Spyhopping the Right.
David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. His freelance work can be found at Salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Sara Robinson has worked as an editor or columnist for several national magazines, on beats as varied as sports, travel, and the Olympics; and has contributed to over 80 computer games for EA, Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other companies. A native of California's High Sierra, she spent 20 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Vancouver, BC in 2004. Her lifelong interest in the social effects of authoritarianism have most recently led her to pursue the MS in Futures Studies at the University of Houston. She's also a student member of the Association of Professional Futurists, and member of the Accelerated Studies Foundation advisory board on social and cultural issues. For fun, she raises kids and travels. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara's recent series:
Cracks in the Wall: Parts I, II, and III.
Tunnels and Bridges: Parts I, II, III, and IV, plus a Short Detour.
Dave's recent series:
The March of the Minutemen
Intro: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
Other books by Dave [limited availability]:
"The Rise of Pseudo Fascism": An essay
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Original posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.
"The Political and the Personal"
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Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An Exegesis
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[In HTML: Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X,, XI, XII, XIII, XIV and XV. See explanatory note.]
[Also available in HTML, and with art, at Cursor.]
Orcinus Principium No. 1
Orcinus Principium No. 2
Saturday, November 20, 2004
The near-complete conversion of the federal judiciary -- including the Supreme Court -- and the Justice Department into Federalist Society enclaves looms closer and more certainly on the horizon. It's time for progressives and Democrats to start thinking about what they're going to be dealing with as a result -- and figuring out how they're going to oppose it.
Judging from the Federalist Society's known agenda, abortion and reproductive rights are almost certainly first on the target list. Coming in a close second will be rights for gays and lesbians, including housing and employment discrimination.
There will be a whole host of others as well: broadening executive power in the now-endless "war on terror"; undermining international law; and gutting environmental law.
But the first two -- abortion and gay rights -- are at the heart of the current "culture war," and are almost certain to be the focus of the institutionalization of the "Bush mandate." And they share something: Both, in the end are about individual freedom.
Digby has been remarking on this, and the need for Democrats to make these kinds of freedoms the centerpiece of their appeal. As Digby notes, progressive bloggers from Oliver Willis to Atrios to Matt Yglesias have made similar arguments.
I think that their instincts are right, but I also think it will be important to frame this in a way that will directly undermine the campaign the right is prepared to wage against these freedoms. Because they will, as always, frame these as "moral" issues and indeed a matter of "freedom" (that is, the freedom to bash gays and attack abortion providers). Generically framing it as about "freedom" on our side may not be enough.
It needs to be about the foundations of the "individual freedoms" we're discussing here. And key to both of these is a phrase that ought to become a liberal mantra: the right to privacy.
I pointed out during the campaign that Bush's judiciary nominees were by nature almost certain to overturn Roe v. Wade because of their adherence to the Federalist Society dogma of "strict construction":
- The "strict constructionists" who favor overturning Roe v. Wade, for example, do so on the basis of the argument that the right to privacy -- which forms the foundation of that ruling -- doesn't exist. You see, because this basic right is not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, even though it is woven into its very fabric, these judicial activists of the conservative stripe claim that it's not innate to the rights Americans enjoy.
Taking away the right to privacy, of course, has ramifications well beyond abortion. And so when George Bush tells Americans that he intends to appoint these "strict constructionists" to the bench, they need to ask in return whether George Bush believes in the right to privacy.
Because the judges he wants to appoint don't. For most Americans -- who cherish their right to privacy -- that is a paramount consideration.
Some of those ramifications include undermining basic reproductive rights -- including, for instance, the right to contraception. The "right to privacy" found in the "penumbrae" of the Bill of Rights by the Burger Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973 was actually predicated on a Warren Court precedent set eight years before in Connecticut v. Griswold -- which was, in fact, a case about a woman's right to obtain contraceptives.
The right to sexual privacy also is a significant cornerstone for gay and lesbian rights, as well, particularly in overturning anti-sodomy laws -- though much of the current right-wing attack seems more to zero in on basic 14th-amendment rights to equal protection under the law. As a secondary theme to champion as a counter the right-wing onslaught, progressives could do worse than this one; Americans are likely to respond to appeals to their sense of fair play, if it's framed the right way.
