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13.11.03

Race And Greed In Dixie

The uproar over Howard Dean's comment that he wants to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks has largely blown over for the moment, but I want to raise the topic again, and make a more straightforwardly political post than I have been doing of late.

My initial reaction when I heard of the incident was to defend Dean. And I still think that the initial line of criticism -- that Dean was endorsing the flag and the racism that it stands for (in the minds of Northerners and blacks, at least) -- was off base. It's the second line of criticism -- that Dean was stereotyping white southerners by using the image of a guy with a Confederate flag on his pickup truck to represent them -- that made me think.

The thrust of Dean's argument, which has garnered a lot of approval, is this: working-class white southerners would benefit from Democratic programs like progressive taxation, universal health care, strong public education, etc. But the Republican "southern strategy" has won them over to the GOP by playing to these people's racism.

I don't deny that racism is a major problem in this country, south and north. And there is certainly a segment of the southern white population that is driven away from the Democrats due to their stand on racial issues. But I'm skeptical that racism alone is sufficient to explain southerners' allegiance to the Republican party. The equation has to be expanded to include a multitude of cultural issues -- religion in public life, abortion, gay rights (or the lack thereof), etc. Curing southern whites of their racism won't do the Democrats any good if the number one concern of the voters in question is that their candidate be pro-life.

At this point I still accepted that working class southern whites would benefit from Democratic policies (indeed, that would be part of the reason I support those policies, in addition to the way they benefit working class whites in the north and west, and working class non-whites everywhere). But I realized there was an unstated corollary to this point: people ought to vote in their economic self-interest. The Dean analysis assumed that people would vote for their economic self-interest unless distracted by something else (such as race). This "class interest" model fits with Democrats' (accurate) perception of the workings of crony capitalism, in which tycoons bounce back and forth between free market rhetoric and asking the government for favors, depending on which strategy will make them the most money. ("Class interest" is a Marxist term, but there are roots here in classical liberalism. Much like Adam Smith argued that the market allows people's pursuit of their self-interest to result in the good of society, in a perfect democracy the outcome that's best for the most people will be selected if each person votes for what benefits them personally.)

I don't know that we can presume that class interest operates this way for working class Republicans from any region. I recall a conversation I had once with my dad, who's a lifelong Republican of moderate means. We were discussing some people we know who had far more money than they needed, and who spent it on things like extravagant vacations. My reaction was that there were so many more productive things for society that they could be doing with that money. My dad, on the other hand, said something to the effect of "well, they worked hard for that money, so I guess they can do what they want with it." His sense of justice (a particular quasi-libertarian sort of justice) was paramount. The relevance to the Dean issue is this: while Republican policies may not be in working class people's self-interest, those policies do have appeal to those voters independent of any cultural policies that they may come packaged with. White southerners think it's proper that the government tax less and spend less, and vote based on that. Thus, it's not enough (or even necessary) for the Democrats to point out that white southerners would be better off with a Democrat in office, they have to make the case that Democratic policies are just.

My point may be clearer if we consider the case of the rich Democrat. The class interest idea effectively approves of rich people voting Republican -- after all, to vote for the party of progressive taxation and regulation of business is against their economic self-interest. And it's doubtful that Democrats have simply duped some rich people into supporting them through appeals to cultural issues. Democrats think it's perfectly understandable for a rich person to support a liberal economic policy out of a sense of justice toward the less-well-off (as do rich conservatives -- it's conceivable that for many people there can be a coincidental, rather than causal, relationship between "policies I think are just" and "policies that benefit me").

People do vote with their pocketbooks, and may use their own prosperity to judge whether the incumbent has been successful in managing the economy. But in considering which policy is desirable, a person's sense of justice can easily take precendence. The problem with the Dean analysis is less that it assumes southerners are racists and more that it assumes that they're greedy.

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