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Red-state sneer

Many Democrats blame the unenlightened people of red-state America for John Kerry's defeat. But most working-class Americans remain politically centrist and a rising number simply want to live in the fast-growing suburbs of middle America. Liberals should stop sneering at the people they aspire to lead

By Michael Lind   January 2005

Is the United States turning into the Republic of Gilead? That was the name of the theocratic Christian America that Margaret Atwood imagined in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Following the November election in the US, a map circulating on the internet showed the blue states of the east and west coasts annexed to Canada, with the red-state portions of the country that had voted Republican labelled “Jesusland.”

The election of 2004 confirmed the status of the Republican party in the US as the majority party at all levels – but it did not prove that Americans have turned into reactionaries. Unlike Nixon and Reagan, who were re-elected in landslides, Bush barely squeaked by. He remains a divisive and unpopular president. And self-described conservatives, like self-described liberals, remain a minority in the US.

The American right has managed to unite the centre with the right in a majority coalition. But it has not converted the centre to the right. Indeed, in this election, as in 2000, Bush downplayed his hardline conservatism and campaigned on the basis of widely shared American values. The Republicans have successfully reached out to red-state America – while the Democrats have turned their backs on it.

Before the election, John Sperling, a liberal billionaire, bought ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post to promote the book The Great Divide, which he co-authored. “Michael Moore vs Mel Gibson. Hillary Clinton vs Newt Gingrich. Smarter kids vs smarter bombs” – these dichotomies were supposed to illustrate the difference between cool, liberal “metro America” and vulgar, conservative “retro America.”

According to Sperling, “America is not a unified country with common traditions, needs and desires. Rather it is an amalgam of antithetical entities: two nations, each with its own history… and aspirations.” This is false. The US is not divided between New England and the deep south. Most of the country fits into neither stereotype: the midwest, the plains, the west coast, the southwest and the highland south.

Sperling and the authors of The Great Divide claim that red America is economically parasitic on blue America because high-income taxpayers are concentrated in the blue states while government subsidies flow to the red states. This is a strange argument for liberals to make. There are inter-regional corporate welfare schemes – agricultural subsidies flowing to the south and west, for example – but do liberals really want to argue that the federal government should not tax rich people in Connecticut to help poor people in New Mexico? Furthermore, a billionaire may live in San Francisco or New York and spend money there, but some of his or her dividends come from companies whose physical operations may take the form of a farm in retro Montana or a factory in retro South Carolina – or a sweatshop in China.

In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Texeira and John B Judis argued that the Democrats have an emerging advantage among socially liberal professionals, particularly in the “ideopolises” of the blue states like San Jose, California (Silicon Valley). It is true that professionals have favoured the Democratic candidate in the past four presidential elections by a 52:40 average. However, this definition of “professional” is skewed because it excludes business managers but includes professors, teachers, public employees and journalists who tend to be on the left. It is absurd to call these groups “knowledge workers” simply because they have degrees.

Texeira and Judis do emphasise that a new Democratic majority must be built on an alliance of professionals and the suburban working class, not on professionals alone. But many of the professional- friendly “ideopolises” like Silicon Valley in which Democratic strategists placed great hopes are in economic decline, haemorrhaging jobs and people. According to a survey published by Inc. magazine this year, the top four big metro areas for business are Atlanta, Georgia; Riverside-San Bernardino, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; and San Antonio, Texas. As Joel Kotkin and David Friedman observe, these largely Republican metropolitan areas “are predominantly suburban and, perhaps most importantly, relatively affordable, particularly in terms of housing prices, cost of living, and business costs.” The list of the worst places for business includes many Democratic “ideopolises”: high-priced San Jose, New York city, San Francisco and Boston.

According to the authors of The Great Divide: “If our analysis is correct, demographics will slowly bring the current Republican ascendancy to an end, even in retro America.” This deserves to go down in history in a collection of famous last words. The truth is that the demographic prospects for blue-state Democrats are grim.

Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation has pointed out that in terms of fertility rates the red states had a 12-point advantage over the blue states in 2004. This partly reflects the higher fertility of Latino immigrants in red states like Texas, but among white Americans fertility differences reflect a gulf between the religious and the secular. In largely Mormon Utah, there are 90 children for every 1,000 women of child-bearing age, compared to only 49 in the socially liberal Vermont of Howard Dean. According to Longman, Bush won a majority in 2000 in states with above-replacement levels of 2.11 children per woman, while the Gore-Kerry states looked like Europe, with a below-replacement fertility rate. Retro America is outbreeding metro America.

