Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why the Southern Strategy Works

More on my continual thinking about "The South" in the American political imagination.

The bruhaha over Pres. Carter's claim that opposition to The Precious is rooted in racism makes me reflect back on the primary campaigns when that was the standard response to anyone on the left who voiced criticism or opposition to Obama - or who merely said they preferred a different candidate.

The interesting political question for me, however, is not that the idiocy of the campaign is coming back to bite The Precious Administration in the ass, but why the Democratic response to opposition time and again (and not just by Obamacans) is to point out the imagined moral/ethical failings of the opponents on the subject of race, rather than make a political argument about the weakness of opposition's stances or identify the failures of the previous administrations, etc. The response also fails to distinguish between the sources of opposition - criticisms coming from the anti-D/democratic side and opposition from inside the party. The problem here is not that this racism claim is being pushed forward in a cynical way, but that it is what the speakers really believe.

I'm going to make a claim - Pres. Carter was sincere when he asserted that opposition to Obama was based in racism. This was not a calculated use of an argument to fluster opponents, but what Carter believes to be true. This is a politician for whom opposition to racism was his motivation and organizing principle. He is paradigmatic of a certain kind of Democrat for whom racism is the prism through which politics is viewed, unable or unwilling to put that particular battle into its constituent role in liberal politics as such.

As I detailed in The Whiteness of the Whale:

Why this psychotic and self-defeating projection onto the working class? It is the deep guilt of the liberal upper class that we know, every last miserable one of us, that our privilege is due to centuries of white supremacy and to the informal, unspoken, but pervasive advantage our skin color and behavioral patterns gives us in this society. It is our Moby Dick, the whale we pursue obsessively through political seas, frantic to have material proof that we are innocent of the crimes of our nation.

The Democratic Party was the party of slavery and civil war in the 19th century. It was the party of Jim Crow in the early 20th century. The New Deal set it on the path to renouncing that legacy through the mid-part of the last century, and it was a brutal passage. Instead of reimagining the South and what it could become, the Northeast elite who had taken over the leadership simply renounced it – you will be like us or you can get out. When desegregation came to the Northeast and the Midwest, the contempt for “The South” was transferred easily to the working class ethnic whites who resisted this change. Archie Bunker became an eternal truth rather than a thought exercise, a denunciation of the unchangeable cretin in front of the TV instead of a call to reflect on how we become what we are and how, despite ourselves, we can find our common humanity. Most of all, the determined demonization of working class whites, especially those with Southern connections, allows the upper class elites to turn a blind eye to the way in which they are the biggest beneficiaries of the centuries of racism in the nation. There is a growing group within the liberal elite who wishes to jettison “The South” entirely, leaving the working class immiserated and isolated, rather than face up to the obligation of the party to complete the task before it. That task is to create the conditions under which racism is no longer something that can be exploited for electoral gain or needed as a survival tactic in deteriorating and demeaning socio-economic conditions.

I add to this that it wasn't just Northeast elites, but also down-in-the-trenches Southern Democrats, like Jimmy Carter, who had lived in the worst areas of America's apartheid and who understood just how inhuman Jim Crow was, who made the battle against racism the crown of liberal politics. Institutionalized racism had to be dismantled becuase there was no defense for it. Pres. Carter is not wrong when he emphasizes the corrosive effects of racism on the body politic; it is clearly the weapon of choice on the Right to undermine Democrats. The "Southern Strategy" continues to this day, though it could probably be renamed the "Sunbelt Strategy" to take cognizance of the anti-Latino theme.

But here is the irony - the moralistic and non-political use of racism as a shaming mechanism by party leaders in combination with the passionate rejection of "white trash" (the working class) by those same leaders has made the Republicans' political strategy just that much more effective. We're doing their work for them. Instead of policies, like universal health care, that materially improve the lives of people in their current socio-economic location, there are half-assed half-measures that tie provision of common social goods to obtaining stable, high-paying, white-collar career employment. Sure, if you are one of the "creative class" types who provides a service the people with the money consider important, you, too, can have the perks that make life comfortable. If you don't choose to improve yourself (Organic food! More exercise! Fewer children! Higher education! Better dental hygiene!), then you don't deserve a better life. If you don't like the policies being proposed, well, you're probably just a racist who doesn't want benefits going to "those people."

That's a moralistic argument, not a political one. It offers an insult where there should be a promise of material goods. When people voice, however awkwardly, fears and resentment about being treated unfairly by social and political institutions, their discontent is dismissed as individual failings (clinging to guns and God) instead of organizing that discontent into a movement against the real sources of racism - entrenched economic elites who interests are anti-D/democratic.

The Southern Strategy has become the de facto operating principle of the Democratic Party. Divide the working class on racial lines and designate these groups as deserving and undeserving. Focus on individual failings rather than the deep structures of power. Make people pick tribes.

Paul Krugman, in The Conscience of a Liberal, methodically dissected the use of race by the Right to undermine the advances of the New Deal. When he expresses amazement that "zombie" ideas of the Movement Conservatives just keep resurrecting themselves no matter how badly they fail, he overlooks the way in which the use of race by the Left has also undermined the advances of the New Deal. The economic claims of the Right have staying power because their social claims are confirmed by the actions of the Left. The 2008 campaign was breathtaking in the way it laid bare these fault lines on the Left, presenting the ideologies in their pure form, unmoored from any supporting reality. It was an incredible display of contempt for people living on the edge.

Racism is the hueristic of the Stevensonian elite. These people keep the Southern Strategy going to the detriment of us all.


