Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bigotry and economic grievances, the unending discussion

Understanding the ideological churn of current politics always overlaps with the ongoing political battles and continuing ideological churn. Not least because the various actors in the process have their own preferences for how they would prefer things to be interpreted in support of their own perspectives. (The present writer does not pretend to be entirely immune from such temptations.)

One thing we've seen is the latest round of the perennial left and left-center hand-wringing and contention over the role of so-called identity politics in comparison to bread-and-butter issues. There are a couple of perspectives that weigh especially heavily on the discussion.

One is the perspective adopted by prominent reporters and pundits in the 1960s in response to the popularity of George Wallace and the populist edge of the Southern Strategy as embodied by Spiro Agnew. Digby Parton did an excellent brief roundup The truth about Donald Trump’s angry white men: Inside the media narrative that the media doesn’t understand Salon 05/28/2016. She quotes quotes star columnist Joseph Kraft in 1968, accommodating himself to the accusations from rightwing politicians like Wallace that the Democrats were arrogant elitists, out of touch with average Americans, i.e., conservative white people, an attitude reflected by the liberal press:

Are we merely neutral observers, seekers after truth in the public interest? Or do we, as the supporters of Mayor Daley and his Chicago police have charged, have a prejudice of our own?

The answer, I think is that Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans–in Middle America. And the results show up not merely in occasional episodes such as the Chicago violence but more importantly in the systematic bias toward young people, minority groups, and the of presidential candidates who appeal to them.

To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovation.

The most important organs of and television [sic in the Salon version] are, beyond much doubt, dominated by the outlook of the upper-income whites.

In these circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.
This is become a persistent, even chronic, pose taken by our star pundits, who themselves are far more highly compensated in absolute and relative terms than they were in the 1960s. In the well-established posture, pundits earning One-Percenter-level salaries claim to understand and speak for Sarah Palin's Real Americans, who they take to be someone crude on issues of racial equality and women's rights but who have fundamental values and policy preferences that mirror the Republican economic perspective: deregulation, budget balancing, cutting social services including Social Security and Medicare, private schools and private prisons, hostility to civilian government, endless wars, a sturdy and healthy patriotism, even the latter regrettably spills over into xenophobia and bigotry.

Examples of this tendency among our star pundits came be found every Sunday morning on the network political talk shows.

The second perspective is a somewhat lazy left outlook, especially associated at the moment with advocates for third parties, even though those are generally hard to be found. By "lazy" I mean taking a superficial and unreflective position, in this case arguing at a relatively abstract level that economic troubles in general lead to frustration, discontent and alienation that makes someone like Trump attractive just because he's an oppositional figure who can therefore appeal to people who don't share his extreme racial and xenophobic and misogynist views.

Digby describes the evolution of the press perspective of themselves as the true friends of the Real Americans:

This began the decades-long self-flagellation by the media (and the cynical exploitation of it by the Republicans) wherein it was assumed that the most misunderstood and underserved people in the whole country were salt-of-the-earth white folks nobody ever thinks about. Except that it’s anything but the truth. Every single election cycle since 1968 the press has been obsessed with this mythical Real American who is always angry, always frustrated, always railing against the so-called elites because they allegedly only care about the racial minorities or the women or somebody other than them. Then we end up with a mass soul search in which we all come to understand that the key to the election is to address these people’s grievances.

In those early days it was referred to as “The Silent Majority” of Richard Nixon, which Donald Trump has unoriginally revived. Since then, pollsters have come up with slogans to target certain demographics (NASCAR Dads and Waitress Moms are two examples), which the press then uses as symbols of this Real America, representing the breathing heart and soul of the country.

1976 featured media obsessing over the everyman outsider Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian from the South who spoke to Real Americans who just wanted a president who wouldn’t lie to them. It wasn’t long before they discovered that he didn’t really fit the bill. The Real Americans, it turned out, were more conservative than Carter and really wanted the Gipper to Make America Great Again. And thus the most Real Americans in the whole country were discovered: the Reagan Democrat ...

These are people we now refer to as “Republicans” but the myth of these alleged swing voters has persisted even to this day, as reporters commonly wonder if Trump is going to be able to nab those Reagan Democrats, who no longer exist.
What she's doing there is challenging one of the more obvious and consequential features of the dysfunctional nature of our corporate media in its affect on democratic politics in the US.

Both she and Charlie Pierce are writers whose mockery of the notion that hardcore white supremacist or woman-hating voters should be viewed as the simple expression of economic discontent strike me as being directly against both the pretentious Pod Pundit posture and the superficial leftie version. And they are right to do so. Dylan Matthews provides some contemporary examples of this press phenomenon in Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying Vox 10/15/2016.

And without pretending that this circle can be squared easily, I still insist that we need to be able to walk and talk at the same time on this matter. Joe Stiglitz in Project Syndicate reminds us that economic conditions in the United States really are troubling, and widespread economic distress is very real:

But several underlying factors also appear to have contributed to the closeness of the race. For starters, many Americans are economically worse off than they were a quarter-century ago. The median income of full-time male employees is lower than it was 42 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for those with limited education to get a full-time job that pays decent wages.

Indeed, real (inflation-adjusted) wages at the bottom of the income distribution are roughly where they were 60 years ago. So it is no surprise that Trump finds a large, receptive audience when he says the state of the economy is rotten. But Trump is wrong both about the diagnosis and the prescription. The US economy as a whole has done well for the last six decades: GDP has increased nearly six-fold. But the fruits of that growth have gone to a relatively few at the top – people like Trump, owing partly to massive tax cuts that he would extend and deepen.

At the same time, reforms that political leaders promised would ensure prosperity for all – such as trade and financial liberalization – have not delivered. Far from it. And those whose standard of living has stagnated or declined have reached a simple conclusion: America’s political leaders either didn’t know what they were talking about or were lying (or both).
And this definitely affects the political climate and people's understandings of how the political system is working.

It's just that the relationship is complicated and interwoven with other factors, including psychological and culture factors, including things as obvious of habitual party loyalty.

It's also critical to recognize that chronically low election turnout means that there is big difference demographically between eligible voters and actual voters. The latter group being considerably whiter and more affluent than the former.

My concern is that this is not an either-or matter of either bigotry or real economic concerns. Both are real. Both matter a lot. And easy simplifications on either can lead political analysts and journalists astray. From whatever part of the political spectrum they may be coming. The Dylan Matthews piece linked above points out some of the relevant complications.

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