Via Powerline comes an extremely interesting article on one liberals attempts to understand the red states. Unlike the usual sneering contempt that many liberals exhibit, Lind actually takes a look at the demographics and ideologies of the red states and comes up with some interesting findings:
In any event, the quasi-Marxist assumption that voters merely seek to maximise their economic interests ignores the perennial importance of the politics of identity. There never was a time when working-class Americans voted for liberals whose values they rejected but whose economic programmes enticed them. Before the federal judiciary nationalised issues like abortion, gay rights and censorship, beginning in the 1960s, these controversies were part of state and local politics, not national politics. Conservative Catholics in the midwest or southern populists could vote for social conservatism in state and local elections, while voting for New Deal economic policies at the federal level. Thanks to federalism, New Deal liberals like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson took positions on the economy and foreign policy; they did not have to take stands on abortion or gay rights. The very success of liberals in nationalising these issues has worked against them in a country in which self-described liberals are a minority, outnumbered by self-described moderates and conservatives.
I think what Lind hits on here is extremely interesting. The Democrats have succeeded on making social issues national issues – which alienates “values voters” from the Democratic Party. As Lind continues:
Even the most appealing economic programme cannot save American liberalism if it is associated with values that most Americans reject. Fortunately for the Democrats, most Americans are found in the political and moral centre, not on the far right. Bush’s Protestant fundamentalist constituents may despise the Enlightenment as the “Endarkenment,” but Bush and the Republicans won the election only by appealing to centrist Americans on the basis of their Enlightenment republican values.
Although it is weak in Britain and most European countries, small “r” republicanism is strong in Switzerland and still shapes France. The republican ideal is a citizen with enough property to be independent both of the labour market and of government. This explains why American populism, and much of the US labour movement, has been almost as hostile to the welfare state as it has been to unscrupulous employers. The continental European welfare state was devised in countries with traditions of bureaucratic monarchy and aristocratic paternalism, like Germany and Sweden. Americans have rejected the ideal of a society in which government pays for everything while a benevolent mandarinate governs in the public interest not because we are stupid, but because we are republicans.
Lind hits it exactly on the head, and this is probably one of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard from a liberal thinker. America has never flirted with socialism in the way that Europe has, nor is there nearly the redistributionist sentiment that there is in Europe. Part of this is because a good number of Europe’s rugged individualists ended up in America during the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, the cultural difference is key to understanding the why America and Europe are not at all alike in terms of political philosophy. America, never having been a monarchy and build a foundation of negative liberty, eschews the kind of bureaucratic paternalism that is endemic in Europe.
Lind continues with another brilliant observation:
When the Bush Republicans speak of “the ownership society,” they are tapping into common American values, not narrow conservative ideology. The most popular New Deal liberal programmes of the mid-20th century were those which diffused property or earning capability, like low-interest loans for people seeking to buy their own homes and loans for college students. Social security and Medicare – both redistributive systems – were carefully packaged by New Dealers as social insurance, to avoid offending republican populist sensibilities.
Indeed, Lind brushes on one of the primary reasons that the conservative ideology is undergoing a renaissance in America. The philosophies of the Democratic Party as it stands today run counter to traditional American values. The Democratic Party has embraced economic redistribution as one of their core values. The problem with this is that there’s nothing particularly moral about such a stand. Saying you’d do good with someone else’s money isn’t a morally brave statement.
The Democrats offer more and more government. Except when the average American considers their interactions with government — such as waiting in line at the DMV, the incredibly heartless bureaucracy of the IRS, or waiting at airport security checkpoints, their faith in government is understandably low. The Republicans argue that it is the American people that have the ability to do best for themselves and for their families. Given the choice between putting their faith in the heartless and often mindless machinery of government and being allowed to make choices for themselves, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which ideology is going to be more attractive for the typical American voter.
Red-state America – inland, suburban and working-class – represents the future of the US, not the expensive, class-stratified coastal cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. Conservatives, a minority among American voters, have managed to put together a majority coalition because they have learned to speak the populist language of the vast region between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Liberals can do so as well – but only if they stop sneering at the people they aspire to lead.
From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t see the Democrats being able to do this. The Democrats are not used to being a minority party, and they have a highly arrogant and insular attitude. Given that the red states have 286 electoral votes, the Democrats cannot afford to lose them again. Given that the demographic shifts are towards the red states, this trend is only going to get worse for them. But doing that would require them to radically alter their ideology to appeal to Middle America. The last major Democrat who could do that was Bill Clinton, and he did so by continually repudiating the left-most wing of the Democratic Party. Clinton signed NAFTA into law, ended up passing welfare reform, and publicly rebuked the rapper Sister Souljah. The current Democratic Party is dangerously out of touch with Middle America on a whole range of issues. As Lind quite correctly points out, until the Democrats can stop treating the 51% of the electorate who voted Republican (including 1 out of 10 of their own party), they will remain in the political wilderness. Accusing Bush voters of being too stupid to know what’s really good for them is certainly not the way to do it, and unless the Democrats can swallow their pride and do what Lind has done, they will remain a minority party. Then again, a party that treats the rest of the country with such contempt should not be allowed anywhere near power.