PS - Right after I posted this, I saw Historiann's excellent post Race and Barack Obama’s political opposition. Go read it. Now. It's good.


Falstaff said...

This is one terrific post. I have a friend who feels that the historic significance of Obama's election -- electing a black man as president -- trumped any of the other issues in play. He regards the Democratic Party as noble for having fallen on its sword since LBJ in the cause of righting America's primal wrong.

Even if one accepts that, it begs the question of the Democratic Party as a vibrant political institution and force. As you so cogently argue, the obsession with race -- for many, a deeply fraught (not to say hypocritical) obsession -- has been at least one of the important factors preventing the party from re-forming (hyphen intended) itself for a new era.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel. But demonization (in this case of Bubbas) is arguably the first resort of a drowning man.

And yet, I retain my longer-term optimism. I still think the Party is inching back... two steps forward, one-and-a-half back... toward post-Vietnam viability. That may just be because I don't wish to be bummed out through my senior years, but I'm looking forward to 2016.

Anonymous said...

Liberal elites assuage their "white guilt" by enacting programs that shift the burden of redressing past injustice onto the white working class.

This breeds resentment in the white working class, which the GOP is more than happy to exploit.

Liberal elites then wonder "What's the matter with Kansas?"

R. S. Martin said...

There have been some really good posts on this subject the last couple of days: yours, Historiann's, and myiq2xu's on the sites he writes for.

The thing that has always struck me about many of the bourgeois left is that they see political issues as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for their highmindedness. The flip-side of that is their tendency to see political battles in terms of clucking at others for the lack of that perceived highmindedness. They have nothing at stake in practical terms, so they get hung up on abstract issues.

Unknown said...

A quick tour of the "progressive blogs" right now is really startling. Almost to a man/woman, they are talking about how to/how critical it is to rebuild the Democratic Party.


Didn't the "Democratic" Party win the WH, and Congress, too? What's to re-build?

Surely the "Democratic" Party has never been more successful....if you're a Republican.

Bob Harrison said...

The incessant drumbeat of inferiority cast down upon the working class creates an attitude of suspicion toward any of the elite, even those who are genuinely concerned and trying to help. Here in the Appalachians were are often told that the outsiders are here to save us from ourselves. Of course, those of us who feel like we don't need saving are racists.

Koshem Bos said...

Not growing up in this country robes me of a substantial depth of historical knowledge. For me Stevensonian wings and thoughts are difficult to understand.

Growing up with the European left influences makes things clear if not necessarily in context. The Democratic party is, at best, a social democratic party. At worse, most of the time, it's more of a centrist party, e.g. Christian democrats.

It's therefore, the party of the well educated, better of and the status quo. As the book of Jove stated thousands of years ago, the establishment feels arrogant and privileged. (I am paraphrasing heavy.)

The last Democratic primaries were a great manifestation of looking down on the poor, the uneducated and the unfortunate. The fineschmeckers (German and Yiddish for 'having the bettter taste') ran the election with one finger raised towards the poor. It has been this way since the beginning of the Vietnam war.

The so called progressive are very static and see no need to make progress on anything except on special topics such as health care (just don't cause waves), foreign policy and bonuses to the very thieves.

This is not going to change unless the unions take over the Democratic party, never, and even then you don't let the SEIU do it.

Sam said...

One of the best political pieces I've read. You've not only put into words what I've been thinking since Oct. 2007, but provided me we further insight. I wholeheartedly agree that Southern "progressives" tend to look at societal problems ONLY through the lens of race. Indeed for all those supposed progressives, we must look at the economic components of racism if we truly want to overcome it. I like to think of it as sort of a hierarchy of exploitation where northern capitalists in concert with the Southern aristocracy exploit the labor of blacks with the institution of slavery (subsequently the feudalistic sharecropper arrangement) and whites (e.g., the Southern textile mills). The majority of whites, while not bearing the brunt of economic exploitation, were deprived nonetheless. Conveniently, more conservative Southern politicians could exploit their frustrations by blaming society's ills on African-Americans (the Robert E. Lee Ewell complex for those familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird). Unfortunately, instead of a leftist bi-racial coalition centered on economic justice as an alternative, we have fake "progressives"--in the North and South--who talk about unity and getting along, anything but economic justice. Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and the Precious (I love it!) went out of their way to talk about unity and bipartisanship and getting along without the baggage of populist rhetoric or policies that would be economically just to the vast majority of those of all races and social groups. That's why I backed Edwards, then Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I was looking for an actual opponent to the corporatists who have now found it necessary to buy out our party so that whichever party controls Congress and/or the Presidency can be counted upon to redistribute wealth upwards. But it's alright, so long as there's Multicultural Day and we can project all this nation's problems onto the South and/or white working-class men and women who are supposedly so dumb that it's amazing they could read road signs to get to church (Christian-bashing is also popular among these "creative-class progressives"). Give me a break! To be honest, I was unsure of HRC at the beginning of the primaries. I certainly don't like her husband, but it was ignorant of me to hold her accountable for Bill's failures or assume that she was politically congruent with her husband. She certainly adopted the populist mantle, especially after Edwards suspended his campaign. I just wish we could mount a serious primary challenge. Maybe Hillary Clinton could re-challenge him. Let's just hope the Precious doesn't bus in people to the Iowa Caucuses again. Maybe Kirsten Gillibrand, Howard Dean, or Sherrod Brown, anyone? I don't know about anyone else, but I'm "fired up and ready to go" when it comes to taking back our Democratic Party from a bunch of militant libertarians!

Again, great job with the cogent analysis.