But the right to privacy -- in all its many ramifications -- is something most Americans like to think they innately have as a natural right, the kind protected in the Ninth Amendment.
And making clear that Bush and his judiciary intend to attack that right is something progressives need to begin doing now -- before the rulings start coming forth.
Feeding us the mandate
Friday, November 19, 2004
The way a lot of liberals respond to suggestions that devoting some energy to revitalizing the Democratic party's rural roots, you'd think that doing so required repudiating some of their most deeply cherished values -- rather than, in fact, simply living up to them.
The most significant of these involves confronting the problem presented by modern corporate agribusiness and its vertical and horizontal integration of the nation's farm production. Democrats -- who at one time championed the "little guy" and, before that, represented the Jeffersonian ideal of the "citizen farmer" -- have been too content for too many years to cozy up to the money and power that agribusiness represents, while the economic regime that resulted has gradually driven the family farm to near-extinction.
But if Democrats are cozy with these interests, they're models of probity compared to Republicans. There hasn't been a corporate agriculture initiative come down the pike that hasn't found a Republican sponsor. What's been especially noteworthy is the way the GOP has greased the skids for big business to belly up to the table traditionally set for family farmers, especially when it comes to such programs as land conservation setasides and crop subsidies. The 1995 "Freedom to Farm Act" was the classic example of this.
Similarly, Republicans have at every turn provided the legislation that has opened the floodgates for market monopolies by agribusiness in seed supplies as well as distribution. They also enable the increasing monopolization of nearly all areas of agriculture, notably pork production.
These are policies that harm entire communities. Overturning and reforming them are natural issues for progressive Democrats. But so far, they have failed to pay anything approaching serious attention.
John McKay points us to this story about just such an opportunity:
- Telling consumers where their meat, fruit and vegetables came from seemed such a good idea to U.S. ranchers and farmers in competition with imports that Congress two years ago ordered the food industry to do it. But meatpackers and food processors fought the law from the start, and newly emboldened Republicans now plan to repeal it before Thanksgiving.
As part of the 2002 farm bill, country-of-origin labeling was supposed to have gone into effect this fall. Congress last year postponed it until 2006. Now, House Republicans are trying to wipe it off the books as part of a spending bill they plan to finish this month.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he expected the Senate to agree to repealing the measure, whose main champion two years ago was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"I can't find any real opposition to doing exactly what we want to do here," Blunt said.
President Bush never supported mandatory labeling. Chances for repealing the law improved when Daschle, still his party's leader in the Senate, was defeated for re-election Nov. 2.
"For Republicans to deny Americans the opportunity to 'buy American' at the grocery store is anti-consumer, anti-farmer and anti-rancher," Daschle said Wednesday.
Obviously, Republicans are still gorged on their cotton-candy "mandate". This issue is one that pits them against both consumers and independent ranchers -- and aligns them, as always, with agribusiness:
- The issue divides cattlemen and other livestock producers. Many of the bigger livestock and feedlot operations, as well as food processors, do not want mandatory labeling.
Producers in favor of mandatory labels believe consumers will prefer U.S.-grown food over foreign imports. The law requires companies to put country-of-origin labels on meat, vegetables and fruit.
"We really feel that country-of-origin labeling is one of the key things we need to keep ourselves competitive in that market. I understand the trade-offs," said Doran Junek, a rancher in Brewster, Kan. Junek also is executive director of the Kansas Cattlemen's Association, an affiliate of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.
Consumer groups say the issue is whether buyers have a right to know where their food came from.
At some point, of course, Republicans' hubris will lead them to overreach, and this could be one of those cases, if Democrats were astute enough to pick it up.
But then, the story includes this note:
- Democrats acknowledged there was not much of an appetite to wage a battle over it.
It's not as though Republicans don't hand Democrats a number of ways to peel off rural votes. The question, in the end, comes down to competence in the face of those kinds of opportunities.
Home is where the hate is
Thursday, November 18, 2004
- You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
-- Rodgers and Hammerstein
I like to take my 3-year-old daughter to a lot of different playgrounds around town. One of the things I like about doing this in Seattle is that she gets to meet a lot of different kinds of kids of all different colors; it is, for one thing, a real contrast to my own upbringing in lily-white Idaho Falls, where I can't remember ever seeing an African American until I was about 7 years old.
