Friday, December 01, 2006

Schaller and Perlstein

Two current political writers whose books I've been meaning to pick up are Rick Perlstein and Tom Schaller. Here’s a lazy man’s way out: why not read a short article BY Rick Perlstein ABOUT Tom Schaller?

Schaller’s thesis, crudely stated, is that the Democrats’ surest path to winning national elections is to direct resources everywhere except the South. Perlstein boils Schaller’s insight down to this: Compare white Northern voters to white Southern voters, then look for the factor that explains why the Southerners vote Republican at higher rates. Identifying as a conservative doesn’t explain it. Pro-life or pro-choice? Hawk or dove? These items don’t explain it. What explains it is racial prejudice: whether the respondent believes the proposition that black Americans face systemic inequality.

Tom Schaller is a hot topic among Democrats right now. Greater blogs than mine, like Ed Kilgore and Lawyers Guns and Money and Matthew Yglesias, are batting this around. (Here is Ed Kilgore's Salon review of Schaller's book "Whistling Past Dixie.")

A Southern Democrat like me is naturally somewhat resistant to Schaller's argument. I guess the nub of the matter is that it feels, or would feel, a little pathetic to be attached to a political movement that doesn't consider me worth having as a full member on account of geography. But the argument based on survey data appeals to the amateur sociologist in me. Also, in trying to find a voice for this blog, and figure out where to direct my writerly resources, it would be nice to steer clear of hair-splitting arguments, or matters of semantics and tone. Religion and region are two subjects where I find myself being hyperdefensive, when the fact is I don't so much object to what the secular-liberal consensus says, as to the way it says it. I don't get paid to fight those battles.

(Some people do get paid to fight those battles. Ed Kilgore writes on his blog, "We think the progressive message, presented with sensitivity to regional variations, can create a long-term Democratic majority." I can get behind that statement, and it's interesting that "we" includes Howard Dean. But Kilgore appends a final clause, "and that anything less will likely squander that opportunity." Maybe he's right, I don't know, but that's the statement of a Democratic consultant trying to defend his turf.)


Since the Perlstein piece will retreat into TNR's archives soon, I am going to cut and paste a part from near the end. This is less specifically pertinent to Schaller, but an interesting forensic note about what's wrong with political journalism in the U.S.:

After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the top news executives sent a wire to Mayor Richard J. Daley protesting the way their employees "were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten." Such was their presumption of cultural authority they couldn't imagine how anyone could disagree. Then Mayor Daley went on Walter Cronkite's show and shocked the media establishment by refusing to apologize to the beaten reporters: "Many of them are hippies themselves. They're part of this movement." Polls revealed 60 percent of Americans agreed with Daley. For the press, it triggered a dark night of the soul. In an enormously influential column, the pundit Joseph Kraft, shaken, wrote, "Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communication field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans--in Middle America."

That air of alienation--that helpless feeling that we have no idea what's going on out there--has structured elite discourse about the rest of the country ever since. A set of constructs about what "the great mass of ordinary Americans" supposedly believes--much more conservative things than any media elitist would believe, basically--became reified. Pundits like Kraft--a social class that spends much of their time among people like themselves, inside the Beltway--learned to bend over backward to be fair, lest they advertise their own alienation from everyone else. On subjects that chafed them--say, the relevance of certain ugly folkways of the South in electoral politics--they just had to bend harder. Or ignore the matter altogether.

It can produce in today's TV talking head a twisted kind of neurosis: an instinctual distrust of the political appeal of anything that can be categorized as liberal, even in defiance of the actual data; and an inability to call a spade a spade--say, that people shouldn't have been beaten indiscriminately in the streets of Chicago in 1968.

(To finish Perlstein's thought, calling a spade a spade means accepting that in the near term, the Democratic platform won't win in the South.)

I actually did check Schaller's book out of the library, so maybe I'll have something more substantive to say about it at some point.

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