Not only are blue-state Americans not having many babies, but also many of them are migrating to the red states of the south and the interior. From 1988, when Bush Sr was elected president, to 2004, when Bush Jr was re-elected, 27 electoral college votes have shifted to the sunbelt states. In 1960, the last time that a Massachusetts politician won the White House (John F Kennedy, with a Texan on the ticket), Massachusetts had more presidential electoral votes than Florida, and Illinois had more electoral votes than Texas. Today even North Carolina has more electoral votes (15) than Massachusetts, whose votes have declined from 16 in 1960 to 12 in 2004. This helps to explain why in 1988, and again in 2004, a member of the Bush family from Texas bested a Massachusetts politician in the race for the White House.

To the decades-old migration of Americans away from the northeast has been added a new migration from the crowded, expensive coastal regions to inland cities and suburbs. Joel Kotkin points out that the southeast “is now the home to more large corporate headquarters than any region, confirming a shift in economic fortunes from the… northeast and the Pacific coast.” The greater Atlanta region leads the country in new housing permits. Texan cities like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are expanding along with Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas. The stereotypical view that suburbs are filled with bigoted whites who shun “diversity” is no longer true, if it ever was. Latinos and Asians are moving in great numbers to the interior of the country. Unfashionable inland California is experiencing a population boom, even as San Francisco is losing people – along with John Kerry’s Boston, where the population has contracted since 2000.

Will migration from abroad to coastal cities rescue the Democrats? Bush’s share of both the Latino and the Asian vote rose in 2004. Besides, many immigrants decamp for the suburbs as soon as they can afford to. The American dream is a big backyard, individual bedrooms for the kids and a couple of cars – not a tiny urban apartment and a subway fare. And since an allergy to big government is often typical of immigrants from high-tax states, the spillover from the blue states into the red states is unlikely to be a liberalising force.

One response to the political and economic decline of urban liberalism has been to condemn American suburbia. Will Hutton wrote in the Observer on 31st October of “working Americans living in the outer suburbs springing up like topsy around every US city; the network of soulless shopping malls, never-ending cloned streets and newly built churches created by the appetite of US property developers. These instant developments are communities only in name; their rootless inhabitants, questing for meaning in their lives, are the prey upon which the New Republicanism feeds.”

At the risk of revealing my rootlessness and lack of meaning, I must protest that I grew up in one of those outer suburbs in Austin, Texas. Middle-class suburbs have few poor and few rich – but then urban neighbourhoods in most countries are highly segregated by class. (how many poor people live in the Upper West Side, Chelsea or the 14th arondissement?). My typical middle-class suburb included middle-class blacks and Latinos, whites and Asians, Protestants and Jews and Catholics and Hindus, Democrats and Republicans. It had a dense civil society, revolving around common institutions like the public schools, sports teams and backyard barbecues along with the sectarian communities based on churches and synagogues. I only encountered real anomie and social isolation when I lived for four years in Manhattan, where neighbours never spoke to one another in apartment buildings or stores.

Outside the metropolitan northeast, most American families have moved directly to suburbs from farms, ranches and small towns, without ever going through an urban phase. Similarly, many immigrant Latinos and Asians go from farms and small towns abroad directly to semi-rural suburbs in the US without stopping for a generation or two in big cities. This rural to suburban migration makes nonsense of Hutton’s claim that typical red-state suburbanites are “rootless” and “questing for meaning in their lives.” It may be true that suburbs in Long Island present an inauthentic fantasy of rural life for former tenement-dwellers in Manhattan. But in Texas, as in much of the US, the suburbs are often an extension of rooted, rural society. When I was a child, the countryside began at the end of my street. Short drives by car took us to the ancestral country church, the farms of relatives, lakes where we could fish and ranches where we could hunt.

A century ago, the agrarian populists bemoaned the migration of Americans from the virtuous farm to the sinful industrial city. Their jeremiads had no more effect than those of today’s urban liberals who have wasted a quarter of a century lamenting the exodus of Americans from the virtuous city to the sinful suburb. Both the agrarian populists and the urban liberals tended to explain these social shifts in terms of a conspiracy by, respectively, evil manufacturers or wicked suburban real-estate developers.