It's obvious, too, that race is meaningless to the innocent. Fiona plays with anyone who wants to have fun with her, and they do likewise. Their different features are no more meaningful than hair and eye color -- which is to say, not much at all. This is true not just in the playground but at her Montessori preschool too; her "best friends" there are two Asian girls and a very cute blonde boy, and a young African girl is part of their circle of chums.
Where do children learn to hate? Most of the time, it's from their parents.
They aren't learning it in the curriculum taught in schools. Most educators, both public and private, work hard to weed out prejudice and bigotry in their students, and modern curricula often include tolerance-oriented teaching. In some cases, the drive for tolerance reaches absurd PC heights -- but it certainly beats the alternative.
Especially since, by all indicators, racial and religious bigotry are still alive and well in America, even if they have been forced to retreat to the shadows. Take, for instance, recent problems in Grays Harbor County, Washington, where minority service members have been forced to relocate because of harassment, and minority children in the local schools have been forced to endure assaults and racial epithets. This county is, of course, also the setting for the events described in Death on the Fourth of July.
A number of the events in Grays Harbor involve young children who have clearly picked up racist beliefs in their upbringing. And the odds are high that those beliefs come from the home.
In some cases, there are parents who specifically cultivate such attitudes in their children. This can, of course, create real conflicts in schools where tolerance is being taught. Indeed, many of the parents who harbor these attitudes find themselves chafing under the public-school system and withdraw their children to home-school them.
Generally speaking, I think home schooling can be a terrific idea for certain families -- especially if the parents are diligent, well educated themselves, and cultivate education not as the union card it's often treated as within the system, but a lifelong process of self-advancement and cultivation. The results of sound home schooling speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, home schooling in America also has a distinct downside: It can act as a cover for abusive and hyper-controlling parents, particularly those with extremist political, religious and cultural agendas. The Andrea Yates case in Texas was really only the tip of this particularly iceberg.
The Akron Beacon-Journal recently reported on one of the more troubling aspects of home schooling's dirty little secret:
- Racists can use home schools to train youths
The story opens with a horrifying anecdote that is familiar to many: The home-schooled child who refuses to participate with minority children. It goes on to explore the subset of white supremacists who populate home schooling's fringes:
- ... Home schooling has a strain of racism running through it that may reflect similar ideas held by others in the broader society. There are no studies or numbers to put racism and home schooling in perspective, but home-schooling laws that ensure that parents have the freedom to make socialization choices for their children also allow some families to completely withdraw from society.
In Texas, a librarian told the Beacon Journal that some home-schooling parents objected to the book selection on the shelves. They lobbied the library to bring back older editions -- books that depicted the United States in the 1950s, prior to the landmark 1964 civil rights legislation.
That idea is espoused on a number of racist Internet sites, where people who have a common hatred of minorities -- especially of African-Americans and Jews -- converse.
Stormfront, a white supremacist organization, has a Web site on "education and home schooling." The overriding theme is to home-school to avoid exposure to other cultures.
Among the discussions is one in which a member suggests stealing and destroying books from the public library -- a popular resource for home schoolers -- to eliminate material that portrays the United States as anything other than a white, Protestant culture.
The piece also features a sidebar [registration req'd] that describes some of the white supremacists who take the home schooling route.
It's important, of course, to keep in mind that these people are a minority:
- Scott Somerville, an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, acknowledged that there are racists in the home-schooling community.
"They are not welcome here, and they know it," he said. "We're trying to build a strong, unified, intelligent and effective home-school movement so that the crazies feel very much marginalized."
He acknowledged that fringe elements of society -- such as unreconstructed Confederates and militia members -- home-school, but he said they are a small percentage of the overall movement.
"That's the challenge of trying to advance a vision of liberty where parents have the freedom to do what's good for their children," Somerville said.
Obviously, that same freedom allows people to brainwash their children, if that's what they want to do. That's not a right that should be taken away -- but it is, nonetheless, a real problem.
Clearly, a line needs to be drawn at preventing abusive situations, and authorities need to do a better job of monitoring this aspect of home schooling. But in the end, hate that is taught at the home can only be undone by society at large -- a functioning society that puts the lie to the dogma of racism and unteaches hate by enunciating clear ethical values and setting a clear example.
