Timothy Burke, remarking on Tommy Frank’s Op-Ed column in today’s Times, on the division between Red and Blue States, says:
You cannot promise to serve the economic interests of such communities if such service is about redirecting accumulative economies in their direction.
It points to a key problem, one articulated in yesterday’s essay by Burke, which he posted as a PDF file. There he says:
What’s left to the red states? What do they own? They own the political system, because our system apportions power by geography.
Here’s how I connect the dots between these two statements: Democrats claim to fight for the middle class by creating sound fiscal policies and insuring a strong safety net. The Republicans don’t claim to do any of that, but they make sure that Red State voters know that farm subsidies and money for church related programs will be coming down the line. The former might be better for the Red States over the long haul, but they don’t clearly benefit any individual voters, while the Republican policies bring clear benefits to some, even if it is worse for the group as a whole in the long run.
The Democrats play the same kinds of patronage games with their own constituents, although funds for minorities, the working class, and city dwellers have been steadily shrinking, but they can’t compete with the Republicans for Red State patronage. They aren’t about to give everyone in the Red States government jobs (as Burke half-jokingly suggests). But there is something else that the Democrats aren’t willing to give the Red States either, and that is political power. The Republicans have made a deal with the population of the Red States. They’ve said, if you are willing to exercise power through the church, we will give you real political power. Burke says that “moral values” are the Red States’ “weapons of the weak,” their only tool of resistance against the forces of modernity which have left them behind. The Republicans understand this, and use it to their advantage; but, as Burke points out, they are playing a dangerous game:
Neither does the Republican business-class promise what is sought. I disagree radically with Frank on his proposition that they are the unchallenged masters and manipulators of red-state resentment. Indeed, I think they are in the near term more likely to be mastered by it, consumed by it, lost to it. They may have helped to awake it from its slumber, organize it, feed it cash and power and vision, but they do not control it. They have sown its wind, but they will not reap its whirlwind. I think we saw in this election the first tremors of alarm and concern among the business elites and suburban constituencies within the Republican Party. They chose not to break or fission this time, but some may be aware that they are playing a very dangerous game, one that has wounded other capitalist classes in other historical circumstances. Russell Arben Fox may be right that Bush and his associates are no anti-capitalists, but they have perhaps hitched their star to a form of anti-capitalist populism.
The problem is that the Democrats are constitutionally unable to tap into this populism. Burke articulates the two roads open to Democrats: Communalism and Liberalism. The former means embracing populism, but forsaking many of the economic liberal values which Burke equates with “modernity.” The later embraces those values, but offers very little to those who will be swept aside by the forces of modernity. All you need to do is read Krugman, and other sensible liberals, when he writes about how the government needs to plan rationally for those who will be hurt most by globalization and free trade. Krugman may be right, but you can see how little comfort that brings people in the Red States. They need to know that they will have a real stake in what happens. With the Republicans they know that even as they get screwed by capitalism, they at least have a political voice through their churches, through people they see as sharing the same values. The Democrats can’t offer them that, because they honestly believe that progress means letting some people get hurt by globalization. Sure, Democratic policies are likely to better cushion people from the effects of globalization than Republican ones will; but that’s not the point. Sure, the Republican strategists are even colder in their cost-benefit calculations which remove the safety net for those left behind, but that doesn’t matter either. It doesn’t matter because the Republicans offer tangible goods: a combination of pork-barrel politics (hence the ballooning deficit), and an alliance with the churches (“moral values”), both of which offer enough to some members of the disenfranchised Red State voters that they feel they have a stake in the system.
Let me end with a quote I use in my dissertation (which isn’t quite done, but is at least in the hands of my dissertation committee as of 7:00pm this evening):
“the controlled mobility of a limited number of individuals can help to perpetuate the structure of class relations” [Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. London: Sage Press, 1990., p. 54]
UPDATE: Cleaned up my late night ramblings to make them more readable.