The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 3
In Part 2, I looked in detail at the spending issues, which are the bedrock core of New Deal liberalism, and the foundation—still—of American liberalism. Liberals believe in a just society, “liberty and justice for all,” not just for the wealthy few who can afford it. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the vision of a just society has been intimately linked to the welfare state everywhere from Germany to Japan, and America is no exception. This includes breaking down traditional, feudal barriers, expanding opportunity, enhancing individual autonomy, and redressing the imbalances that unfortunately are a part of any rapidly industrializing society. In most countries, conservatives have long accepted this—even promoted their own version of the welfare state to reinforce the traditional social hierarchies they defend. This is true in America as well—at least among the vast majority of conservative citizens. But ultra-conservative elites and movement activists never accepted it. As explained in the previous installment of this series, they are the odd man out.
The key to their power today is thought to reside in divisive wedge issues, used to polarize the electorate. But that’s not really true. As we’ll see in the next installment, while the public is less consistently liberal on these issues, there is still much more liberal/conservative agreement than disagreement. The power of wedge issues is not in the issues themselves, but in how they are framed within a larger, long-term political strategy, and the narratives it generates.
To understand them historically, we need to turn to the mother of all wedge issues: civil rights. Historically, the GOP broke the New Deal coalition by appealing to Southern racism in the wake of Democrats embracing civil rights. The result was the eventually transformation of the Democratic “Solid South” of the New deal era into the Republican Solid South of Regan/Bush/Bush era, during which Democrats won just 9 states in three elections over 7 cycles from 1980 to 2004: Carter won his home state in 1980, and Bill Clinton won his home state of Arkansas plus three others in both 1992 and 1996. Here we examine what that shift meant in terms partisan shifts and polarization.
Racism, And The Rise of the Republican/Conservative South
As already noted, the GOP broke the New Deal coalition by appealing to Southern racism in the wake of Democrats embracing civil rights. The first major indication of this potential was Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrat” run for President in the 1948 election, winning 4 Southern states, in response to the Democratic Party adopting a strong civil rights platform at their convention. It resumed in the 1960 election, again prompted by the Democrat’s civil rights platform, with 2 states electing slates of unpledged electors who voted for Harry Byrd, and in the 1964 election, when Republican Barry Goldwater carried 5 Southern states after voting against the Civil Rights Act, and finally, with the third party bid of George Wallace in the 1968 election, winning 5 states.
Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was based on the realization of two things: First, that racism split the Democratic base—taking the vast majority of the white South and an indeterminate share of the North. Second, that racial progress was inevitable. The task, therefore, was to create a permanent split out of resistance that would inevitably fail, and create a new majority out of it. The key would be to play on people’s racist resentments, and build an entire politics on it, while still not losing the traditional Republican base, a good share of which still retained the party’s Lincolnian roots. He would have to largely give in on substantive issues, while “winning” (even if he lost) on symbolic ones, such as the Supreme Court nominations of segregationist judges Carswell and Haynsworth. The trick worked.
Over time, other social wedge issues emerged—abortion, immigration, gay rights. Their significance (and actual attitudes underlying how they play out) cannot be understood apart from this history. Which is why this diary precedes a closer look at the polling data on them. This historical review sets the stage for a look at the polling data—data which clearly shows that liberals did not drive conservatives out of the Democratic Party, as Ender alleges (see below).
Beginning in the 1970s, two things happened:
- First, as the racial issue was lost in its initial form—ending formal segregation—a secondary line of defense emerged, largely preventing integration. White flight and anti-busing activism on the local level spread the battle to the north in the 1970s, while affirmative action—which Nixon himself promoted in his “Philadelphia Plan,” aimed squarely at the construction trade unions—was re-branded as “reverse racism,” so that whites could maintain their racial privilege, while shifting the approbrium of “racism” onto its victims, and those “liberals” who support them.
- Second, additional wedge issues—abortion, immigration and later gay rights—appeared in the place of race, stoking the fires of resentment. As with re-branding affirmative action as “reverse racism,” these issues were framed to be moral crusades in which conservatives could imagine themselves as moral crusaders, submerging the unpleasant historical reality that they had actually bitterly opposed equality for blacks and other minorities, as well as for women—and, indeed, continued to do so, although in less blatant ways.