That work, as always, is incrementally slow, painful, and difficult. It is also, for a democratic society, imperative.
Healing the heartland
Monday, November 15, 2004
People listen to their radios a lot in rural America. Maybe it has something to do with the silence of the vast landscapes where many of them live; radios break that silence, and provide the succor of human voices.
If you drive through these landscapes, getting radio reception can sometimes be iffy at best, especially in the rural West. Often the best you can find on the dial are only one or two stations.
And the chances are that what you'll hear, at nearly any hour, in nearly any locale, is Rush Limbaugh. Or Michael Savage. Or maybe some Sean Hannity. Or maybe some more Limbaugh. Or, if you're really desperate, you can catch one of the many local mini-Limbaughs who populate what remains of the rural dial. In between, of course, there will be a country music station or two.
That's what people in rural areas have been listening to for the past 10 years and more. And nothing has been countering it.
If Democrats want to come to terms with what happened to them in the last election, they're going to have to confront this reality and its larger implications and ramifications. Chief among the implications is the hard truth that Democrats have largely abandoned rural America, and in so doing have ceded the field to right-wing propaganda and even extremism. Among the ramifications is the fact that at some point, Democrats are going to have to start fighting back on rural turf.
Doing so will not, as some have suggested, require them to compromise their core beliefs -- it will just require them to rethink their priorities and perhaps, in the process, rediscover their identity.
What the dominance of right-wing propaganda in talk radio has meant has been a relentless campaign of hatred and demonization directed at liberals, one specifically geared toward a rural audience. And it has worked, largely because Democrats have blithely done little or nothing to counter it.
The radio talkers, Limbaugh and Savage especially, feed their audiences a steady diet of venom and bile. Liberals look down on people in farm country, they are told, constantly. They don't share your values. They have nothing but contempt for you. As far as they're concerned, you all can just go extinct.
It has to be understood that rural America is hurting, and has been for a couple of decades now. Visit any rural community now and it's palpable: The schools are run down, the roads are falling apart, the former downtowns have been gutted by the destruction of the local economies and their displacement by the new Wal-Mart economy.
People living in rural areas increasingly feel that they have become mere colonies of urban society, treated dismissively and ignored at best, the victims of an evil plot by wealthy liberal elites at worst.
Liberals, largely due to their increasing urban-centric approach to politics, have mostly ignored the problem. And conservatives have been busy exploiting it.
It's important to understand that they have been doing so not by offering any actual solutions. Indeed, Republican "solutions" like the 1995 "Freedom to Farm Act" have actually turned out to be real disasters for the nation's family farmers; the only people who have benefited from it have been in the boardrooms of corporate agribusiness, which of course bellied up first to the big federal trough offered by the law. Even conservatives admit it has been a disaster.
No, conservatives have instead employed a strategy of scapegoating. It isn't bad policy or the conservative captivity to agribusiness interests that has made life miserable in rural America -- it's liberals. Their lack of morals (especially embodied by Bill Clinton), their contempt for real, hard-working Americans, their selfish arrogance -- those are the reasons things are so bad.
These audiences are feeding on a steady diet of hate. And as with all such feedings, they never are sated, but only have their appetites whetted for more. So each day, people come back to get a fresh fill-up of hate.
This line of scapegoating succeeds because it offers clear, simple, black-and-white answers for many rural Americans that intuitively resonates. It also provides them with an outlet for the feelings of resentment many harbor. If the prevalence of red counties in rural America wasn't evidence enough, the outpouring of contempt for the "blue states" after the 2004 election was just the most recent manifestation of how well right-wing propaganda has succeeded.
It is their strength. It is also their vulnerability, because it is cosmetic to cover a shallow record of negative achievement.
Karl Rove is famous for going after liberals' strengths; liberals should consider doing the same in return.
Unfortunately, the response of many blue-staters has not exactly been helpful. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they have in some cases returned the contempt with contempt. These have ranged from suggestions of blue-state secession and flights to Canada to rebuking the South in no uncertain terms. Some of this reaction is silly, and most of it is understandable catharsis, but liberals have to understand that it only fuels the dynamic at work here.
