Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Does the Left care about progressive reform in the South?

I flagged a number of blog posts from two weeks ago about Texas Governor Rick Perry's secessionist rhetoric. If you're not familiar or not quite remembering, Perry spoke to one of those tea party things in Texas:

"There's a lot of different scenarios," Perry said. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

Perry is facing a tough reelection road. Not only might Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson challenge him in the GOP primary, but some pretty strong Democrats (Tom Shieffer maybe?) could be waiting in the wings in the general. As a result, many viewed his foray into the world of organized tea bagging as a pretty predictable pandering to the ultra conservative base that he'll need to beat Hutchinson in a possible primary.

But by using the language of secession, Perry made national headlines. Maybe Perry was just being flip but politicians in former Confederate states that raise the specter of dissolution of the union should probably know to expect that comments like those he delivered are going to cause a commotion. That's not even addressing what it means when that rhetoric is used because the nation's first African American President wants to increase the marginal tax rate on the top 1 or 2 percent of income earners back to the rate it was under Reagan. Suffice it to say, the optics are horrendous if one cares about what anyone outside of the base of the Texas GOP thinks about you.

Obviously, I was pretty disturbed by Perry's rhetoric and other instances where professional conservatives have seemingly embraced the language of insurrection.

But I was also not particularly pleased with the reaction to Perry's comments by some of the more respectable progressive bloggers out there.

For instance, Matthew Yglesias:

Honestly, though, I agree with Mike Tomasky that if Texas wants to leave the union we should probably just let them go and I’d say the same for other southern states that feel oppressed by our efforts to use federal tax money to help them take care of their unemployed citizens. Back during the Civil War, the cause of keeping the union together was intertwined with the cause of fighting the great evil of slavery. But assume we just welcome migrants from the Republic of Texas with open arms if they want to flee north, there’d be no comparable problem with letting Texas leave.

A day or so later, he went into a longer policy-based rant about how secession might be handled.

Another favorite, Nate Silver, responded to Perry as follows:

Then he rattled off a series of points about how much better off the Democrats would be without Texas.

I don't think that Nate Silver or Matthew Yglesias actually believe that Texas should secede from the union or that the US would be better off without Texas or any of the other former Confederate states whose Senators and Governors have mounted stunningly politicized opposition to stimulus funding that would help their own states' flagging economies.

Yet, there's something quite unfortunate about their dismissive tone that's indicative of a larger pervasive and insidious national attitude toward the South. The problem is not just that people are too insulated in the culture of the Beltway or the major media centers of New York, LA, and Chicago; it's that for so many on the Left view the South derisively as purely a symbol of extremist conservatism while expressing so very little empathy for the people of the South who actually are suffering from the consequences of this kind of GOP-inspired institutionalized poverty.

For instance, let's take the stimulus bill.

When you really distill down what has happened, you basically had a bunch of ultra-conservative Southern governors and senators screaming bloody murder because the Obama Administration was giving them money that they could use to improve institutions, infrastructure, and services. While conservatives of course would argue that improved institutions, infrastructure, and services represent larger more intrusive government, the reality is that these are the poorest and least developed states in the country with huge populations of impoverished residents and minorities saddled with the most institutionally dysfunctional justice systems in the industrialized world.

When viewed using this lens, the resurgence of the extremist rump of the GOP has absolutely nothing to do with an ideological opposition to government spending, pork, or the national debt.

Instead, it is more indicative of a long-standing ideological refusal by wealthy Southern elites to do anything at all that might address the really messed up dynamics of race and class that are still disproportionately omnipresent throughout the old Confederacy compared to other regions of the country.

The attitude exemplified by Yglesias and Silver reaction to Perry's ridiculous secessionist rhetoric wasn't about bolstering an ongoing meme about how Southern politicians were working against the interests of their own constituents and how to help the residents on the ground that are fighting for reform from within.

Instead, it was about how obstructionist these politicians are and how best to usher their states clean out of the union.

That anything resembling secession would spell doom for the huge population already bearing the disproportionate negative impact of being born in the wrong region of the country didn't seem to cross their minds.

Rather than discussing how the mechanics of secession might work to the Democrats' advantage, I think it would be much more helpful to the majority of people from Texas, the rest of the old Confederacy, and to the nation at-large if progressives instead concentrated on how best to enact policies that will improve conditions in the nation's most at-risk communities and how best to organize for grassroots progressive reform from within.