Urban liberals forget that the suburb long antedates the automobile. The first suburbs sprang up around London as a result of the use of horse-drawn omnibuses. Each successive revolution in transport, from the commuter railroad to the automobile, has permitted people of low and moderate incomes to have a greater choice of jobs in commuting distance while satisfying their desire to have more house on more land. Criticism of the latter desire is not credible when it comes from supporters of John Kerry and Theresa Heinz Kerry, who own six mansions. Furthermore, liberals’ enthusiasm for anti-sprawl policies has been disastrous for the working class in cities like Portland, Oregon, where, following the adoption of an urban growth boundary, real estate prices shot up, pricing out middle and low-income residents.

Just as patronising as snide cracks about suburban McMansions and box stores is the claim that working-class Americans have been duped into voting against their own economic interests. It is true that the Republican conservative agenda is harmful to working Americans, but the Democrats have failed to provide much of an alternative.

Instead of cutting spending, the strategists of the Republican right have opted under Bush to cut taxes. By salami tactics, including a series of tax cuts for the rich and the increasing exemption of savings and capital gains from taxation, the right is moving towards its unannounced goal: the conversion of the US into a utopia for capitalists, in which regressive payroll and consumption taxes (including a possible national sales tax) replace the progressive income tax system. By means of deficit spending, the Republicans hope to defer the need to raise revenues until their regressive tax system is locked into place.

For now, the majority of Americans are not concerned about the future prospect of higher, more regressive taxes. And a majority appear to doubt that voting for Democrats will put more money in their pockets. Many of those who argue that voters do not understand their own economic interests contrast Republican policies with utopian social democratic or populist alternatives. But the actual alternatives are the Clinton-Gore-Kerry Democrats, who offer mostly symbolic micro-proposals – a tiny refundable tax credit here, a small increase in funding for a programme there.

Indeed, the Democrats are no longer the party of the working class so much as the party of the urban professional elite and the working poor. Thanks to reforms backed by Democrats, the working poor have been removed from the income tax rolls and their wages are boosted by the earned income tax credit. Most working-class Americans, however, make too much money to benefit from either reform. The Democrats have also fought unsuccessfully for universal healthcare schemes. But most working-class Americans already have health insurance provided by their employers; rising out-of-pocket health costs, not coverage, is their chief concern. And there is no consensus among Democrats about what to do to prevent the growth of healthcare costs from continuing to outstrip productivity growth. The Republicans do have an idea, but it is a bad one – personal health savings accounts, which would deter many Americans from consuming necessary as well as unnecessary healthcare.

Why have liberal Democrats in recent decades done so much for the largely urban working poor and relatively little for the suburban working class? A cynic might suggest that the combination of liberal anti-sprawl policies and liberal support for mass unskilled immigration, legal and illegal, creates a seller’s market in houses and a buyer’s market in servants in New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

In any event, the quasi-Marxist assumption that voters merely seek to maximise their economic interests ignores the perennial importance of the politics of identity. There never was a time when working-class Americans voted for liberals whose values they rejected but whose economic programmes enticed them. Before the federal judiciary nationalised issues like abortion, gay rights and censorship, beginning in the 1960s, these controversies were part of state and local politics, not national politics. Conservative Catholics in the midwest or southern populists could vote for social conservatism in state and local elections, while voting for New Deal economic policies at the federal level. Thanks to federalism, New Deal liberals like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson took positions on the economy and foreign policy; they did not have to take stands on abortion or gay rights. The very success of liberals in nationalising these issues has worked against them in a country in which self-described liberals are a minority, outnumbered by self-described moderates and conservatives.

Even the most appealing economic programme cannot save American liberalism if it is associated with values that most Americans reject. Fortunately for the Democrats, most Americans are found in the political and moral centre, not on the far right. Bush’s Protestant fundamentalist constituents may despise the Enlightenment as the “Endarkenment,” but Bush and the Republicans won the election only by appealing to centrist Americans on the basis of their Enlightenment republican values.

Although it is weak in Britain and most European countries, small “r” republicanism is strong in Switzerland and still shapes France. The republican ideal is a citizen with enough property to be independent both of the labour market and of government. This explains why American populism, and much of the US labour movement, has been almost as hostile to the welfare state as it has been to unscrupulous employers. The continental European welfare state was devised in countries with traditions of bureaucratic monarchy and aristocratic paternalism, like Germany and Sweden. Americans have rejected the ideal of a society in which government pays for everything while a benevolent mandarinate governs in the public interest not because we are stupid, but because we are republicans.