One of the keys to this dynamic is that both sides have been portraying the conflict in terms of broad stereotypes of urban, suburban and rural dwellers. When the red-state ideologues view the political landscape, they see pockets of godless, atheistic crypto-socialists populating the blue urban centers. For blue-state ideologues, the results of the 2004 election are proof that rural America is populated largely with gun-toting, Bible-thumping moralists who condone bigotry.
It's clear that conservatives have neither the incentive nor the intention of breaking this cycle; after all, they have benefited from it. It is indeed entirely by their design. If liberals are interested in breaking the cycle, they're going to have to discard their stereotypes.
It's essential to understand that rural America is not monolithic. There will probably always be a contingent of liberal-haters in farm country, and there's little anyone can hope to do overcome their hatred. What we don't need to be doing is ceding the field to them.
Especially because, while it's undeniable the stereotype is built out of real-life examples, the bulk of rural America does not fit this description. Most of them are sincere and well-meaning people of good will who will listen to reason. The problem is that they haven't been hearing or experiencing enough of it, particularly not from liberals.
Chris Clarke observed the other day that too much of the dialogue directed coming from urban dwellers is suffused with broad-brush stereotypes, complacency, and smug disdain:
- When the red-staters talk about the elitism of people in the cities and on the coasts, at least SOME of them aren't using the word "elitism" as a cryptic Christian code-word for "smart." Somewhere between a third and half of the people in those red states voted with you in this last election. You're not going to win without them, ever. Getting the GOP out of power will require that you lower yourselves and talk to some of us... and I don't mean "hi, I'm Geoffrey, and I've come to Ohio from Ann Arbor to tell you how to vote next week." We know how to vote. What we'd like is to be taken seriously as allies.
I raised some eyebrows last week by arguing that the first step liberals need to take in defusing the cycle of demonization lies in, as the sociologist James Aho puts it, "relinquishing our claim to moral superiority." This was sometimes misconstrued as suggesting a kind of unilateral disarmament, and a capitulation to the demand for obseisance to right-wing "moral values."
One of my tougher critics was the always-astute serial catowner, who posted this response:
- The odd thing about this post is that David has spent 90% of his effort describing a right-wing that very creatively makes their own "liberals" to bash. David then concludes by saying liberals have to break this impasse by being better.
Frankly, I've heard this before. Black people were supposed to "overcome" the stereotypes and prejudices used to bar them from equality.
... So, fine, talk about 'values' and how liberals need to be more sensitive, but remember there's a real world out there with real problems we created pushing us into a corner. We may need to hear some plain talking before we get out.
What I'm arguing, though, is not that liberals need to be better than conservatives -- in fact, that presumes a certain kind of moral superiority. This presumption is exactly what is wrong with the liberal approach to dealing with conservatives: it fuels the conservative characterization of liberals as elitists, and simultaneously gulls liberals into passivity and genteel, even timid notions about how to fight back. Plain talk is indeed what is needed.
It's not that liberals need to be better than the hate-mongers on the right; it's that they need not to become like them. This requires a kind of self-knowledge that helps us to more clearly understand the nature of our opposition as well. And that understanding is the key to defeating them.
In this regard, I especially think of something Bertrand Russell wrote back in 1951, discussing the twin evils of Nazism and Communism and their inclination to engage in torture:
- I do not think that these evils can be cured by blind hatred of their perpetrators. This will only lead us to become like them. Although the effort is not easy, one should attempt ... to understand the circumstances that turn men into fiends, and to realise that it is not by blind rage that evils are defeated. I do not say that to understand is to pardon; there are things which are for my part I find I cannot pardon. But I do say that to understand is absolutely necessary if the spread of similar evils over the whole world is to be prevented.
James Aho also discussed this in This Thing of Darkness:
- By grasping the details of how we construct an enemy, we are positioned to see that many of our battles are gigantic jousts with our own illusions. This can be a painful realization, particularly when the costs in treasure and human lives are counted. But the pain may be seen as a necessary injection to inoculate us against a particularly virulent plague, political anthrax, carried by hate mongers -- a plague that respects no nation, race, or religion. Having said this, however, we should never forget that the enemy is a mysteriously paradoxical phenomenon. It has both a subjective and an objective face. While failing to acknowledge our own culpability in creating enemies puts us at risk of becoming executioners, being blind to the objective facticity of evil contains the danger of rendering us its victims. As Albert Camus said, our task as human beings is to be neither victims nor executioners. This requires the courage to renounce both the extreme of punctilious rectitude that perceives only those evils external to itself, and the extreme of romanticism that reduces evil to an internal and solely subjective event.
