Friday, January 30, 2015

Jim Webb and Andrew Jackson

I've explained in various ways at various times that the reason I picked a blog title using the symbol of Andrew Jackson is because he represented and basically progressive, democratic vision and political program for his time. And because even that cutting-edge democratic program had deep contradictions and flaws.

I wish Hegel had lived long enough to write about Old Hickory and his relationship to the World Spirit. But he didn't.

Jackson was a wealthy, slave-owning planter who politically became a champion of working people, opposing the power of concentrated wealth in the form of the Bank of the United States and winning the support of the early labor union organizations of his time. Although a slaveowner, in the confrontation with John Calhoun and South Carolina over nullification, he clearly came down on the side of democracy and national patriotism, clearly recognizing the danger that the fire-breathers' pro-slavery extremism presented for democracy.

His Indian removal policy was just plain bad. And there was an opposition that made valid points against it in real time. I've discussed his Indian policy more than once here, which presents its own contradictions and dilemmas on both sides, without defending it. It was plainly a wrong policy.

Jim Webb's recent invocations of Andrew Jackson reflect the contradictions of Jacksonian democracy in an interesting way. The Jacksonian movement developed in various directions, some pro-slavery Southerners managing to consider themselves Jacksonians, as did grassroots democratic movements including Indian rights and women's rights activists. That's true as well of Abolitionists, although in the politics of the days they tended not to identify with a Democratic Party symbol like Jackson.

Dan Merica reports in Jim Webb: Democrats need to focus more on 'white, working people' CNN 01/30/2015:

Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia who is entertaining a run 2016 presidential nomination, told NPR Friday morning that his party has not focused enough on white, working class voters in the past elections. In order to be successful in the future, Webb said, that will need to change.

"I think they could do better with white, working people and I think this last election showed that," Webb said, referencing the 2014 midterms where Republicans took control of the Senate and added more power in the House. "The Democratic Party could do very well to return to its Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson roots where the focus of the party was making sure that all people who lack a voice in the corridors of power could have one through the elected represented." [my emphasis]
This could be taken as the progressive, democratic side of the Jacksonian legacy.

Susie Madrick chooses to spin it that way (Jim Webb: Dems Need White Working People To Win C&L 01/30/2015): "pretty much every progressive organizer and campaign operative I know agrees with his main point. We can win the White House, but we will never get a lasting majority and get to accomplish our agenda without reclaiming the white working class demographic."

But a "demographic" is not a policy. And policies that actually win more votes from one demographic can have contrary effects on others.

The nature of the policy depends on which part of that demographic description is emphasized: white working class, or white working class?

Sadly, Webb's pitch sounds like it's putting the emphasis on the white part, the regressive side of historical Jacksonianism:

Looking ahead to a 2016 race that he may run in, Webb added: "You are not going to have a situation again where you have 96% of the African American vote turning out for one presidential candidate. ... We need to get back to the principles of the Democratic Party that we are going to give everyone who needs access to the corridors of power that access regardless of any of your antecedents. I think that is a fair concept."

In 2012, the last presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney won nearly 60% of all white voters, compared to Obama's 40%. That difference is an increased split from 2008, when Obama won 43% of the white vote and Republican John McCain won 55%.
The Democrats have never quite gotten over their post-1968 obsession with trying to carry Southern states, which meant in practice trying to find some ways not to scare off too many Southern white voters who really, really don't like black people.

Whatever practical sense that may have made in 1969 - I tend to thing the Dems' understanding of it was wrong-headed even then - that ship has long since sailed. The core constituency of today's Republican Party is southern white evangelicals. The Deep South that was once a Solid South for the Democratic Party that accepted segregation is now a Solid South for the Republican Party that is working hard to restore segregation, above all with the voter-suppression laws.

The Democratic base is relatively more heavily concentrated in non-Southern African-American and Latino voters, white women of all classes and working-class men of all races. Part of the trick in considering this issue is that there is no standard understanding of who the "working class" is. Journalists tend to use non-college-educated adults as a working definition of "working class," which is likely to be very misleading.

Advocates of concentrating on winning white voters for Democratic candidates tend to assume that making appeals targeted to racially-prejudiced whites will not deter black, Latino or female voters from supporting Democrats. Taking the base for granted this way is foolhardy, as we saw in the 2014 election. Last year, the Democrats tailored their national efforts toward appealing to swing voters, when there are few actual swing voters in midterm elections. The Republicans concentrated on turning out their base by campaigning on positions their base liked.

The results are well known.

This report by Alistair Bell, Why tensions in Ferguson may help Republican in a local vote Reuters/Yahoo! News 11/03/2015, points out that if black voters start deciding that the Democratic Party is not interested in representing their interests, some of them may well decide to vote Republicans instead, apart from those who sit out the election altogether.

We saw that to some extent in Sen. Thad Cochran's successful primary race against a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi last year. For the second round of the primary, Cochran actively courted African-American voters to vote in the Republican primary. In a heavily Republican state like Mississippi, it's entirely thinkable that some black voters may decide that since Republicans are going to win their district in general elections anyway, they may as well vote in Republican primaries to have some voice. This would be a kind of mirror image of the days in which the Democratic primary in Mississippi was the only election that really counted. And if African-American voters start getting actively involved in Republican primary campaigns, it's likely that some of that party loyalty would carry over into general elections.

The Democrats can't afford to be fools about this.

The appeal-to-whites-as-such strategy may also suffer from bad algebra. As an example, take a state or district that is 45% black, 55% white. Assume equal turnout for each party's base. Also assume that African-American voters go 95% for Democrats, whites 95% for Republicans, a somewhat higher percentage on the white side than that typical in hardcore Republicans states like Mississippi and Alabama. That percentage would produced a result of 54% for Republicans, 46% for Democrats.

Drop the white Republicans percentage to 85%, and the election result becomes 51% Democratic, 49% Republican. That represents a shift of 10% of white voters to the Democratic column.

In other words, to shift that percentage, Democrats don't need to get half of white voters, or even 75%. Where they are getting 5% in the first example, they need to start getting 85% (rounding involved). The right way to do that for the Democrats would be to concentrate on measures that look good to working class voters of all races. Not by trying to invoke white identity politics that will alienate Democratic base voters, and which the Republicans will easily be able to counter with intensified appeals their well-develop, segregationist, white identity politics.

It's what Andrew Jackson would do.

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