14 March 2005

Roads and resentment

Shortly after the election, I wrote this.
We dug deep into our pockets and gave money to the Democratic party. We gave our time to organizations. We went out to the swing states and worked door-to-door. The progressive wing didn't grumble and try to pressure the party; we pandered to swing voters every way we knew how. The Republicans ran a buffoonish candidate who didn't even win the election last time; we ran an articulate, politically moderate war hero candidate.

And still we lost. What more does it take?

Around the same time, Timothy Burke wrote an an answer, The Road to Victory Goes Through the End of the Democratic Coalition. It's a long PDF, but worth your time.

I've been thinking about what he says ...

Burke agrees with my fundamental frustration.

We really lost: it's got nothing to do with rain or electronic voting machines or Ralph Nader or Fox News. John Kerry ran the best campaign he could, and he was a reasonable enough standard-bearer for the Democratic Party as it stood before November 2, 2004. It's a matter of cold, hard numbers. The old Democratic coalition got all of its people to the polls, it got all of its people mobilized, it got angry and motivated and had a razor-sharp focus on a single goal, and it lost.
I could quibble. The story of electronic voting machines, and other chicanery in Ohio, remains spooky. Fox News is the most dramatic manifestation of a huge breakdown in the functioning of our media. I think Kerry made some bad mistakes, in not mobilizing to respond to negative campaigning fast enough.

But the point remains correct: the Democrats cannot win simply by trying harder. A more fundamental shift will be necessary. Looking over what some smart lefties have said, he sees a tough decision to make.

There are two roads.
One ... amounts to choosing the traditions of communitarianism and "moral values" within the history of the American left and making them the glue that cements together an opposition to Bush.
The glue that could hold this alliance together, and bring back some red-state expressions of communalism and values from the brink of the politics of resentment, would effectively be the declaration of a permanent truce in the long culture war, a truce guaranteed by the near-total devolution of authority over values, culture, morality, and rights to localities.

I lightly proposed the bifurcation of the United States into Bicoastia and Heartlandia in an earlier essay. Here I am dead serious: such a devolution is a necessary precondition of a successful alliance against the politics of resentment, against the slide towards a proto-fascist mobilization. Those on the left joining such an alliance would have to know that its price is conceding to all localities profound powers of self-governance. The old Democratic coalition in this configuration must surrender gun control. It must surrender abortion rights. It must surrender affirmative action. It must surrender rigid enforcement of church-state separation. Not surrender those things in its own communities: that would be the terms of the bargain. To each his own, to every state and town, its own values. This is not so strange as it might sound: we have dry towns and wet towns, towns with strong anti-pornography zoning and towns with strongly permissive zoning. It would extend those covenants as a matter of principle across the spectrum, to virtually everything but the most pasic of rights enforcement.

Who loses in this alliance? Basically, anyone who does not share the majoritarian values of their own community. In blue-state communities, the red-staters would lose, and vice-versa. Who lose of the old Democratic coalition? Basically, the cosmpolitan educated elite gets thrown overboard. Who else loses? I think the business classes, white-collar elites, and suburbanites. Because most of them want access to multiple value systems.

Okay, that's bad. Dark lefty humor to the contrary, I hesitate to see the country split like that. As it happens, I'm ready to give up on gun control, and even some boneheaded manifestations of affirmative action. But Burke is calling for a lot of letting go. Philosophically, it means standing by while Jim Crow laws are reinstituted, if it comes to that, and I don't think I can swallow it.

Plus, reading Digby a lot lately, he's convinced me that this option isn't really available. The resentment of red America is so deep that "live and let live" isn't enough. Consider this post of his about resentment, where he quotes an American president talking about red America, saying

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
Who is this talking? Why, it's Abraham Lincoln in 1860, on the campaign trail before being elected for the first time. Yet it sounds like he's talking about the culture wars today. Lincoln goes on:
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly --- done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated --- we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
That's right. Here in San Francisco, we can only hold wedding ceremonies for the people they approve of. Across the Bay in Berkeley, we can only teach classes with subjects they approve of. If blue America makes movies they don't like, we're shoving vulgarity down their throats. If blue America asks why we have have gone to war, we have dishonored our troops. And on and on and on.

I'll grant that it was blue America that changed American culture in our communities, but it was red America that declared it a culture war. Why would they call it off if we haven't surrendered?

Burke does offer a second path.

It is a soft libertarian road, characterized by an intense commitment to the universal enforcement of constitutional rights, by an uncompromising protection of free speech, free assembly, to the restraint of the power and capacity fo the federal government, any government, to intrude on the rights of its citizens. But this road also has to abandon the strong version of the welfare state, to throw overboard strong regimes of governmental regulation of business, to subject governement intervention in economic and social issues to very strong needs-tests and very intensive assessment of effectiveness. The rhetoric of this road would have to strong favor meritocratic visions and conceptions of social mobility and economic policy.
Tempting: my civil libertarian impulse is fierce, and I'm willing to make common cause for it with folks whose libertarian streak runs wider still, to economic libertarianism that I think is silly at best. And the left does need to run a tighter ship about asking whether proposed interventions in society actually work.

But this is still a tough pill to swallow. It means not policing the ways in which capitalism fails. It means surrendering on health care. It means surrendering on poverty. I could accept those surrenders, given that I'm financially successful enough that this stuff isn't a big problem for me. But the stakes are huge for a lot of Americans; I see this road as abandoning my responsibilities as a citizen for my fellow citizens. And the consequences for the environment are really scary. We're already eating the seed grain with our shared resources --- this route would make things even worse.

I wIsh there were a better option on the table. But there isn't one impressing me right now.

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