This path is a difficult one to tread, especially when violence enters into the equation. Then it becomes imperative that aggression be met head-on.
Even absent violence, there is no excuse for failing to respond to hate-mongers, because silence in the face of their lies and distortions amounts to acquiescence. This is true not just of facing down radical right-wing extremists like the Montana Freemen and the Aryan Nations, but the steady stream of hate that has been directed over the airwaves at liberals over the past decade and more.
Liberals need to punch back, hard. And they need to stop believing that being nicer about it is going to win the debate. Of course, civility is always called for when the discussion is civil; but there are times when the gloves of civility have to come off. The line, I think, has to be drawn when eliminationism and violence -- even intimations of them -- enter into the picture. The response needn't be ugly, but it needs to be sharp, hard, and unmistakable.
It would be tempting to think the best way to counter the propaganda stream demonizing liberals would be to erect a similar media network in rural America and begin broadcasting a counter-message, similarly tailored to agrarian sensibilities. Certainly, that's a pleasing thought, and it no doubt would have certain beneficial effects. However, it would take years of work and capital outlays to construct such a counter -- and its effects, in the end, would likely be more cosmetic than substantive. If someone were to attempt such an enterprise, I would certainly encourage it; but in the meantime, there are more effective ways of gaining ground.
The liberal response instead should be geared toward a reality that people in rural and urban areas alike respect: that actions speak louder than words.
If people in rural areas believe that urban liberals look down their noses at them, it's largely because they have little contact with them. They're buying into conservative distortions, of course; but liberals do nothing to counter the charges, either in the media or on the ground, in the way they affect rural dwellers' personal lives.
Urban liberals too need to look in the mirror in this regard. The prevailing attitude in reality is more one of benign ignorance, laced with the scent of moral superiority. The manifestations range from the indulgence in demeaning stereotypes of rural life to a presumption of liberals' own moral and intellectual superiority. These attitudes are conflated by conservatives into one of malevolent contempt toward rural life. As long as the Left condones these attitudes and even fosters them, the more it feeds the dynamic.
What is especially ironic and unfortunate about the way urban liberals relate to their rural brethren is that it has blinded them to the natural alliances, and the shared values, that have informed progressive politics for more than a century. In essence, it has cut them off from one of their historic constituencies, and in the end an essential component of their own identity.
While liberals' chief claim to moral superiority mainly rests on championing the rights and needs of the disenfranchised and downtrodden, one of the most significantly and consistently disenfranchised segments of the American economy of the past 20 years has been the rural sector. If rural dwellers who see their way of life under assault wonder why liberals do not seem to consider their cause a worthy one, they probably cannot be blamed for concluding that they simply live in the wrong place, lead the wrong kind of lifestyle, and are not the right color. It may not be the whole truth, but there is some truth to it.
More to the point, urban liberals should be concerned about what's happening to rural America, because it directly affects their lives as well. The corporatization of agriculture and the accompanying gutting of local rural economies first of all affects urban dwellers' food sources; even as genetically modified foods are being pushed into the food chain, the actual supply of traditional hybrid strains of crops and the genetic diversity they represented has been decreasing dramatically, since many of these resided within the purview of smaller family farms.
Moreover, corporate farms are rapidly becoming a major source of pollution, a problem that affects every locality. Unsurprisingly, the current administration relies on "voluntary compliance" when it comes to regulating this pollution.
The overarching theme that progressives should adopt regarding rural America is one aimed at reviving the family farm. In economic terms, this means adopting a Schumacheresque "small is beautiful" kind of capitalism that encourages an environment in which individual family farms can operate successfully on a smaller scale, one that allows them to grow crops organically and sustainably. In political terms, it means coming into direct opposition to corporate agribusiness -- stripping them of their oversized place at the federal trough, closing the huge tax loopholes that allow them to devour whole tracts of land, dismantling their horizontal and vertical integration of the agricultural economy. It also means confronting "the Wal-Mart economy," the spread of which has done so much to devastate rural small businesses.