When the Bush Republicans speak of “the ownership society,” they are tapping into common American values, not narrow conservative ideology. The most popular New Deal liberal programmes of the mid-20th century were those which diffused property or earning capability, like low-interest loans for people seeking to buy their own homes and loans for college students. Social security and Medicare – both redistributive systems – were carefully packaged by New Dealers as social insurance, to avoid offending republican populist sensibilities.

Even in the realm of social issues, what might be called the 18th-century republican centre is more important in red-state America than the religious right. Consider the Republican party’s manipulation of the wedge issues of God, gays and guns.

At the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention on 10th February 2003, Bush was introduced as “our friend and brother in Christ” who “unapologetically proclaims his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” But it was a political mistake for Bush to say during the 2000 Republican primaries that Jesus was the “philosopher” who had most influenced him. Since then, when addressing the broader public, Bush has been careful to speak of the Almighty rather than Jesus and of God-given human rights rather than sin and salvation. Republican strategists understand that, since the 18th century, the American civil religion has been an Enlightenment deism which is theistic enough to reassure religious believers and vague enough not to worry most secular Americans. The religious public interprets a politician’s reference to God as the biblical God, while the non-religious picture the “Nature’s God” of Enlightenment philosophes like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, (as president, Jefferson published his own version of the Gospels from which he had removed all the miracles). The blandness of America’s quasi-official “Potomac piety” is symbolised by a remark of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1952: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.” When an American president closes an address by saying “God bless America,” this is not a signal that the US is about to become a theocracy. It is the equivalent of “May the Force be with you.”

The French, at least, ought to understand this. Robespierre and the Jacobins initiated a similar ecumenical cult of the Supreme Being, which permitted them to spurn orthodox Christianity while denouncing atheism (which on both sides of the Atlantic has connotations of immorality). Here is Robespierre in 1794: “Did not his immortal hand… write the death sentence of tyrants? Did not his voice, at the very beginning of time, decree the republic, making liberty, good faith, and justice the order of the day for all centuries and for all peoples?” Here is Bush 210 years later: “Yet I know that liberty is not America’s gift to the world – liberty and freedom are God’s gift to every man and woman who lives in this world.” This is the language not of Christian fundamentalism but of Enlightenment deism.

What is true in the case of God is true in the case of gays and guns. Similar policies are supported for different reasons by Protestant fundamentalists and mainstream Americans. Unlike fundamentalists, a majority of Americans support gay rights and civil unions for gays and lesbians. At the same time, a majority of Americans oppose redefining marriage to include gay couples – but so do a majority of Europeans, to judge from the fact that only a few European countries have redefined marriage in this way. Republican gay-baiting may have galvanised religious right voters, but only 22 per cent of voters claimed that they voted on the basis of moral values, (although of these, four out of five voted for Bush).

The gun issue also has different connotations to centrist red-state Americans and far-right zealots. People who join paramilitary units and accumulate arsenals in anticipation of battling the government are considered dangerous lunatics in red-state America no less than in blue. But Michael Moore’s caricature of American gun-owners is as inaccurate as his portrayal of Bush as a pawn of the Saudis. In much of the US, hunting is part of age-old folk tradition. In my teens I went hunting with my father, and one of my Texan nieces was six years old when she shot her first deer. There are similar traditions in European countries, particularly those with the republican ideal of the armed citizen. In Switzerland, shooting contests are events for people of all ages. In France, some left-wing republicans defend hunting on the ground that it was a privilege once limited to kings and aristocrats that all French citizens won in the revolution. In Britain, the controversy over fox-hunting is perceived by many country people as an assault on their way of life by urban elites. Republicans have successfully persuaded many formerly Democratic voters that imposing cumbersome new regulations on hunters in rural areas and suburbs is yet another annoying attempt at social engineering by the coastal elite, rather than an urgently needed reform.

The Bush Republicans won in spite of their extremism, not because of it. They won because they played down what is weird and divisive in the ideology of the religious right, like apocalyptic theology as it relates to the middle east, and appealed to the American centre – a centre which is now geographical as well as political.

Red-state America – inland, suburban and working-class – represents the future of the US, not the expensive, class-stratified coastal cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. Conservatives, a minority among American voters, have managed to put together a majority coalition because they have learned to speak the populist language of the vast region between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Liberals can do so as well – but only if they stop sneering at the people they aspire to lead.

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