Krystal Ball of the YouTube show Rising and Kyle Kulinski of the popular channel Secular Talk, have launched a new podcast, Krystal Kyle & Friends, that is well worth a subscription. The third episode is available on YouTube and features an in-depth discussion with Thomas Frank, the encyclopedic left-wing historian and journalist. The conversation covers a wide range of subjects, including recent events in Washington DC, and as always the iconoclastic author – who continues to be disdained by much of the US media – is both informative and entertaining. I recommend it to those with an interest in the contemporary and historical politics of the United States.
If you are aware of any independent online podcasts featuring news and events in Ireland please let me know and I will feature them on ASF.
It’s probably best to not read too much into the fact that the world “populist” has had shifting meanings over the years. The same can be true of other terms such as “politically correct”. There was a time in Russia where to be “politically correct” was to be an overly dogmatic Marxist who put overly fine grained interpretations over common sense or the well-being of individual. In the US in the 70’s and 80’s some people will tell you that the term “politically correct” was sort of an inside joke among liberals. To supporters of Teddy Roosevelt “politically correct” had positive connotations. To be politically correct meant to hold fast to one’s principles over political expedience. A “hippie” used to mean a white guy in a zoot suit in the 1920’s who loved to listen to “negro music”. From the 1920’s until the 1970’s a “Libertarian” was somebody who favored Civil Rights, Free Speech, Opposed HUAC, supported end of Prohibition and possibly marijuana legalization, supported the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), opposed marriage bars (mostly just shorter lived than in the ROI) and believed many safety laws that applied only to women were paternalistic. Free Speech in this context referred to things such as Civil Rights activists being censored for “Community Safety” (translation the KKK would get violent) or the fact that many US states had radically stricter libel laws than the ROI or the UK does until the “New York Times Co vs. Sullivan” SCOTUS decision in 1963, or things like school book banning. The current meaning of Libertarian didn’t start until well after Ayn Rand died, because she was very insistent on the label “Objectivist”-so did some of her followers into the 1990’s. For a long time a “Womanist” was essentially an anti-feminist until Alice Walker coined a totally new meaning, and various others followed suit or tried to (nobody could quite agree on what “womanist” meant). Lately I’ve seen the “anti-feminist meaning coming back.
The examples abound. That said, populism was always a slippery beast in ways that went beyond just language shift.
Thomas Frank is not the first to argue that the only reason these culture war Republicans are only doing what they’re doing is because the Democrats simply failed to offer a satisfying and anti-elitist alternative to a very elitist form of liberals. However, that’s mostly a load of corn. The problem is way, way more complicated than that.
The fact is that in the US, nearly all of these “culture war” issues involve very, very serious historical baggage from the lead-up to the Civil War (in Kansas think “Bleeding Kansas”), The Civil War itself, Reconstruction, Fall of Reconstruction, and other direct or indirect consequences of The Civil War. It’s very, very easy to conflate all this with simple racist-partly because it often overlaps with racism.
In some parts of the lower Midwest (like Kansas) or parts of Appalachia and the Northern Ozarks one result of all this is a strong reflexive suspicion of any political movement that isn’t firmly rooted within the local community, which doesn’t fit that easily into a large federal country’s politics. Once a party or movement that starts in Kansas spreads to other states, has a national profile, and starts to have people in DC, the Kansans will start to become extremely suspicious that it’s all been “co-opted” or has “lost touch”. This doesn’t necessarily require some serious break with the original principles. In fact, it’s a totally unrealistic set of expectations for the country they are in.
There are statistics on which US states “break even” and which ones are in the “giving line” or “getting line” in terms of how much money they pay the Federal Government and how much they get back. The biggest per capita “giver” is Connecticut which receives $0.71 in Federal monies to individuals and State Government for every $1.00 in Federal taxes contributed by individuals, estates, and businesses, while Kentucky is the most “Federally dependent” with the figure at $2.36. Kansas at $1.35 is not one of the most “Federally supported” states by a long shot, but it is decidedly in the “getting line”. In some ways it’s like the EU, but the rules are different. The Feds can collect Federal taxes and can in many ways incentivize collection of taxes by state governments, but it cannot simply order a particular tax like the EU does with a VAT per the 11th Amendment. So to suggest that the Federal government and both parties has left a state like Kansas high and dry is bullshit. Kansas gets plenty of money to individuals, for infrastructure projects, for its State level Education Budget, for its Universities and Hospitals (including the ones portrayed in “The Day After”), for farmers, and more. The Kansas State Government and the general public via some Special Elections had some say in those Federal dollars that were not directly handed directly to individuals, households, or some small businesses.