In both these developments, the narrative framework of conservative virtue is paramount. If we are good and they are bad, then they deserve worse treatment. They could be treated well, too, if only they would be like us.
The Rightwing Counter-Narrative
Against the historical facts, the right has a counter-narrative: today’s culture wars and political polarization are due to liberals—but not because they supported racial justice. (Indeed, conservatives try to pretend that they have a wonderful record on civil rights—a worthy topic for another day.) According to this narrative, it wasn’t the GOP that aggressively went after white racist sentiment in the South, it was liberal Democrats who pushed conservatives out of their party with their extremist views on abortion, gay rights, etc.
This is essentially what Ender alleged back on June 13, in his comment in ”Coulterization of the Republican Party”:
I'd like to illustrate why it is a lot easier to "polarize" voters these days and why Ann Coulter has such an audience.Notice the reference to “the generation that went to Woodstock.” Of course, a generation didn’t go to Woodstock. Less than half a million people did. Unless, of course, he means the movie. (More went to Star Wars. Why not blame it?)
It is my understanding that the two parties have been moving further and further apart on several very important fronts. The cultural front encompasses many diverse issues from illegal immigration to God in the public square to what it means to fight a war to gay rights to affirmative action. The economic front includes taxation, social programs, welfare, etc.
In my view the Democrats have been moving in the counter-cultural direction since at least the 1980s. The liberal/progressive wing of the party has grown rapidly and politicians took notice. Conservative democrats either adapted and changed, were tossed out in favor of more liberal candidates, or switched to GOP. Democratic base became dominated by the generation that went to Woodstock. Liberals who control the Democratic Party's current agenda (and comprise somewhere around 25% of US population) differ greatly from the rest of the American public on all the cultural issues I listed above.
Liberals overwhelmingly support homosexual lobby's agenda, affirmative action, and abortion on demand. They are much more secular than the rest of the Democrats and indeed the rest of Americans. They are distrustful of the American Military establishment. In short they are well represented by the denizens of Daily Kos.
An average American has noticed the ascendancy of the Liberal movement. An average conservative has taken it as a threat to the American way of life.
But invoking Woodstock echoes the dominant rightwing trope that identifies liberalism with the 60s counter-culture, which had little to do with electoral, legislative and judicial political, rather than with the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and the consumer protection movement—all powerful forces in American political life that fundamentally challenged and changed the power relations under which we all live.
This is the sort of fundamentally dishonest historical framing that right routinely engages in. It’s similar to their attempts to turn the Founding Fathers—whose leading members were Deists and Enlightenment rationalists—into a bunch of fundamentalists out to establish a religious state. The big lie works wonders, and it’s so much more efficient than a whole bunch of little ones, who are hard to keep straight without a big one watching over them.
What The Numbers Say
But enough fun with words. Let’s have some fun with numbers. Let’s put Ender’s claims to the test. According to him, liberals flooded into the Democratic Party, and drove the conservatives out. Well, not exactly. Instead, what we find is exactly what I said: The GOP sucked in Southern conservatives like a tornado sucks up houses.
To see what happened, I’ve taken several GSS variables, and grouped them together to get large enough samples so we can have confidence in the results, as well as few enough categories so we can see what’s going on. (The variables exist in a public space, and expire over time as new variables are created. But by saving the definitions, they can be recreated at any time.) First is YearSpan, which groups all the years of the GSS into three groups: 1972-1984, 1985-1994 and 1995-2004. Second is Polideo, which combines party id (Dem, Rep or Ind) and ideology (lib, con or mod) to produce 9 separate groups. Third is WhiteSouth, which puts white Southerners into one group and everyone else into another.
Political Identity: The Nationwide Picture From 1970s to Present—The Liberal Bogeyman Dispelled
We begin with a table showing the nationwide distribution of political identification in the three time-frames.
