The Conscience of a Liberal

David Kennedy got the assignment to review Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal and he didn’t like it very much. One argument he makes is, however, a good jumping-off point for further discussion:

For this dismal state of affairs the Democratic Party is held to be blameless. Never mind the Democrats’ embrace of inherently divisive identity politics, or Democratic condescension toward the ungrammatical yokels who consider their spiritual and moral commitments no less important than the minimum wage or the Endangered Species Act, nor even the Democrats’ vulnerable post-Vietnam record on national security. As Krugman sees it, the modern Republican Party has been taken over by radicals. “There hasn’t been any corresponding radicalization of the Democratic Party, so the right-wing takeover of the G.O.P. is the underlying cause of today’s bitter partisanship.” No two to tango for him. The ascendancy of modern conservatism is “an almost embarrassingly simple story,” he says, and race is the key. “Much of the whole phenomenon can be summed up in just five words: Southern whites started voting Republican. … End of story.”A fuller and more nuanced story might at least gesture toward the role that environmental and natural-resource issues have played in making red-state country out of the interior West, not to mention the unsettling effects of the “value issues” on voters well beyond Dixie. And as for national security — well, as Krugman sees things, it was not Democratic bungling in the Iranian hostage crisis or humiliation in Somalia or feeble responses to the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center or the assault on the U.S.S. Cole, but the runaway popularity of the Rambo films (I’m not making this up) that hoodwinked the public into believing that the party of Carter and Clinton (not to mention McGovern and Kucinich) might not be the most steadfast guardian of the Republic’s safety.

There are a number of ways one could respond to this, but I think the best thing to say is that Kennedy and Krugman are talking at cross-purposes here. Krugman’s task isn’t to explain why the Republican Party can win elections, it’s too explain why a plutocratic political program can succeed. Back during the era of consensus politics, after all, the GOP won big electoral victories in 1952 and 1956 by nominating a popular general, by painting the Democrats as soft as defense, etc. And in 1960 they came very close to winning by arguing that Richard Nixon had the experience necessary to steer the ship of state in troubled times. What they didn’t do, however, was advance an economic policy agenda focused on serving the interests of 5 percent of the country at the expense of the interests of 80 percent of the country.

Or to put it another way, what makes America weird isn’t that we have a conservative political party (they have ’em everywhere) or that the conservative political party succeeds at winning elections (happens in England, Canada, France, Italy, etc. all the time) but that the conservative political party is so unreconciled to the modern welfare state. That’s what’s weird. It isn’t true of major political parties outside the United States, and for a while it wasn’t true of the United States either.

In other words, we could have a politics where the parties disagreed about a lot of stuff — abortion, gay rights, tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth, foreign policy, crime control, paternalistic public health measures, etc. — while operating from within a broad consensus about the need for a robust public sector commitment to universal social insurance programs and basic public services.

Krugman believes that racial divisions explain that — the absence of a generous welfare state, the ability of a major political party to remain so relentlessly focused on the interests of a small minority of the population.

And if the flaw in Krugman’s book is that he doesn’t take the time to respectfully air popular alternative theses and rebut them (and he really doesn’t), its virtue is precisely that the book deals with the big picture of American politics over the decades, focusing on broad macro trends in the economy and the political system rather than campaign tactics or the controversies of the day. He puts forth substantial empirical data showing a very tight link between race — and racial attitudes — and voting behavior, particularly the willingness of non-poor white southerners (but, crucially, not Dixie’s worst-off white folks) to vote very conservatively.

And of course it’s easy to do a thought experiment in which blacks and latinos go from being about 10 percent of the electorate each to being about 20 percent each and ask yourself what would happen to the Republican Party. Well, it would lose all the elections. Unless, of course, it could broaden its popularity to minority voters. Such appeals would focus, naturally, on the large traditionalist segments of the black and latino populations. But right now, appeals of that sort largely fall on deaf appears. But perhaps a GOP that wasn’t as relentlessly hostile to the economic interests of the non-elite would have much more success.

Indeed, I’d say that’s probably where we’re going. George W. Bush’s efforts to broaden Republican appeal to include minority voters and build an enduring Republican majority failed. He was able, however, to eke out majorities based on mobilizing white Christian identity sentiments (with national security issues playing a large role in helping him do so) combined with generous financial backing from corporate managers and so forth. But the initial analysis that this wouldn’t be adequate over the long-run was, of course, correct — the white Christian share of the electorate is shrinking — and the post-9/11 boom in nationalist sentiment wasn’t bound to last forever. And it turns out that traditionalism alone isn’t good enough to make non-whites want to vote Republican. To succeed over the long run, they’ll probably need to moderate their economic agenda.