The Economic Populist Problem

Amanda adds to the discussion about the creative class and the brain drain by drawing a connection between feminism and women’s unwillingness to live in conservative areas, and asking how it’s possible for liberal politics to succeed in areas that lose intelligent people to the cities.

[Link] Is it really elitist to flee to a big city because you’re sick of racism, homophobia, and sexism? Are you somehow an uptight elitist if you’re attracted to a place precisely because they are welcoming to diversity? And that’s the underlying tension that makes it so damn hard to figure out how to enact the fixes that Jill suggests:

Because the fact is, while progressive politics certainly don’t hurt rich urban liberals, they’re far more beneficial to people who are lower-income, who are struggling to feed their kids, who don’t have a choice to be a stay-at-home parent, who see many of the kids in their neighborhoods going off to Iraq, who don’t have the privilige of regularly going to openings and shows and performances. That’s who we should focus on — because the fact is, those people make up a far greater portion of our country than the people who get most of the attention. It’s not because they’re dumb or uncreative or tasteless, and I’m not suggesting that we condescend to the poor red-staters; I’m suggesting that most people don’t have the opportunity to be part of a creative class, and that we should emphasize the fact that progressive politics are far more in their interests than conservative ones are. And we should really evalute their interests, and listen to them. Which, of course, is the pat liberal answer that we hear recycled all the time. But either we just aren’t doing it, or we aren’t doing it right. I think it’s a combination of both.

What’s so damn difficult is that the red states aren’t going to have these opportunities until they vote for them. If they wanted more opportunities for their kids, they wouldn’t insist on taking science out of the classroom. The truth is that the working class white people in red states are under a propaganda blitz from the old racist, sexist elite who do not like the way that the world is passing them by and unversities are admitting women and people of color and these folks are taking their rightful spots in the creative class after graduation. As such, they are appealing to people’s nasty jealousies and anger at uppity women and uppity people of color and uppity gay follks and using that to turn out votes. And what I see happening is that instead of doing what they hoped this would do and completely shut down progress, the effect was instead to turn the younger generations of the creative class into a migratory herd that’s clogging up the cities and even leaving the country. It might work itself out in the long run, but in the meantime, the big losers are the everyday red staters who keep voting themselves into worse trouble because they think they’re punishing the highly visible liberal elite while being blind to the more old-fashioned elite that the Republican party represents.

While rural areas are susceptible to left-wing economic populism, it rarely translates to political liberalism. The original populist movement was anti-Semitic, anti-science, and anti-immigrant as much as it was anti-capitalist – after all, William Jennings Bryan argued on the creationist side in the Scopes trial.

The main problem is that any attempt to promote liberalism in a region that feels threatened will only make things worse. Every time Bush talks about spreading freedom and democracy to Iran, he makes it less likely that freedom and democracy will prevail in Iran. The only difference between the South and Iran here is that Iran has a strong native liberal movement, while the South only has economic populists like Ann Richards and John Edwards. I suppose that this is due to proximity; the South is right on the border of the North and is bleeding creative people to Northern cities as well as Northernized Southern cities like Raleigh, so its elites can always portray themselves as under attack from Northern liberals.

Make no mistake about it: it’s completely possible for an area that’s bleeding creative people to another area to be liberal. For a few decades after World War Two, every person in Western Europe or Canada who could move to the United States did. And yet, Toronto, London, Paris, and Berlin are a lot more like New York and San Francisco than like Houston and Dallas; Canada is clearly more liberal than the US, and except on matters of immigration, so are most European countries.

The closest American equivalent to the liberalism that developed in Europe is in North Carolina, with its Research Triangle. Like most other innovations, liberal politics develops in immigrant-rich cities, where the standard tool conservative elites use to control the population, xenophobia, doesn’t work so well as it does in suburban and rural areas. Raleigh isn’t especially diverse, but it and its metro area are filled with educated people, who can liberalize a region just as well; European left-wing activism has always been centered around students and unions rather than immigrants.

The South is not getting a Five Points, so that avenue of propping up creative cities, which help transform mere economic populism into real liberalism, is closed.

The problem is that the other main avenue, promoting a local cultural fusion, has failed to work for four decades. The South has been de facto less segregated than the North since before the Civil Rights Act. But it’s more bigoted, so any sort of development that would bring people of different races together has been stunted by racist whites. A federal crackdown on employment discrimination could help a bit, but for now it’s not going to happen, not least because the last thing the average racist, sexist employer wants is for the government to tell him to hire people based on how qualified they are rather than on whether they have the correct genitalia and skin color.

The other form of bigotry that stunts liberalism, homophobia, is mostly a function of religion. Secular bigots are happy to accept women, gays, and sufficiently assimilated minority groups, and to attack recent immigrants on account of their treatment of women. A successful attempt to dethrone religion in the South will do a lot to make it more palatable to the creative class. It won’t make it less racist, but it’ll make it more culturally tolerant, which could in the long run translate to less racism.


One Response to The Economic Populist Problem

  1. […] Documents obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the FBI is using its Joint Terrorism Task Forces to gather extensive information about peaceful organizations. Recently, President Bush acknowledged giving explicit and secret authorization for warrantless electronic eavesdropping and physical searches by the National Security Agency. Now, there is reason to believe that the Pentagon, too, is illegally gathering and sharing private and protected information. Read More and heres the proof… […]

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