The whole pervasive good riddance attitude is something that people in the South have become really sensitive to, consciously or not, and it alienates many that otherwise would really benefit from and support progressive public policy.

Update: Hendrik Hertzberg does the same thing starting at 9:00 in.

And more eloquently in this column.


undeadgoat said...

I say this to my friends every time this sort of topic comes up in conversation, and they just laugh it off, like, oh, not like we really want Texas to leave. But they don't take me seriously, and I do wish that Nate Silver had done some numbers about e.g. how much worse it would become to be a gay Texan.

E said...

Interestingly enough, today the Supreme Court is considering whether or not to gut major provisions of the voting rights act that provide oversight over changes to voting procedures that have protected democracy in states with long histories of voter discrimination and suppression.

Damian said...

E, a very thought provoking and unique perspective today. I can't say I've ever looked at the secession question through quite that lens before, but your views echo, somewhat, Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas". Are you familiar with it?

I'll state for the record that I think states ought to have the right to secede, even if I agree with you that it would not be wise to do so.

(In a similar vein, I think that someone in a loving and financially-productive marriage still has the right to divorce, and someone with profitable stock has the right to sell it. How wise something is should not dictate whether it is allowed.)

Still, I would not lightly suggest that Louisiana secede, and would be highly skeptical of any other state's attempt to do so. One wonders how carefully they've looked at the financial repercussions, if only due to the massive political and legal restructuring that would be necessary. And that's ignoring the possibility/probablility of provoking some sort of armed response from the federal government, a la the Civil War.

Again, a very good post.

Damian said...

I must, however, criticize you on one point:

You characterized this link [http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/04/if_texas_seceds_dont_mess_with_it.php] by Matthew Yglesias as a "policy-based rant". I think that's an almost criminally-poor description. You may disagree with Yglesias, but his tone is reasonable, civil, moderate, and he supports his assertions with facts and comparisons to reasonable parallel cases. If that's a "rant", what does thoughtful discussion sound like?

E said...

I called it a rant because I found it to be a really abstract conversation about something that he doesn't actually believe in. I'm not attached to that word. I love Yglesias' blog and find him to be one of the least shrill and most thoughtful progressive voices out there.

jeffrey said...

Thank you for posting this. I've got lots more to say about it but I haven't had time to write an actual post lately. I'll get to it sooner or later.

Damian said...

Oh. Well in that case criticism rescinded.

Had you previously read Frank's book Kansas?

jeffrey said...


I read and reviewed it in 2005 Key graff (if you will suffer me quoting myself): Frank, a native Kansan, takes great pains to trace the rich populist impulse in his home state back to the socially Christian, but economically progressive movements of the Abolitionists and Bryanists. Some of the more colorful characters he speaks with in the book include a female politician famous for lamenting the extension of the franchise to women and a schismatic Catholic who regards the post Vatican II Church as a heresy and has consequently declared himself the true Pope. While I am, of course, pleased to see this subject matter analyzed, what I really liked about this book was Frank's ability to treat his "red" and often nutty Kansans with an empathy and affection that contains not even the slightest hint of condescension. In other words, exactly the way I wouldn't have done it.

E said...

I've read large selections of Frank's book but not cover-to-cover.

Anonymous said...

I someone were to want progress in the South thereby earning the appellation of "progressive," wouldn't New Orleans be the place to start seeing as how it's the Southern area most in need of it? As Harry Shearer recently pointed out in a fine HuffPo column the Obama administration hardly showered any federal largesse on our much damaged, underdesigned, and underbuilt federal built levees.

As for your point on the secession arguments, yes I completely agree. The Governor of TX threw some red meat out in an election season and *some Democratic or Liberal pundits felt it necessary to pile on and echo the "good riddance" mantra. But all of that is harmful. Such language, even if in jest should never be raised. We are in a Union, we're committed to it and we should all be democrats (small 'd') first and above all other things. Telling people we don't agree with to "get out" is not only extremely harmful to our country (especially so if they were to take us up on that) but it also runs contra to the entire concept of inclusion and tolerance that so many Liberals have preached over the years.

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