Friday, November 12, 2004

Lefty rednecks? It could happen

Southern populism making a comeback? I hope so. I've been arguing a version of this idea for years, but had never heard the term "Leftnecks." I hate the name, but couldn't agree more with the author about the poor judgment exhibited taking on symobolic efforts like removing the Ten Commandments at the capitol or "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Who cares? There's a lot of stuff wrong with Texas and this country that really matters, that affects people in their daily lives. It's time to get serious about it.

What this country's politics need is an infusion of no-B.S. Southern populism -- the kind of ideology that inspired the great Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, the last Democrat to beat a Bush in Texas for statewide office. Known as 'the people's senator,' Yarborough's campaign signs used to read, "I vote Democrat because I work for a living." Where's that sentiment today?

Too often, American liberals are so quick falling over themselves to condemn Southern racism, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Typical of the genre, we see statements like, "a majority of people in Alabama are racists," offered today by an obviously frustrated Byron at the Burnt Orange Report in response to news Alabama rejected Prop 2, which would have eliminated court-invalidated Jim Crow language from the state constitution. Byron laments, "I'm increasingly convinced that winning the south (at least most of the "southern" states) is hopeless in the near future if our party is to stand for the values that Democrats believe in."

But that view, widely shared, reflects almost zero understanding of the politics of Prop 2 on the ground. The Christian Coalition led the charge, but their main beef was taxation, not race. Their campaign messages explicitly denounced the racist language, claiming instead the proposal was a "trojan horse" masking liberal efforts to raise taxes. In fact, the Christian Coalition in the South seems to push lower taxes more than they do Jesus Christ, in my experience. The Coalition actually promised that if voters turned down Proposition 2, the group itself would push to remove the racist language in the next election cycle.

So a lot of Alabamans voted against Prop 2 not because they were racist, but precisely because they could be convinced to vote for it
without considering themselves racist. That's a much different politic than the one caricatured variously about the blogosphere these days. At root, the arguments carrying the day against Prop 2 were economic arguments, not racist ones. In fact, the religious right routinely frames anti-tax rhetoric as expressing concern for the poor. The Alabama Christian Coalition worries that, "Imposing greater tax burdens on families takes much needed resources from those who can least afford it. " Who do you think they're appealing to with that argument? Poor working folks, yes, many of whom are religious, but whose economic interests would be objectively better served by the Democratic agenda if the subject were debated honestly.

The pivotal harbingers of today's Southern Democratic woes came in the 1964 primaries, when George Wallace ran strong nationwide, carrying Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana along with much of the South, and in 1968, when Wallace split off from the Democrats over LBJ's Voting Rights Act to form his own party. Best remembered for his 1962 inaugural speech as Alabama governor, where he brazenly championed, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever" (a sentiment he later renounced), that oft-quoted phrase obscures the populist complexities of Wallace's agenda.

This blog mentioned Wallace the other day in a negative light, and certainly Wallace's segregationist views merit disapprobation. But it set me thinking about the non-racist elements of "southern pride," which stems in part from a code of southern chivalry, a character and a culture of looking out for the little guy. Racism was never the only reason for George Wallace's popularity, or else he couldn't have won a Democratic primary in Michigan as late as 1972. His national appeal stemmed from advocating themes of middle class empowerment, adopted later by Nixon and Reagan, that resonated with working class voters far beyond the South. His American Independent Party platform called for "An insistence that the laboring man and woman be given his fair share of responsibility and reward for the development of the mighty potential of this nation," and "seeking an end to poverty among our people."

I frankly wish we heard more rhetoric like that from the typical Southern Democratic politician. If we did, I think there'd be more of them, or more successful ones.

4 comments:

John said...

The framing of lower taxes as a Christian issue is an interesting one. I had no idea Jesus of Nazareth was so anti-tax. Without knowing the details of the legislation in question, most tax increases (other than sales tax, I suppose) would impact the wealthy more than the poor. What precisely is the "Christian" beef with that?

PS. I kinda like "leftnecks" myself.

Anonymous said...

The framing of lower taxes as a Christian issue is an interesting one. I had no idea Jesus of Nazareth was so anti-tax. Without knowing the details of the legislation in question, most tax increases (other than sales tax, I suppose) would impact the wealthy more than the poor. What precisely is the "Christian" beef with that?

PS. I kinda like "leftnecks" myself.

Eric said...

Scott,

I think you are 100% correct on this. I have been advocating for some time for a return to some form of economic populism. It is, in my opinion, the best way for the Democrats to make inroads into the working class voters that have drifted to the GOP.

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