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Saturday, January 07, 2017

My Response to a NYT Piece on Rural Voters: Democrats Think People Are Vulnerable To Evil and Capable of Good. Republicans Join A Big Gang Where Anything Goes To Win.

Thanks to my friend and long-term friend-of-blog "JimF" for directing my attention to a piece by Robert Leonard in today's NYT (which I do not read, anymore, really, apart from Krugman; these days the mainstreamiest news I read regularly are the Guardian and the LA Times). The piece is: Why Rural America Voted for Trump. I didn't disagree with all of it, by any means. A lot of the piece is simply documenting the guiding rationalizations of the people he is talking about, and these are what they are.

But to the extent that entailments are being drawn from these rationalizations as though they were philosophical propositions, I think it is important to notice these rationalizations are rather facile and incoherent, appear rather more symptomatic than sensible, and are being offered up, frankly, in what I consider to be bad faith. By the way, I suppose this isn't a bad moment to remind people my Mom was raised on a Kentucky dairy farm I visited every weekend for years, my Dad was a plumber's son raised in a small town a county over, and I grew up in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, my high school was a feeder school for surrounding farming communities, and I lost my virginity in a corn field... that is to say, I'm from a very white midwestern-southernesque rural-if-suburbanizing middle-class (at least in good times) milieu myself, and no stranger to the world actually under discussion here.

From the article: “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts... "We become good by being reborn -- born again.” Now, this is a decades-familiar claim by now, so I guess there is some measure of truth in it. But I must say that I see all this rather differently. I would put it this way: Republicans recognize some of the ways they are bad (deceptive, hypocritical, cruel, selfish, greedy, intolerant, say) but then decide to stay bad and join a gang of other bad people who think behaving badly is justified for the tribe and that those who try to do good are just lying do-gooders anyway who must be destroyed because they are a different gang.

The article continues: “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong -- not us.”

While the prior assertion was, it seems to me, far too kind to rural Republicans it at least captures the substance of their rationalization. This bit about the Democrats is an utter hash though, I'm afraid. For one thing, secularization is not the same thing as irreligiosity -- many freethinkers and atheists (me among them) welcome interfaith dialogue and support. And, of course, many Democrats are quite religious, and don't think of God as a dispensable human invention in the least, including many women of color who are the most reliable Democratic voters and organizers in the coalition, rendering this facile over-generalization absurd on its face. But even if we set all that aside -- no small thing -- the second set of assertions built on the questionable first ones, the ones attempting to characterize Democratic governance seem to me even worse than a mess.

First of all, very much to the contrary of the article's presumption, Democrats seem to me to believe that every human is in fact absolutely vulnerable or even prone to be bad under the right circumstances -- which is why they are devoted to regulation, accountability, transparency, separation/federation/multilaterality of powers. It is true, Democrats also hold, as a complementary principle of that very vulnerability, that every human is also capable of good works to the benefit of all when we are reliably informed and supported in the context of public investments in public goods like stable norms, equitable laws, public education, reasonable distributions of costs/risks/benefits, and facilitative infrastructure. Declaring humans vulnerable of badness, capable of goodness, and focused on social arrangements to frustrate the former and facilitate the latter is not even remotely the same thing as believing "we are born good."

And far from looking for someone "else" to blame when things go wrong (or right), the Democratic perspective puts the focus precisely on human beings ourselves, we the people. Any number of religious faiths, as well as plenty of skeptical and non-religious beliefs, are all perfectly compatible with such assumptions, and are exemplified across the Democratic coalition. This article is being circulated widely -- including among many self-flagellating liberals who aren't quite ready yet to move from the self-indulgence of grief to practical organizing and useful rhetoric even as Trump readies his assaults. As far as I can see, it seems to be confronting an alibi for Republicans who voted for an authoritarian racist rapist con-man criminal blowhard with a stereotypical misrepresentation of Democrats as ungodly sentimentalists out of touch with human nature and historical reality. In both these gestures, I think the article as wrongheaded as it can be.

