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Some Populist Perspective, Ten Years (and Two Weeks) in the Making

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This image on the left–which shows how the Democratic candidate for governor, Paul Davis, was systematically slaughtered across Kansas–is pretty much what I saw on the screen towards the end of a long night at KWCH, our local CBS affiliate here in Wichita, two weeks ago. I was their on-air political talent, so I was in the newsroom throughout the evening, watching the whole debacle unfold. And I do mean debacle–both in terms of my many predictions (which all turned out completely wrong, though I wasn’t entirely alone in that), and in terms of what I think it means for our state. The news since the election has made it pretty clear just what a financial and political hole our ideologically blinkered majority party has created for the Sunflower State–and, of course, the same could be said for many other states, to say nothing of our national government itself. So yes, I was depressed that night. Then I left the country for a week, and tried to forget about it all.

Now I’ve been back for a week, and I’ve been pondering what to make of Democratic losses locally and nationally. And what I find myself thinking the most about is how things stood pretty much exactly 10 years ago, give or take. The elections of 2004–anyone remember them? President Bush re-elected, the Republicans expanding their control of both the House and the Senate, all after an extreme fierce campaign which so many on the left saw as their best chance to correct for the Bush’s indefensible, Supreme-Court-assisted win in 2000. And afterwards, the internet (we weren’t calling it “social media” back then!) was filled with images like this:

There was a great deal of serious–and I do mean serious–soul-searching following that election, and what it meant for the Democrats’ hopes for either 1) reaching out to, and finding some sort of way to win the support of, what seemed to be a mostly white, mostly church-going, mostly socially conservative, mostly middle-class-at-best, rural demographic that was–thanks to the quirks of our electoral maps–capable of holding on to our political institutions, or 2) bringing into politically-salient existence a more liberal, more secular, more educated, more diverse, more economically oriented, urban demographic that would enable progressives to win nationally. The amount of pixels enlisted in this soul-searching surely ran into the billions; everyone was reading and arguing about Thomas Frank (or Ruy Teixeira or Ronald Brownstein or Robert Reich or any number of other pundits of the moment). People talked (humorously, mostly, I think) about secession. And in the midst of this, I got into a debate with one of the great ur-bloggers of that distant moment in internet history, Timothy Burke.

His position was straightforward: the future of the Democratic party needed to begin with maximizing the appeal of “Bicoastia,” not trying to triangulate from or invest in or find identity with “Heartlandia.” (Because, modernity being what it is–as Timothy presented it, anyway–any such efforts would necessarily be either condescending or inauthentic). What was necessary, instead, was doubling down on the the second option: “soft libertarianism” in regards to lifestyle issues, meritocracy and means-testing in matters of government regulation, celebrating social mobility, embracing “South Park Republicanism,” etc. All of which, of course, stereotypically aligns with the interests and expectations of individuals who had made their home in an urbanized, globalized, worldly, pluralistic, secularized world. I, on the other hand, insisted upon the first option (and not just once, but many times thereafter): that the left, if it was to succeed, needed to abandon the meritocratic and ameliorative nonsense of the Clinton years, and embrace a whole-hearted egalitarian communitarianism. Christian social democratic populism, in short: we on the left needed to re-embrace union workers and farmers and–most crucially–the communities they had built for themselves and the churches they worshiped in, and build up our cause through a respect for their legitimate popular demands. That and only that, I thought, would enable the left to credibly win electoral contests against the financial powers that were both tearing American democracy apart and turning us into a crusading empire around the world.

Well, ten years are a long time, and plenty of things have changed. (Obama happened, among many others.) But thinking about the two maps above, I realized two things. First, whatever the ultimate ethical calculus of those two debated routes a decade ago, Timothy’s approach is the one which won the argument for the Democrats. The logic of libertarianism is pretty much all around us. A jury-rigged (and philosophically limited) package of reasonable health insurance reforms has emerged as the absolute benchmark of liberalism (and been incorrectly labeled “socialism” for its efforts). The conventional wisdom for the past half-decade or more has all been about how the Republican party is dying demographically, with the Tea Party being a mad lashing out by angry white men against the new ascendant majority: minorities, single working women, gays, recent immigrants, and most of all: young people. Populism may not have ever really been tried, but in the wake of 2008 and 2012, perhaps there was no reason to.