If the number of liberal Democrats had doubled, say, or even increased by 50%, then this sort of mass exodus of conservatives in even greater numbers could make sense in terms of the scenario Ender envisions. But the modest increase that actually occurred seems highly unlikely to create a stampede effect. What’s more, the exodus continues at the same pace—another 1.7% drop—even as the number of liberal Dems declines again—by 0.8%. Furthermore, the increase in conservative Republicans is much more dramatic than the drop in conservative Democrats: from 11.2% to 15.8% and then to 17.1% These increases—5.9% total—really do constitute rapid growth, a 53% increase, and GOP politicians defintely took notice.
The simplest explanation is that Ender suffers from red-blue colorblindness.
The point can be made even more powerfully by looking at the same underlying data from a different perspective—in terms of percentages within the parties, and among independents.
We can dramatize this by removing moderates from the equation, and looking at the percentage breakdowns that remain:
So much for the claim that liberals drove conservatives out of the Democratic Party. So much for blaming liberals for Ann Coulter.
Political Identity: The White South In Perspective From 1970s to Present—What Really Happened
But what about the contrasting thesis—that the growth of conservatism is due to coded racist appeals begun by Richard Nixon, and broadened to include other resentment-based anti-egalitarian appeals?
For that, we need to compare the shifts among white Southerners—who were the primary target of the Southern Strategy—to the rest of the nation. Note that we’re not saying that they were the only targets. Clearly they were not. (After all, George Wallace won the 1968 Democratic Primary in Michigan.) But they were disproportionately the targets. So let’s see what happened.
First, the white South:
Am I saying that all these Southern conservative Republicans are racists? No, of course not—especially not in the classical sense. But there are newer forms of racism that allow for complete disavowal of racist attitudes, and yet still manage to keep real-world power almost exclusively in white hands. And that is what we see happening here. Remaining within the Democratic Party would mean sharing power with blacks. And a sizeable chunk of Southern conservatives are simply not willing to do that, even though they will gladly cheer on a black running back on their favorite team—or even (if their name’s not Rush Limbaugh) a quarterback.
Looking at things in terms of within-party percentages, a few things come into sharper focus.
Outside the white South, the shifts are all more modest.
In contrast to the white South, the picture for the rest of the country is of a Democratic Party that’s lost some ground, and is a bit unsure of itself—in contrast to the heavily conservative Republican Party, but that still holds a sizeable edge in overall size.
Again, the within-party percentages allow us pick out a few more instructive points.
This, then is the background for examining the wedge issues we’ll consider in the next part. Polarization has come not from liberal Democrats driving conservatives out of their party, except for one thing—their support for the Civil Rights movement, coupled with the GOP’s deliberate courting of Southern (and other) whites, using coded racist narratives.
A Closing Note
Before closing this diary, a few word should be said about lordzorgon’s attempted response to the previous installment. (I’ll be including a much more comprehensive response at the end of this series, addressing the full range of objections raised.) The most telling thing he says is:
I *know* the majority of the public disagrees with me on the size of government. I don't need a poll to prove that.Precisely. But the polls make it clear that a majority of conservatives also disagrees. Which is why he was mistaken when he wrote:
conservatives are *not* running the show right now. Only faux conservatives who passed tax cuts but don't have the cojones to back them up with spending cuts.Sorry, lordzorgon. But those are real reactionaries, acting like real conservatives, because in the end they don’t have a choice.
As noted, I’ll post a more detailed response at the end of this series. While no poll is perfect, the large mass of data in the GSS allows us to overcome legitimate objections. However, most of lordzorgon’s complaints don’t even qualify as that.
For now, one point suffices: the welter of objections that lordzorgon tosses out serve primarily as distractions from what’s really at issue: are liberals far out of touch with the American mainstream, or are reactionaries like Ender and lordzorgon out of touch with even the majority of conservatives? The truth could be somewhere in between, of course. But those are the terms of debate. And the objections lordzorgon tosses out are mostly irrelevent. They’re like tossing sand in the umpire’s eyes to prevent him from seeing the play he’s supposed to call. We’ll answer those objections at the end of this series. But in the meantime, don’t let yourselves be distracted by them. Don’t take your eye off the ball.