Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Losing Ohio

Come on, blood lover, let's walk along the fire tower road
through the stain glass, shadows of the white church through the pines
Us alone now, us alone now

Appalachia, dearly driving from, feed me water, Appalachia
- David Holm

I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
. . .
I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
-Chrissy Hynde

I wrote a big post on the whole Ten Americas theory and how the Democrats can reclaim majority status here at Steve's blog. The striking thing to me was that Bush's strongest region was the formerly solid Democratic Appalachia, home of Robert Byrd and a host of other populist Democrats. This stunning development has often been explained by saying people are voting their values rather than their pocketbook interests. But is that true?

Sullivan's article describes Appalachia as America's poorest and most rural region. But if they have voted Democratic for decades, and have done so because of their economic interests, then why are they still so poor? It seems to me their economic advocates have not been very effective. Much of politics today is pure posturing. This is why so many rich kids have fallen prey to Naderism - they aren't looking for results, they want someone who "speaks for" them. What they want out of a political party or candidate, really, is someone who will articulate their values or beliefs clearly and forcefully. For the Right it's the same thing - if they are opposed to abortion, for example, they want a senator or a mayor or a school board rep who will state that position clearly. It doesn't seem to matter if the politician in question makes progress on the issue, or even if the office is remotely related to the issue at hand. What is important is loud, clear posturing. Symbolism. Gun control? It doesn't matter if the assault weapons ban is actually effective, what matters is my values. Crime? It only matters that the candidate is tough, not whether crime rates actually fall.

But economic issues are a different animal entirely. FDR and LBJ created constituencies for themselves by doling out money and concrete benefits to specific interests (unions, retirees, poor mothers with dependent children). But today's Democrats seem to think that poor people will vote for them if they express the right amount of concern, show empathy, feel their pain. It doesn't work that way. Bill Clinton was the most popular politician of any race among African Americans not because he "related" to them, but because the racial wage gap fell to historic lows under his administration. If other working class groups are not so Democratic anymore, it may be because they can no loger be fooled into thinking that talk is a meaningful substitute for action.

Appalachia is a disaster. Its communities are dying, people are fleeing to the cities, to new opportunities in the South and West. What has anyone done over the past 30 years to help West Virginia or Southern Ohio? As we move into the globalized Information Age, vast swaths of the American landscape are sinking into the Third World. These areas need good jobs, good schools, and access to First World health care. Whether they are white trash miners or Latino agricultural workers, they need to see real economic progress. Yet the Democrats spend their time "speaking to" the middle class and have no clear plan that I'm aware of to address the needs of working people. So perhaps people aren't choosing between their pocketbooks and their "moral values" at all. Perhaps no one addresses their economic issues, and voting on "values" is the only avenue available to register dissent against uncaring, oblivious "elites."

If we want their votes, maybe we should help them rather than "talk to" them.

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