Monday, August 8


Last Thursday Eric Alterman turned over the lead piece on his blog to Princeton sociology professor Douglas S. Massey. In an excerpt from his post-election book, Return of the 'L" Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century, Massey takes a look at how liberals managed to Throw It All Away. Any of us who haunt blog comment boards has heard the arguments a couple thousand times by now, but this comes from a genuine liberal, not a libertarian in sheep's clothing (although Massey does seem to have caught a touch of Milton Friedmanitis while at the U. of Chicago). And the good Professor actually took the time to write a book about it, though Publisher's Weekly called it a "slim manifesto":

Liberal pundits are asking why middle class Americans so often vote against their own economic interests.  Mostly they look outside the liberal movement for answers.  If they are being charitable, they chalk it up to the pervasiveness of “traditional values.”  If they are being less charitable, they portray voters as dim-witted dupes of lying right-wing politicians.  Often they just throw their hands up in exasperation and wail, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”  Yet survey data do not show a fundamental cleavage of values among Americans; and constantly asking people “what’s wrong with you?” is unlikely to win elections.  Maybe it’s about time liberals looked to themselves and ask what they have done to drive so many people away from a party it is in their material interests to support.

Liberals are such sneering elitists that they piss off even liberal elitists. Every time I read something like this I wonder how many times the writer had to fly over Middle America before his thesis took hold. Which liberal pundits exactly, Professor, or was that the teaser to get me to buy the manifesto? Because I may have seen this sort of thing in Atrios' comments section, but otherwise it doesn't exactly seem to come along with the frequency of green bean casserole at a family gathering. 2004 was a hard election to lose, and the "moral values" ad campaign followed right on its heels, so it's only to be expected that it attracted some chatter. And rightly so. Same goes for sneering, because the sneer is the natural, and, it turns out, the correct response to all that blather. There is a real question about why certain groups--former Dixiecrats, say, or Plains States libertarians, consistently vote against their economic self-interests, but it seems to me, Red State resident that I am, that the bigger part of the problem there is in reducing the anti-liberal voter to some sociological category, not in the fact that its natural enemy behaves like, well, an enemy.

But lest we believe that Massey has just conflated some random punditry with, say, the actual stated positions of the Democratic Party, he gives us a rundown of the liberals' Fall From Grace. And it's interesting, much as I say a wine is "interesting" when it's not pure vinegar but isn't exactly an oenophilic dream date. Here he provides a helpful summary:

Although liberals accomplished great things during the first three quarters of the 20th century, thereafter they stumbled badly.  When they encountered resistance to black civil rights among poor and working class whites—some of it racially motivated some of it not—rather than dealing with the resistance politically, liberal elites sought to impose solutions from above by taking advantage of their privileged access to judicial and executive power.  Then, rather than telling Americans honestly about the likely costs and consequences of a military intervention in Southeast Asia and trust them to make the correct decisions, they used lies and deception to trick voters into supporting an unwinnable war that was fought mostly by the poor and working classes; and when the war came too close to home, they quickly forgot about the lower class combatants and their sacrifices they had made.  Then after liberals’ attempt to support guns and butter set off hyperinflation to erode the real value of wages, they callously thought up new ways to spend the windfall of tax revenue rather than adjust tax brackets to relieve the unsustainable burden on the middle class.  Finally, when faced with political revolt because of these misguided policies, they retreated into arcane ideologies to wage a rearguard cultural insurgency from the safety of the ivory tower.  Is it any wonder that liberals lost the public trust?

Er, um, uh. Let's accept, for the sake of argument, the idea that some opposition to "black civil rights" was not racially motivated. What was it, then? What form did it take? That that portion of the white working class which did not already work in an integrated environment and which continued to live in a segregated one had a theoretical objection to school desegregation and affirmative action? Because I'll tell ya, doc, from the perspective of someone who's lived and worked with those people for four decades, I think they tell a little different story when they're answering questionnaires than they do after three beers when they think all their listeners are in agreement. They were not convinced by Republican arguments about "reverse discrimination". Those arguments were crafted to give them an out for their racist beliefs. Having said that, I have to admit I'm not really sure what constitutes liberals having crammed civil rights down white people's throats using the courts and the executive branch.

Then there's the V word. This seems nothing more than a projection of liberal anti-war views onto the working class to make a point. Nixon's silent majority supported the war, fer chrissakes. The Eisenhower administration took up the White Man's Burden when the French dropped it; the Johnson administration sent draftees to fight; Nixon also expanded the war militarily. Frankly--and again, this is a personal perspective--though I was too young to be very savvy about the war until '67 or '68, I remember being astonished to learn that our fighting force was primarily poor and black, and it was much later when I learned that some well-connected types cut in the National Guard line so they could stay home. Opposition to the war was about the war; the matter of a selective selective service was more in retrospect. And that whole Domino Theory/stopping the spread of Communism business was a matter of national politics, not crusading liberal do-gooderism. That Right of which we speak equates liberalism with opposition to the war. You may have noticed, they'd kept all the "Go live in Russia, you traitorous bastards," rhetoric on simmer all these years, and it had all boiled over again before the first grunt got on an Iraq-bound transport.

As for economic policies, in the article Professor Massey does acknowledge the effects of the Oil Embargo of 1973, though he claims the result was magnified in the US because of the guns and butter spending habits of liberals, unlike the "severe but manageable" recessions in Europe and Japan. I dunno. Could it be that unlike those others we were guzzlers of energy we believed would remain cheap and plentiful forever?

There's a nostalgic quality in all this: Schiavo, the Social Security debacle, the continuing disaster in Iraq and Bush's plummeting poll numbers give it a sort of sepia-toned charm. I'd be the last one to argue that Democrats have betrayed a preternatural competence over the last four decades. And when a liberal writes: "To the delight of conservatives everywhere, liberals often ended up in attacking each other..." in the midst of a piece that ticks every item off the Reagan L-word laundry list it doesn't improve my expectations for the immediate future.


Pepper said...

I am so tired of liberals being called "sneering elitists" and this, that, and the other, when those in charge of the GOP are actually the sneering elitists.

I dunno - I'm an ordinary person from a red state who got fed up and moved. I actually DO think there is something wrong with people who consistently vote against their own interests.

Does that make me a sneering elitist? I doubt it. Most people know better than to believe everyone in a "red" state is conservative, and everyone in a "blue" state is a liberal.

Oh, and the liberals didn't throw it all away. The centrists did that.

Hysterical Woman said...

Actually, this reminded me of the book "What's the matter with Kanasas?", which actually has a good thesis. The Right has taking traditional leftist rhetroic and used it against us. Now instead of rich and poor, it's left and right.