But let us continue on. "While many blame poor decisions by Mrs. Clinton for her loss, in an environment like this, the Democratic candidate probably didn’t matter." I quite agree that it does not matter to Republicans who the Democrat is anymore. Democrats fall in love (or failing to, stay home, even if their house is on fire), and Republicans fall in line -- that old saying is truer than ever now that the Great Sort has more or less happened and the shift from policy debate to Cultural Warfare (on what should be factual and pragmatic disputes, climate change and remediation, gun safety measures, the macroeconomics of public investment, the teaching of evolutionary biology or sex education, the inequity, uselessness, and costs of the war on drugs, and so on) has become total. All the whiny white guys and the skeered white ladies of the GOP can always be made to hate the latest Democrat more than they hate the demonstrable causes of their precarity and demoralization.

This next sentence confuses me a bit: "And the Democratic Party may not for generations to come." The preceding sentence, recall, was about how the actual Democratic candidate does not matter to Republicans in their present debased state. I have no doubt that the Democratic Party will remain in eclipse among these voters as well. But if the larger point here is a suggestion that the Democratic Party itself may not matter for generations to come because it does not matter to white rural Republicans then that does not also follow. A near win (70,000 votes in three states bedeviled by illegal disenfranchisement in the larger context of FBI malfeasance reverse the outcome) and popular vote win by millions for HRC after two successful Obama administrations is not the proper prompt for jettisoning a winning coalition, even if it strongly argues for more investment in down-ticket organizing by the Party. "The Republican brand is strong in rural America -- perhaps even strong enough to withstand a disastrous Trump presidency." If that brand is strong enough to withstand economic collapse and global instability and death and violence and abuse among fellow-citizens with suffering faces on the tee vee, then real questions emerge about the use of wasting time trying to reach the unreachable (who are dying off, after all, even if presently distributed in ways that give them disproportionate electoral heft) rather than mobilizing our own base instead (which is already larger, if rather electorally concentrated).

People vote, not acreage. (Yes: the Electoral college system and Senatorial distribution undermine this truism in ways that become gameable when elections get close, but it remains true and important anyway, not a laurel to rest on or a destiny to have faith in but a lay of the land you need for sensible navigation.) Also, the Republican brand may be strong in rural America as it is among ageing straight white men more generally -- but these are shrinking demographics. (Yes: Republican disenfranchisement and partisan gerrymandering undermine this truism in ways that become gameable when elections get close, but once again it remains true and important anyway.)

The diverse Obama coalition is the REAL real America and won twice. Clearly, a sizable proportion of that coalition does not grasp that Presidential campaigns are job interviews for a real job and therefore Democrats also need a charismatic media-connecting rather than stiff candidate to daydream about and create a fandom over. Cory Booker has this quality (and I hope Kamala Harris will find it quick), but I don't know if his associations as a northeastern politician from a place that actually has powerful and diverse constituencies and stakeholders (never something Bernie Sanders had to worry much about, though he always caved on those rare occasions he had a chance to do so in his homogeneous postage stamp fiefdom) won't provoke the usual derailing divisive demoralizing idiotic purity cabaret among the sooper-lefties. This, I guess, is a form of Democratic subcultural stupidity -- against which we could array Republican subcultural stupidities too numerous to document, confusing a sect with all faithfulness, confusing social benefits with individual achievements, confusing belligerence with diplomacy, confusing puritanism and panic with harm-reduction policy, confusing consumption with citizenship, confusing contracts made under duress with liberty, confusing nations with households -- but no less lethal to progressive political outcomes if it feeds false equivalence, makes the perfect the enemy of the good, encourages preference of purity cabaret over practical reform, confuses subcultural signaling with useful organizing, and so on.