Kevin Carson posted in one of my earlier threads on this subject some suggestions on encouraging family farms and saving rural towns:
- 1) stop enforcing patents on GM [genetically modified] crops. Many free market people, myself included, consider "intellectual property" to be an illegitimate state grant of monopoly privileges to big business. Without the ability to charge monopoly prices, most of the stuff Monsanto comes up with wouldn't even pay for itself in a free market.
2) do away with FDA labeling restrictions that prohibit identifying GM food, or specifying that organic food is grown without sewage sludge, etc. There would be a much greater market for genuinely organic food if people could see on labels what kind of crap they're buying. Agribusiness is rabidly in favor of legal restrictions against such free flow of information, so we know how sincere the GOP's commitment to "free enterprise" is. Monsanto is one of the most adamant supporters of "food libel laws" and restrictions on labeling.
3) Eliminate all other government subsidies to agribusiness. Environmental subsidies to hold land out of production go almost entirely to the big corporate farms, who have enough land they can afford to let it be idle.
Most crop subsidies are targeted to crops that are grown mainly by big agribusiness, and not family farmers.
And large-scale government irrigation projects, especially the dams, provide subsidized water far, far below cost to big agribusiness. If it weren't for such subsidies to plantation farms in areas with inadequate rainfall, and the full cost of providing the water were reflected in the cost of produce, it simply wouldn't pay to ship produce across the country. You'd see a lot more smaller-scale agriculture in high rain areas like Massachusetts growing food for local and regional consumption.
4) Ditto for transportation subsidies. They are really a subsidy for distribution costs, a way of underwriting the inefficiency costs of large-scale production, and encouraging the concentration of capital and centralization of production. This is true of spades for agribusiness. It's only profitable to truck food from plantation farms across the country, instead of growing it where we live, because the shipping costs are reflected in our tax bills instead of in the cost of food.
All these things are examples of how big business gets rich sucking on the taxpayer tit; and they are anathema to the core values of rural state people, if their attention could be drawn to how far Republican practice differs from Republican preaching.
These are excellent starting points. The larger picture should be to create a cogent and comprehensive rural-revitalization program that emphasizes the independent farmer and the economic and cultural health of rural towns. And then to make it a major focal point of Democrats' national agenda.
In more pragmatic political terms, Democrats need to get to work in revitalizing their own political networks in rural areas. Progressives, as Chris Clarke says, have always been part of the rural landscape -- but in pursuing an urban-centric political strategy that has focused on harvesting votes from locales with the largest numbers of voters, Democrats have over the past decade or more largely abandoned these people to their own devices.
The result is that, by failing to involve and empower their rural counterparts, urban liberals proceeded to pursue a series of environmental policy initiatives that, instead of obtaining a rural consensus, became edicts handed down from on high in the urban ivory towers.
Cecil Andrus, the longtime Idaho governor, former Interior Secretary and godfather of the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, tried to warn party leaders against pursuing this course in the 1990s. In 1994, he and a group of Western governors met with President Clinton and his advisers to discuss the party's approach to rural issues, particularly those in the West. Andrus bluntly warned Clinton that, if his administration didn't take rural people's concerns seriously, and continued to send signals of being out of touch with Western issues, they risked becoming a permanent minority party in the West. Democrats' insistence on representing an urban perspective was a real problem, he warned.
At the end of the meeting, Al Gore reportedly took Andrus aside and gave him a chewing-out, telling him: "We think you're the problem."
The 1994 results -- in which the GOP took control of the House and Senate, and swept to their now-entrenched dominant power role in western states -- of course proved Andrus right. And the myopic worldview of Clinton, Gore and the rest of the Democratic Leadership Council contingent has, through the missteps of 2000, 2002, and 2004, led us into our current quagmire.
It's time for that style of leadership to come to an end for Democrats. Instead of being the party of the blue states and hoping to nibble off enough moderate voters in suburban districts, Democrats need to see themselves once again as a national party that represents the interests of all the nation. And championing the cause of their disenfranchised rural brethren is one of the most direct and simple ways of achieving this.
