Monday, August 5, 2013

Race & The Limits of Libertarian Populism (Part III)

Reader JG offered this wonderful response to my first post on libertarian populism, suggesting that I was too lenient on Douthat:
Douthat's thoughtful. He's certainly not seething or unhinged or downright nihilistic in the way that so many on the right are these days. It's just that his ideas seem completely impractical to me. He operates under this peculiar pundit-class delusion that the American public would endorse an actual libertarian agenda. But we live in a country where even red-state conservatives can't stomach giving up their Medicare. And didn't the right-wing plan to privatize social security go down in flames a few years back? I just don't see real libertarian policies like these--policies that would rollback the key portions of the welfare state--having any kind of significant purchase on public opinion.

But without workable libertarian policies, Douthat would be left with his "country" small-r republicanism, with the populist portion of his two-headed beast. And in so many ways this eighteenth-century country republicanism is already with us, animating the worst paranoid, xenophobic, and atavistic tendencies in the American psyche. As you know, the tradition that Douthat wants to harness was powered by a very strong dose of conspiratorial thinking--the kind that saw, with the passage of every excise tax, the dark hands of Power strangling Liberty's fragile neck. And that tradition--the one that sees in Obama a socialist overlord, the one that sees immigrants as a serious danger to white privilege--seems alive and sadly well on the American right.
I think this is right and it links what I wrote in my last post—"the vast majority of voters want a national bulwark against the insecurities of the market. They want social safety net programs."—with race and white privilege, the most glaring issues with this fantasy of libertarian populism.

It is one of the first lessons in American history that populist movements have always been weakened or split by racial strife. The Populists of the 1890s made a pass at political union across racial boundaries, bringing
Tom E. Watson, Senator from Georgia
black and white farmers, especially landless farmers, together to unseat the power of moneyed interests and unchecked capital. In 1892, the southern politician Tom Watson described the state of black-white relations so:
You are kept apart that you may separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary class system that beggars both.
But Watson could not hold to this line for very long. In 1896, the Populists nominated him for Vice President on a ticket with William Jennings Bryan, but Bryan was also the Democratic Party nominee and they had nominated Arthur Sewell, a banker, as their Vice Presidential candidate. Bryan ignored Watson during the campaign as the Democrats bought Populist support with the promise of patronage. Watson, becoming ever more desperate, sunk back into the same language of race-baiting that had defined southern politics since the end of the Civil War.

That the conversations about libertarian populism today ignore race altogether is staggering, considering that the racial divide in politics remains definitive. Without lower middle class white support, especially in the South, the Republican Party would be non-existent. The same could be said of black and Latino support for the Democratic Party. Looking around the political landscape, I don't see any latter-day Tom Watsons on the right wing side, building a cross-racial coalition to defy Wall St. and big government. Does anyone else? (Not a rhetorical question... write in and let me know if you think such a pol is out there.)

In fact, there is populist splintering in the Republican ranks, but it is occurring along exactly the same fault lines of race and class as it always has. David Corn for Mother Jones has been documenting the strategy sessions of a new anti-Karl Rove political group called Groundswell, intent on winning more seats for Tea Party conservatives and the like. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo thinks Groundswell is a yet another symptom of white racial panic as the nation becomes browner with each passing year. As Corn observed, the group itself is well aware that the far right has failed to attract minority voters. Their own memos state that "terms like 'GOP,' 'Tea Party' 'Conservative,' communicate 'racism.'" Their strategy to "change minds" was to adopt a new phrase, "Frederick Douglas Republican," spelled just so.

At the same time, the same people on the far right have been doing everything possible to restrict voting rights for working class and minority voters, including exploiting the Supreme Court decision overturning the Voting Rights Act. New Voter ID laws have been enacted or are in the process of being enacted. Nate Cohn has argued that, at least in North Carolina, they don't promise to change voting results too much despite Democratic fears. But that begs the question why they would be enacted at all then. Not, despite all the Republican protestations, to combat mythical voter fraud. Douthat himself has acknowledged that the political fallout of such laws will be to mobilize minority support for Democrats in greater numbers than any votes lost. These laws go hand in hand with the other form of vote snatching, the electoral college reform being attempted in blue states like Pennsylvania, which is a not so subtle way of stealing white electoral votes back from a state that has been reliably blue because of black and union voting in Philadephia and Pittsburgh.

How, then, will libertarian populism be born into a party that has relied on using racism and nativism to maintain the loyalty of their base ever since Richard Nixon? Do Douthat, Domenech, Carney, and all the other promoters of libertarian populism think the right wing can reach working class voters of all races at the same time that they sink immigration reform, restrict voting, and undermine the electoral college? How do they imagine black communities react when their response to the slaying of a black child like Trayvon Martin is to continue to spin the same stereotypes of black male youth while advocating prescriptions like this one from RedState:
Instead of clamoring for never ending government programs, special dispensation in jobs and college admissions or seeing every crime or political issue through race tinted glasses, they should instead focus on reducing unwed and teen pregnancies, demanding quality education for their children and seeking relief from government regulations in order to make black communities compelling places for businesses to invest.
So that and a misspelling of Frederick Douglass's name is the plan to win the support of black America. On race and racism, Tom Watson was a political recidivist, but at least he tried and failed. 120 years later, these guys can't even try.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the series. Any thoughts on the Silicon Valley libertarianism (either as a philosophy or political strategy) sketched out in this nymag article: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/08/musks-hyperloop-is-a-political-manifesto.html ? Any potential historical comparisons?

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