The article concludes: "Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege, and that Democrats are an enemy to be feared and loathed. Given the philosophical premises Mr. Watts presented as the difference between Democrats and Republicans, reconciliation seems a long way off." I agree with this emphatically. I do not agree with those (like Schmitt, famously) reduce politics to Friend//Foe dynamics. As a good Arendtian, I take a plurality subtending any moralizing constructions of we/they as the actual point of departure for the political and as ineradicable from politics. However, I also think that when a sizable faction within a polity proceeds as if politics has reduced to Friend/Foe dynamics, then that has become a fact with which one must grapple on its actually-existing terms in that polity.

For example, I do think President Obama wasted too much time, especially early on, trying to cajole Republicans into behaving as if politics isn't reducible to Friend(GOP)/Foe(Democrat) in part by pretending that the absolute obstructionism and blanket vilification clearly happening wasn't happening. I don't think he would have accomplished much, if anything, more had he proceeded differently, to be honest, but perhaps he would have shored up the Democratic base (which clearly requires endless fluffing in some quarters, objective threats can't always get it out of bed) and perhaps lost less in the 2010 mid-terms with all the devastating consequences that followed down-ticket.

Anyway, I do agree that "reconciliation" with Republicans seems, to say the least, "a long way off." President Obama kept waiting for "the fever to break" but it never did. One wonders if a solid Clinton win, especially given her stiff stolid uncharismatic wonkishness, would have nudged at that fever, reconciled white rural/suburban voters a bit more to the reality of the diversifying secularizing planetizing ascendant America. I do not know that it would have, frankly. I begin to wonder if anything, short of education, healthcare, infrastructure jobs could do so -- and since none of that will be forthcoming from Republicans, just more scapegoating and conspicuous punishment and abuse of Democrats generally and brown folks and queers and educated "snobs" more specifically to distract them from the avoidable hardships and treatable conditions bedeviling them.

Since I think his basic distinction amounts to special pleading for rural white Republicans and then facile misrepresentation of "godless" Democrats it is hard for me to take too seriously "the philosophical premises Mr. Watts presented as the difference between Democrats and Republicans." But because I think it is undeniable that Republicans have by now given themselves over entirely to Friend/Foe politics, I think Democrats have no choice but to engage in politics in ways that recognize that fact, even if we Democrats remain committed as well to a conception of public investment in public goods from which all, Republicans and Democrats alike, can and should benefit as well. It's just that to implement that guiding vision one first must win in partisan politics, and winning partisan politics today must include awareness that one of the two nationally viable parties in the richest most privileged nations on earth is devoted to the destruction of the other by any means at any cost. With such an organization it is no longer possible for Democrats to reconcile: we must prevail over Republicans, marginalize them into harmlessness, and await their transformation under pressure of an ever more sustainable equitable and diverse policy-making reality into a contentious partner in the work of real-time problem solving in a shared world of actually diverse stakeholders (not all of whom can be expected to see things the way Democrats do, but who do see Democrats as fellow-citizens, patriotic collaborators in collective security and prosperity whatever their differences, and recognize shared problems as real however different their risks and costs may seem to some of their stakeholders).

"Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege" -- this is so because, in the phrasing I always use but with which so many always disagree, The Left Won The Culture Wars, which means that even when they win Republicans "win" in politics and do their damage and wreak their revenge they never feel like winners because the tee vee reflects the reality and values of the multicultural world they fear and hate, which also means that even when we lose Democrats recognize "the culture is with me" and are seduced thereby into a complacency about the real damage and real violence Republicans do to so many people when they win -- (and to continue with the quote from the article) "and that Democrats are an enemy to be feared and loathed." You will be shocked to hear I think this is mostly just white racism from homogeneous insular rural bubble constituencies. LBJ said Democrats would lose the South for more than a generation after the Civil Rights Act, The GOP's Southern Strategy from Nixon forward sorted the two parties geographically (including cementing the urban/rural divide), hate militias proliferated under the Clinton presidency, white nationalist politics got a major foothold in the Republican Party during the Obama presidency, Hillary Clinton's campaign foregrounded women of color and refused to back down from that choice (despite pressure from the way both the Trump and Bernie campaigns shaped up) and the unprecedentedly unfit unqualified unserious unstable Trump became President via voter disenfranchisement, media malpractice, institutional failure, and depressed Democratic turnout (many in the purity cabaret faction, but monocausal accounts of this devastating loss are wrong, even that one so congenial to my personal pet peeves) despite losing the popular vote by millions.

