Monday, October 29, 2007

The awful truth, and the better future

Hi everyone – great to be here

I thought, for this introductory post (filed, of course, from a convenient Starbucks), that I’d focus on one of the key themes in The Conscience of a Liberal – the central role of race in understanding both what happened to America over the past 30 years, and its implications for the future.

Basically, the book is an attempt to understand two puzzles about what happened to the America I grew up – the broadly middle-class society of the postwar generation.

The first puzzle is economic: what happened to the middle class. I argue in the book that a large part of the rise in inequality is political in origin, having to do with the rise of movement conservatism, the cohesive set of people and institutions that has taken over the Republican Party. Maybe we’ll talk more about that in later conversation.

The other puzzle is why rising inequality, far from provoking a populist political backlash, has been accompanied by a move to the right: politicians who wanted to cut taxes on the rich and create bigger holes in the social safety net have more elections than not. There have been setbacks: neither Reagan nor Bush succeeded in their efforts to gut Social Security, Newt Gingrich’s assault on Medicare was repulsed with heavy losses, and so on. But the drift has clearly been to the right.

Now one explanation might be that the right won the argument in the popular mind, that supply-side economics really did resonate with the public. But there’s very little evidence of that. Instead, conservatives have run on other issues – weapons of mass distraction, as I call them in Conscience of a Liberal.

Obviously national security is one of those issues, as are “moral values.” Bush won in 2004 as the nation’s defender against gay married terrorists.

But what I learned when doing research was that the most consistent source of the rightward drift of American politics in the face of growing inequality is race. In fact, the simplicity of the story is almost embarrassing: American politics changed because Southern whites started voting Republican after the civil rights movement.

To give you a sense of just how little there is to be explained once you take this shift into account, here’s a statistic from Larry Bartels, my Princeton colleague. Everyone knows that white men have left the Democratic Party. But what everyone knows isn’t true, if you exclude the South. In 1952, 40 percent of non-Southern white males voted Democratic; in 2004, that was down to, um, 39 percent. (And no, the choice of years doesn’t matter – a fitted trend line tells the same story.)

Now, you could argue that the distinctiveness of the Southern vote isn’t about race. But during the rise of movement conservatism, conservative politicians clearly campaigned on race – that is, they behaved as if they thought that was what it was all about. Ronald Reagan – the real RR, not the latter-day saint – was best known in the 70s for his tales of welfare queens driving Cadillacs. He began his 1980 campaign with the infamous states’ rights speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were murdered.

And the distinctiveness remains even now. In last year’s election, Southern whites were basically the only large demographic group that favored Republicans by a large margin.
But I argue in COAL that the Southern strategy is now in its last throes – and not in the Cheney sense. For one thing, we’re a less white country, with growing Latino and Asian shares in the electorate. And Latinos in particular can’t be brought into the conservative coalition – the base won’t have them. Anti-immigrant feeling is similar to anti-black feeling, and comes from the same people.

A more uplifting change is that we are, genuinely, a less racist country than we used to be. You can see this on polls asking people about such things as interracial marriage: as late as 1978 a majority disapproved, but now 77 percent approve. You can see it in popular entertainment. And I think the change is real.

I believe that Macaca was the defining moment of last year’s campaign. Racist remarks – against a child of immigrants, by the way, so the incident also demonstrates the changing ethnic balance -- aren’t new. What’s new is the unwillingness of Americans, including the people of Virginia, to accept such remarks.

In other words, I think that the game is up. Race, the original sin of America, is losing its sting. And we’re heading toward becoming a normal advanced country, far more open to progressive policies than we were in the past.

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