Organizationally speaking, one of the most critical steps for doing this requires not a lot of real expense but a major shift in priorities: cultivating a vibrant and potent network of rural progressives. Democratic party officials need to begin cultivating young progressives in rural areas and empowering them, especially if they look politically promising. This requires not only a certain amount of fiscal support but logistical and rhetorical assistance as well.
It's hard to overstate the powerful effect a campaign appearance by John Kerry would have had in a place like Idaho -- where he owns a vacation home, but hardly seems to actually visit or have any contact with the residents. It says everything you need to know about the DLC approach to the 2004 campaign that, during one of Kerry's springtime visits to Sun Valley, the Blaine County Democratic Party held a major Kerry fundraiser in Ketchum, raising several hundred thousand dollars -- and Kerry couldn't be bothered to drop in and make even a brief appearance.
Of course, there's almost no chance that Kerry actually would have carried Idaho even if he had campaigned there. But an appearance, with a minimal amount of effort, would have been a powerful stimulant for the progressives who live there; it would have signaled that, at the very least, they would not be abandoned by the party this time around.
The signals that rural progressives have been getting from Democratic leadership for a decade have all been negative: We won't visit your state, or provide you with campaign funds, or support your initiatives, because you don't have enough votes. Young progressives interested in advancing in the party tend, under these circumstances, to move to urban locales, since it is clear they will never succeed by staying in places like Idaho.
If liberals hope to turn the tide, these signals have to end. And the converse message needs to become a party centerpiece.
Jeff Alworth at The American Street tackled this point last week:
- Why does this matter? For decades, the GOP have created suspicion among rural Americans toward urban America. They've shifted the focus from class to culture, turning themselves from "them" into "us." Democrats stupidly play into the hand, regarding rural Americans as dimwitted crackers who are bent on cutting down all the forests and putting up Wal-Marts. Let me tell you something -- guys in the bar in Salmon, Idaho are never going to side with a bunch of liberal Portlanders who think they're crackers. So they vote for Bush, even though they know he's a bastard, because at least he's a bastard in a way that's comprehensible to them. The devil you know and all that.
Until Democrats recognize that my Dad is the heart of their constituency, until they start think of him as "us," they're always going to alienate rural America. FDR used the language of the "little guy" to find common ground. Jerry Falwell stole rural loyalties by using the language of religion to find common ground. If we're going to get back our bedrock constituency, we're going to have to go back to our roots, find ourselves, and embrace our rural brethren. That's where we will find common ground on the "moral values" question.
The larger point, of course, is to shift the focus from supposed cultural differences back to the vast common ground. Rural people, just like urban and suburban folk, value good schools, good jobs, sound infrastructure, social amenities, a vibrant and healthy culture. When we talk to rural Americans, those are kinds of things we should be talking about -- because, for many of them, these are things they have been losing, while the rest of the country seems to be gaining.
There will be inevitable differences. We won't always see eye to eye on some subjects, especially when they are products of differences in religious beliefs: abortion, gay rights, evolution. What has to change is how we react to these differences. Instead of dismissing people as hopeless ignoramuses for disagreeing on these matters, liberals need to operate from a basis of mutual respect for differing but sincerely held beliefs.
Of course, this respect will not always be reciprocated. This will be especially the case for the hard-core right wing that has an entrenched presence in rural America. Those are not the people whose minds can be changed. And in these kinds of cases, liberals should feel no compulsion to be "sensitive." Indeed, failing to stand up to them with appropriate strength is a recipe for getting bulldozed, as liberals have for the past decade.
But for the bulk of rural Americans, when liberals come up against these kinds of "moral values" friction points, there are two ways to effectively respond: 1) deflecting the conflict by emphasizing the common ground in real-life issues like saving farms and jobs; and 2) stressing their own deeply held moral values, including fairness and inclusiveness, as the basis of their positions -- thereby refuting the charges of amorality with which they are regularly accused by the right.
In the end, it is this inclusiveness that should inform and drive the liberal rural campaign. For too long, rural Americans have felt excluded -- left behind, as it were, while urban economies have benefited from the rise of new technologies and globalization. Conservatives have exploited this rift. Liberals will benefit from healing it.