Different Time, Different Ideas. (And, yes, different technologies.)“The story of [Wright] Patman’s ousting is part of the larger story of how the Democratic Party helped to create today’s shockingly disillusioned and sullen public, a large chunk of whom is now marching for Donald Trump.”- Matt Stoller, The Atlantic, October 24, 2016
One detail that repeated through many of the personal narratives of the interviewees of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land was a personal or familial history of voting Democratic before shifting, often out of a sense of betrayal, to Tea Party. A lot of what I’ve read and heard over the past couple decades as the American Right has grown more and more radical parses that concept of “betrayal” by way of social issues – e.g. abortion, gay marriage, sanctity of the family, etc. etc. As much as those same interviewees sometimes spoke to those issues, they directed their hotter grievances toward feelings of 1) being ridiculed for questioning the new social order (which brings up a rule of thumb: making fun of Southerners really pisses them off), something more than a few hinted that they could take or leave, and 2) feeling forgotten economically.
It’s dawning on much of the country that #2 actually forms the Gordian Knot at the center of rural America’s grievances. The sense of insecurity, even desperation, flowed under almost every aspect of Louisianans' lives in Strangers in Their Own Land; it formed the spine of the “deep story” that Hochschild read back to her friend/subjects (sorta like sister/wives, only less complicated, and no sex). Both Hochschild’s book and the Stoller article quoted above form the basis of an argument that “the betrayal” was, and is, economic at root.
I reviewed Strangers in Their Own Land elsewhere, but Stoller’s piece follows the history of the Democratic Party’s long walk away from economic populism. Before quoting more from that article, or wrapping up this post, yes, technology has changed, say, how government can actually stimulate the economy, specifically that, today, getting a corporation to operate in one’s state now brings tens of jobs, where back in the 1930s that arrival could sustain a community (and, not, it should be noted, destroy it). All the same, and setting aside Elizabeth Warren, when’s the last time you heard a Democratic politician rail against monopolies, or going after big banks in any way, but rhetorically?
When it comes to the South, in particular, the key line in Stoller’s article comes here:
“To get a sense of how rural Democrats used to relate to voters, one need only pick up an old flyer from the Patman archives in Texas: ‘Here Is What Our Democratic Party Has Given Us’ was the title. There were no fancy slogans or focus-grouped logos. Each item listed is a solid thing that was relevant to the lives of conservative white Southern voters in rural Texas: Electricity. Telephone. Roads. Social Security. Soil conservation. Price supports. Foreclosure prevention.”
So, yeah, per the quote up top, the Democrats abandoned economic populism to Trump. Even if you’re planning on donning a pantsuit in the voting booth, you can’t call Hillary Clinton an economic populist with a straight face (publicly, she’s tinkers at the margins; privately, she reassures the biggest big bankers that she doesn’t fault them for 2008 (of which, fucking madness). It runs in the family, and through the most recent popular Democrats, too – see, the millions Bill Clinton raked in as “honorary chancellor” of one of those “for-profit” private universities (Laureate International Universities) that get rich precisely by exploiting the poor. (From here; that’s a fascinating article in its own right; it offers as tidy a summary on the concept of “financialization” as it gives itself time to.) In short, Democrats talk poverty politics much better than they address it.
At any rate, the articles linked to here are good, if long; there’s also Hochschild’s book. Don’t get me wrong: Trump isn’t the answer for any of this; he’s too goddamn stupid, for one, and just about everything he’s proposing economically has to crawl back half a century to work. The point here is both simpler, and more depressing: both parties abetted corporate concentration, too big to fail, income inequality, etc. etc. That decision presented rural voters with the same dilemma they face today: if both parties won’t do a damn thing for them economically, why the hell shouldn't they go with the one the party – or, really, the man – who at least speaks their language culturally?
I've already given the answer, or at least my answer - e.g., Trump "alone" won't fix it, plus attention-span, plus courting bigots - but there's a pretty clean logic to the voting pattern, and it ain't "voting against their own interests." A lot of things lead to Trump, and the worst of them came from the GOP, but the Democrats absolutely held a door open for him on economic issues.