Kansas also has a one of the simpler processes for a group of citizens to put certain items on ballots, or call a special election if they get enough signatures. These special elections could include raising money the Feds offered to match, entering compacts with other states, changes to state law, and changes to The State Constitution (Kansas allows that not all states do). It would only include replacing members of STate Govt before their term is up under special circumstances. Kansas has fewer people per electoral vote and per member of Congress than the national median. Kansans could choose to enacted a ranked choice voting system like the one you prize so much in Ireland, for its Electoral Votes, Members of Congress, Governor and Lt., State Legislature, and local government. All they’d need is a determined group of signature collectors and a majority of voters willing to say “Yes”. Maine has done exactly that.
This is not to suggest that nobody in Kansas has any legit grievances. However to paint a picture where right wing culture wars are entirely a result of progressive/populist impulses being redirected because they were shut out of the conversation by elitist progressive and ignored by the government is simply nonsense. Despite all the historical baggage it is possible than Kansan grassroots politics could take on a more progressive cast, but there no way it ever could have been as simple as “Progressive coalitions were too elitist and failed to offer them a compelling alternative to the status quo or right wing culture wars.”
If Kansas is being “ignored” for any reason at all, it’s because it is so solidly Republican and has been for decades. Since nearly all states (except New Hampshire, Nebraska, and Washington) give all their electoral votes to the candidate that gets the most votes whether it was a landslide or razor thin plurality, Presidential candidates have to focus on potentially swingable states if they want to win. Notice that three states do things differently, while 47 give all their electoral votes to a single winner. The reason is because 47 states have it in their State Constitutions or even in a mundane State Law. The US Constitution simply says that states can determine electoral votes any way they choose. The reason the overwhelming number of states do it this way is a long story that began with a political rivalry for The White House between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in 1804.
In theory the Electoral College favors smaller states. In reality it is swingeable states that get more attention. If Kansas decided to put it’s electoral votes into a RCV system it would definitely get more attention as election year rolled around, and that’s probably why Maine did so.
In some other parts the complex reasons for people to turn right wing is even stranger. One sociologist interviewed a lot of right-winged women in Louisiana and found that many of them believe successful women send a message to men that says “You don’t need to participate in bringing up or supporting your children.” and that husbands will walk out on families and young men won’t marry. Some were terrified of a woman President causing millions of women to be left raising kids as single Moms. They often subscribe to a theory that African American men don’t help raise their kids (unfair stereotype!!!) because African American women are “too tough” and “too self-sufficient”, so they must remain soft, sweet, and relatively helpless ladies who don’t know anything about politics or the wider world so their kids can grow up with a Daddy in the house. Indeed many of their grandmas or great-grandmas opposed women’s suffrage for the self-same reason. Telling these women that Angela Merkel’s Chancellorship didn’t lead to an epidemic of divorce and men refusing to marry in Germany is 100% pointless. They don’t credit that what happens in Germany has any bearing on what might happen in their community.
I knew young women who went to school in some of these Southern states and found that academically high achieving, athletic, and otherwise talented girls were severe punished and ostracized by their peers. The reason? Partly because Southern mothers encouraged the behavior on the same belief that this was “holding the line” for the preservation of involved fathers and male breadwinners versus “Deadbeat Dads”. They believe that they must make sure high achieving girls are “marginal undesirable women” because they fear the same “signals” to men as they feared from a woman President.
Of course, this is twisted, cynical, and in its own way has a very low opinion of men. It’s also racist in many cases. However, it’s not as simple as blaming their attitudes on simple racism or saying they’d all be progressives if Bernie Sanders had been nominated. They also fear government subsidized daycares and guaranteed medical care would “send a message” that fathers don’t need to take responsibility for their kids.
See how none of this stuff is ever simple.
As for Prohibition as a Civil War influenced culture war issue: The US suffered horrible substance abuse problems after the Civil War. Alcoholism as bad as Russia in the 1990’s and a problem with morphine and laudanum worse than the current opioid epidemic. There were other issues with tranks, coke, and more. To a large degree Prohibition was supported by kids who grew up in a society drenched in substance abuse. A lot of anecdotal evidence about Irish Americans and Prohibition suggests the community was split between those whose families had been in the US for The Civil War and whose fathers and grandfathers were Union Army Vets and those who had come later. The former tended to support Prohibition or at least not be hostile to the idea. The later despised the idea as elitist nonsense. I suppose the former could have just been exposed to more Temperance lectures and pamphlets, but I don’t think that’s likely somehow.