On Kansas And Populism

Writing on the LA Times op-ed page, Tom Frank gives us a précis of his new book, What’s The Matter With Kansas. The general theme is that the working class no longer stands with the Democratic Party in part because it’s so enthralled by cultural conservatism, but also because the Democratic Party no longer really stands for working class economics.

This is the sort of thing one hears often enough from people who on the merits favor a more populist approach to economic policy, and also to some extent from conservatives who delight in the idea that the GOP is now the real party of the people. It’s always worth pointing out that the conservatism of the working class is often exaggerated. If you look at the 2000 exit polls or any general election poll today you’ll see that people with low incomes support the Democrats more than do people with middling incomes who, in turn, are more supportive than people with high incomes. What the “working class conservatives” analysis misses out is that outside of Kansas a really large proportion of poor people are black or Hispanic, and those people certainly feel that the Democrats stand for working class interests and they, in turn, support the Democrats. Another large class of poor people consists of single working white women who, again, support the Democrats.

The upshot is that Democrats don’t have a “working class problem” it’s a white working class problem and, to a large extent, a problem with white, working class men.

That ought to make us at least prima facie suspicious that the problem is really that the Democrats don’t support an economic program that’s in the interests of the working class. Non-white working class people think they do, and many working class white women think they do, and it would be odd if the Democrats had somehow come up with economic policies that work for working class blacks and working class Latinos and single working class white women, but not for working class white men or married working class white women. It’s hard to imagine what policies like that would be.

So it’s worth considering the possibility that cultural conservatism really is about culture rather than some deficiency in the economic agenda. The question, then, is what it would take to change the equasion around. Frank’s op-ed is ambiguous between two possibilities — one is that roughly the same economic agenda could appeal to Kansas if the Democrats were willing to drop cultural liberalism. Another is that Kandas would swallow cultural liberalism if it were yoked to a more robustly populist economic agenda. Now I met Tom Frank once, and I’m pretty sure he’d be a lot happier with the latter scenario than with the former one, but maybe he would prefer the former scenario to the status quo. I can’t really say a great deal about that, nor do I have a huge amount of personal concern about this because I think that most of the proposals to make the Dems more populist on economics are wrong on the merits, but it’s still worth thinking about a bit.

I can say that a few weeks ago I was talking to a Democratic pollster who said she’d just be trying to assess the viability of the “win-win” scenario where the Democrats go far enough left on economics to stay left on culture and still to better among rural whites. She said she really wanted it to be the case that this strategy would work, but near as she can tell from her research, it won’t. What boosted Democratic fortunes among rural whites was simply moving right on culture. I haven’t seen the underlying research, but that’s what she said, and I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand.

It also should be said that those white Democrats who perform successfully in, say, the South, don’t seem to do it by moving left on economics. Instead, they do it by moving right a bit on both the cultural and the economic issues. Frank spends some time in the op-ed dissing the DLC as being responsible for the party’s poor fate in Kansas, but it’s worth pointing out that almost all of the DLC’s founders (including Bill Clinton, the implicit bête noir of the piece) and most of its current leaders are, in fact, from the South. Now maybe these guys all just have it terribly wrong, or maybe the politics of the South are radically different from the politics of the plains (certainly they have been quite different at certain points in time, though it seems to me that they’ve been similar in the postwar era) so this analysis doesn’t hold. But I wouldn’t be so sure.

If you think leftwing economics are right on the merits, then good for you, and good luck trying to convince me (over the past couple of years I’ve been convinced that I should move left on some of these topics, and might be pursuaded to move furhter left) and others that you’re right. But I think it’s dangerous and, frankly, wrong to believe that there’s electoral gold hidden in that agenda that Democrats have unaccountably failed to mine.