Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What's the Matter with South Chicago?

Back in 2004 Thomas Frank famously fumed in What's the Matter with Kansas? about the white working class that couldn't understand its economic interests, and voted instead for the Republicans.

This sort of notion is not new; it issues from the Marxian idea of "false consciousness," that people think the wrong way unless they are properly educated by the vanguard of the proletariat.

But conservatives make a similar mistake.  Here is Peter Ferrara calling for a campaign of "Cracking the Left's Fortresses."  It's the familiar refrain that Republicans don't try to talk to blacks in the inner cities.  Don't blacks realize that liberals are selling them down the river with lousy schools and death-spiral dependency?  We should do outreach with their leaders and ministers.
Hispanics and even African Americans have many more conservatives in their ranks than voting patterns would indicate. This is even more true of Asians. Even American Jews are more conservative than their ballots suggest. All these groups vote so predominantly Democrat because the Democrats tell them the Republicans hate them. The Republicans and conservatives tell them nothing, which seemingly reinforces the Democrat narrative.
Well maybe.  And it wouldn't hurt for a top-down initiative to talk to blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.  But let us turn this around and get back to "What's the Matter with Kansas?"  There might be a good reason that the white working class doesn't voter Democratic any more.  It might have to do with the fact that the white working class views Democrats as fighting for women and minorities and not family people like them.  It might have to do with the fact that the white working class is taking the brunt of Affirmative Action.  It might not be "false consciousness" at all.

On this view, we should accept that blacks and Hispanics are perfectly rational in voting for Democrats.

In fact, immigrants have always tended to vote Democratic, going back to the Irish in the mid 19th century.  They have done so because the Democratic Party has always promoted a culture of patronage and clientage, and the folks just arriving in the city respond to that.  That's how things work in the countryside: you attach yourself to a powerful cacique and hope to receive a benefit from your loyalty.

Each immigrant group goes through a similar process.  First they think of themselves as Irish.  Then Irish-Americans.  Then, finally, middle-class Americans.

Back in 2008. according to CNN's exit polls, Americans divided up by race, in percent, as follows.  Whites 55-43 for McCain and 75 percent of the vote, with Blacks 95-5 for Obama at 13 percent of the vote, Hispanics 67-31 for Obama at 9 percent of the vote, and Asians 62-35 for Obama at 2 percent of the vote.  Really the only group that votes by race is the black vote, and the extreme vote of 95% for Obama is understandable for the first black president.

But Hispanics, we are told, don't vote by race.  As they graduate into the middle class they start to vote Republican.

Now we know why blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.  They do it because the Democrats scare them, and teach them to hate whites, with the race card.  Chaps like Reverend Wright in South Chicago spew race hatred from the pulpit.  You can't get to 95-5 without fear and hate.  But every day there is an African American somewhere graduating into the middle class who may wonder if it's really true that the Republicans will bring back Jim Crow.  Also, I suspect, there is a growing and desperate hunger in African Americans to achieve middle-class respectability.  Why not?  Everyone else has experienced that hunger.  One fine day that hunger will break up the fear and hate.  Because once people get into the middle class, and get what used to be called a "competence," they start to believe that they can make it in the market economy and the world without needing to truckle to a powerful patron.

There is no magic bullet here.  The reason that the white working class has abandoned the Democratic Party is that it perceives that the Democratic Party doesn't care about people like them.  There will come a day when the black middle class feels the same way.  Given the disappointment with Obama, that day may be closer than we think.

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