I can only hope that rural America will not continue voting for Trump and Republicans if Republicans keep insulting them with such obvious lies and injuring them with demonstrably harmful policies, and also if Democrats make and then keep repeating the points of an alternative viewpoint and then directly ask for their votes and address their actual problems (better schools and housing, access to fair banking through the post office, rehabilitation and support in the face of the opioid epidemic, subsidizing renewable energy in rural settings, infrastructure jobs for improving and hardening water, electricity, and information systems that are now slow at best and often fail in inclement weather, money for soil reclamation and mass tree planting projects, subsidizing small family farms as permaculture experimentation stations, and so on). But if such worries about rural Republicans become just another occasion to make excuses for voting based in willful ignorance and bigotry (and, yes, it is racist to care so little about racism that you vote for an obvious racist even if you tell yourself you are not a racist in the dark of night or in the glare of twitter), or just another recommendation Democrats disregard the diversity of the winning Obama coalition that also supported Clinton and makes the Democratic Party what it is and what it should be... then you will forgive this long-bullied queer-loving book-loving art-loving diversity-loving grateful escapee from rural Republican America when I fear I must decline.

If Republicans make it Us versus Them, then we must defeat them utterly. That is the task they have set. That is not the way any of us would prefer to proceed, knowing better how to marshal a diversity of collective resources to solve real problems. But that doesn't matter: the reality is, as they say, what it is.

This should mean no more retreats into self-congratulatory abstractions: "Government" or "Congress" didn't do this bad or inept thing -- Republicans did. This good supportive thing didn't just "happen" -- Democrats made it happen through recourse to Our government, usually against the efforts of Republicans.

This should mean no more retreats into purity cabaret: "My DreamPrez lost so I'm staying home this election, my acquiescence is really a revolutionary act amplifying the contradictions making my utopia inevitable!" "This compromise reform may save lives... but let's forget all that because I can dream of a million better things than this and also there are a million other things we should talk about instead, while dwelling on any actually accompished thing long enough to maintain it or build on it is boring."

That many rural Republicans would surely discover a better life (or simply a more comfortable inhabitation of their life as it is) as part of "us" themselves is a journey from them to make, on their own terms and in their own good time -- we can't make it for them. Until then, we must protect the world and the people from the damage they would do in the meantime.

To do that, we can be under no illusions about the nature of our foe qua foe: They will lie and cheat to win. Once they win they will strive to get more and more and more money to the already rich and then scapegoat and conspicuously abuse and punish their preferred targets (for now, queers, Muslim-Americans, undocumented workers, and women of color) to keep the precarious majority deeply divided and superficially entertained in the midst of its distress. Exposing their hypocrisies is no great feat when they themselves celebrate their cynical and opportunistic leaps and swerves of position, raging at their abuses is no great help when nothing pleases them more than exhibitions of liberal upset whatever the cause, satire assuages Republican collaborators in their guilt and lowers the stakes on which Democratic solidarity depends.

Know your enemy.

Maintain the coalition.

More, and Better, Democrats (and more comes first, because any Democrat is already better than any Republican, because the Democratic Party, its platform and its coalition are better, and these are all empowered by every Democratic ass, from best to worst, planted in a seat of government).

Things are going to get uglier and more real than even many of the fearful and pessimistic are giving voice to. I am not hopeful, but I am clear-eyed and committed.

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