that privilege in your favor. The Republicans’ electoral brilliance stems from the way in which they tied loss of that privilege with liberal policies as such, and held out the (not entirely empty) promise to defend the Southern status quo.
In the minds of the liberal elite, the problems and failures of the progressive agenda could be laid at the feet of bigoted whites, the “Archie Bunkers” of the North, and the “Bubbas” of the South. And there lies the strategic fault line of the Democratic Party, the willingness of a significant portion of the party, and I’m willing to wager the majority of the party power brokers, to see the electoral problem as how to minimize the damage of the Bunkers. The nadir of this strategy was under Reagan with the rise of the Reagan Democrat, when Democratic Party leaders simply could not speak to this socio-economic constituency, and believed the worst of it. Nor were they entirely wrong. The Republicans rewarded this constituency for acting out their worst, most selfish and hateful impulses in culture wars and through Darwinist economic policies. At the same time, the lack of powerful Southerners in the Democratic Party leadership helped to preserve the Stevenson contingent’s dominance of the party. There may have been people like Sam Nunn or Al Gore, but you did not see any LBJ.
Onto the scene came Bill Clinton, equal parts Bubba and Rhodes Scholar, the walking, talking embodiment of where the South, as geography, as history, as cultural imagination, could go. He was the New South. He had the Elvis. He liked fried food and NASCAR and wonkish policy papers in German. He made being “Bubba” OK, even something to be proud of, in a way that called upon culture constructively. I’m not talking about Clinton’s policy accomplishments, as they are a mixed bag, though more good than not, as much as the psychological effect he had on working class America. More than anything, Bill Clinton was an immediate and powerful threat to the power elites of both major parties because he made the South an unapologetic player in Democratic Party politics again.
This scrambled a lot of socio-political narratives, not to mention upsetting various power-broker apple carts. The opposition to him within the party, it always seemed to me, came more from his effect on the balance of power than any policy or even any scandal he brought about. It is important that political cartoonists who hate Clinton, especially those on the left, emphasize him being a Bubba – a hillbilly, a hick, an untutored rube, someone who can’t speak good English, who dresses in overalls, chews on grass stems, and eats varmints for food. Oh, yeah, and he fucks a lot. Can’t forget that. Hillary becomes the foil, an uptight shrew who hates the slob she married and throws things at him. These two brilliant, educated, well-traveled, scary-smart people denigrated as Southerners. Pundits who write critically about the Clintons have no compunction against speaking of them as coming from a lower class than the deserving DC politicos. “Bubba” is used derogatorily, just as the Obama campaign dismissed Ohio voters as “Archie Bunkers.” My point here is not to promote the Clintons (though I think they deserve it), but to emphasize the way in which they are demonized by their own party. They become the embodiment of the old South, the unrepentant, segregationist South, just as northern blue collar voters who challenge the party orthodoxy are labeled Archie Bunkers. Working class Democrats know that those terms are meant as put-downs, shorthand code for “stupid racist we have to cajole through Election Day and can then ignore.”
This is why the current campaign reminds me of 1968 all over again, except that the targets of the high-minded ire are so unlike the caricatures being painted that I’m left going “WTF?” From Hillary herself as some kind of crypto-racist to Hispanic women Ohioans being compared to a 70’s era ethnic white male bigot, it just boggles the mind. The Stevenson contingent has no narrative, no political frame adequate to address the coalition that has formed around Hillary. They are left grasping at what this person represents to people who do not fall into the educated (male) wine-track or the uneducated (male) beer-track. On the other hand, I’m not sure anyone else has a clear concept of this new constituency either. What does it mean that an upper Midwest born, New England educated white woman who lived for several decades in Arkansas and now calls New York home is sweeping border state primaries and also cleaning up in Florida, California and Massachusetts? What part of the Democratic imagination is she setting on fire?
She is creating a new coalition of voters, more diverse than the pundits are really aware of. It is different than the powerfully Southern draw that Bill had, but, given her strength in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, southern Ohio, roughly the Appalachian areas plus Oklahoma and Texas, there is definitely a Southern component. It is too easy to write it off as race due to the tremendous appeal that Obama has for AA voters, because it assumes only “Bunker” and “Bubba” stereotypical motivations (race hatred) for her supporters, and not that a large portion of people who would otherwise gladly be counted on her side are motivated by salutary racial pride to support another. Racism and ethnic prejudice exist in this country, but I refuse to reduce the political decisions of the majority of my fellow Democrats to destructive racist motives, whether in Hillary’s favor or in Obama’s.
Stepping back from the current campaign and refocusing on the power plays that must be happening, I get this weird sense of déjà vu all over again. The northeast liberal elite with the help of the Chicago Daley machine is battling against a wily Southern populist who carries a lot of baggage, but is immensely popular with “jus’ folks.” There is no picking between these two constituencies if the party is to remain the majority party in the country. The question is where the balance of power will lie. And I think we’ll have a better answer to that question after the convention, though probably not a final answer until after the general.
What I do know is that to the degree that the base of the party is equated with "The South" in the minds of the Democratic Party leadership and the leftist punditocracy, and that "The South" means Archie Bunker and Bubba, there is no future for the Democratic Party.