But my second realization goes back to what I saw in the studio that night: a manifestly unpopular governor (Sam Brownback has never been above 50% in state-wide approval polls) re-elected, Democratic turn-out in the sewer, and the Republicans winning all the way down the ballot. It’s very easy to talk dismissively talk about how Kansas is a conservative Republican state, end of story (though that is simplistic at best); it’s also easy to talk about the current unpopularity of President Obama and the nation-wide campaign of paranoia and hysteria which so much of the Republican party promulgated, and how that filtered down to the grass-roots (especially when we here in Kansas have the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity as ready enablers). One can cavalierly insist that the Obama majority just happened to stay home this time around, and will easily be back in 2016. But that runs against everything I saw here on the ground: huge efforts and excitement at center of local Democratic and progressive organizations, all of which saw their chance, and all of which was reflected in the polls, and apparently none of which translated into votes. And the fact is, I’ve seen this–we’ve all seen this–in midterm after midterm, for the past ten years. 2006 is very likely an anomaly, driven by the combination of an unpopular war and conservative exhaustion; if it is the case, as some have hopefully suggested, that the GOP has crafted an electoral strategy that is deep but not broad–and I think that analysis is likely correct–then it would seem the Democrats, as the party for liberals and progressives (and all the rest of us socialists and Greens when there are no other responsible options on the ballot) has the opposite problem: it’s support is broad, but not deep. Its message is not changing voting habits, or even really challenging them, much less inspiring them. The majority that seems to support progressive causes doesn’t care enough about its nominal candidates to bother consisting showing up.

Anyone who cares about Kansas politics and finds himself on the left side of the political spectrum could do much worse than to read the long, provocative series of exchanges between liberal and progressive activists and Kansas Democratic party leaders which Daily Kos has hosted over the past couple of weeks (I caught up with them all after I got back from China). Even allowing for the selective viewpoint of those writing, it captures something pretty fundamental (and noted nationwide): our state-wide Democratic party wasn’t thinking along Timothy’s preferred lines, but neither were they embracing a strategy of deep, locally grounded populism such as I once imagined. They determined early on that “education funding” was a winning issue, and thus that became the first, last, and only focus of their campaign. Same-sex marriage (even when the courts handed that to Kansas Democrats on a silver platter!) wasn’t touched; minimum wage hikes and agricultural policy and immigration–the sort of stuff which logically ought to have at least have been on radar screen of Kansas’s many rural poor and urban minorities–was only lightly pushed at best. Now, maybe that wouldn’t have made any difference; I’m not going to go up against the high-priced data that the state party was able to get a hold of (though I’m not sure all those polls were worth their cost…). Still, from what I can tell, Timothy’s meritocratic, social libertarianism-plus-fiscal-moderation model has only succeeded nationally, not locally–and in our federal system, figuring out some way to draw out and build upon the progressive concerns of local communities is an absolute must.

Note that I said “progressive” there. I’m not going to retire my reliance upon the term populist entirely, but I have to recognize that it carries with it a lot of baggage, and over the past 10 years the playing field–and the players, both rural and urban–have changed enough that its use needs to be qualified. Ten years ago, living in Arkansas in 2004, I voted (along with a broad majority of Democrats and Republicans alike) to put an anti-same-sex marriage amendment into our state constitution; a decade later, I’ve changed my mind, and am happy to see the first legal same-sex marriages here in Kansas, and I’m not alone. Changes in technology–social media, not the least!–have meant it is ever more difficult to separate the increasing cosmopolitanism of urban (and therefore, for better or worse, “bi-coastal”) life from penetrating and shaping the hopes and interests and expectations of even the most rural communities. And perhaps for related reasons, the current zeitgeist–which I see reflected in my own political interests–is one of decentralization, localism, diversity by way of a re-evaluating of connections. I hope, for all my usual deeply communitarian reasons, that those connections–and the culture they make possible–isn’t going to go into even greater eclipse than they already too often have, but I have to own up to shifts in the terrain under my feet: the old populism–based on making the state over into a community of egalitarian identification–can’t connect to a majority of left-leaning voters any longer, but maybe a new kind of populism–one that empowers both individuals and local communities–could.

It’s a difficult passage that America (indeed, modern capitalism, and the modern nation-state itself) is going through at present. To use a banal but I think revealing example, it may be that more and more young people are returning to the DIY lifestyle, but they aren’t doing it in the name of embracing either Brooklyn hipster urban farming or their grandparents rural gemeinschaft. There is a different mix of the progressive-libertarian and the populist-egalitarian out there, a different mix of what seems to be done best locally and what needs to happen universally. The Democratic party has a potential platform which captures at least one version of that mix: generous immigration policies, nationally portable health care (or at least health insurance) policies, student loan forgiveness, net neutrality. It’s not everything, but it’s something. At the very least, maybe it’ll give my state’s Democrats a shot of convincing enough voters that they can be trusted to fix the mess which I fear that four more years of Brownback is going to continue to build in my state. Fingers crossed, anyway.

About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.