Saturday, December 29, 2007

Why I Like Edwards

This all really starts with Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?. As I've mentioned, I think this is a very enjoyable book, even though it gets a great deal wrong, as demonstrated in Larry Bartels' devastating critique. What Frank gets right is that conservative opinion leaders in this country want to define the nation's main political schism as one of culture, not class. It make sense for them to do so: wealthier voters prefer the Republicans and poorer voters prefer the Democrats. That's not spin -- it's empirical fact. Since Republicans can't win by just talking about policies that benefit the wealthy (who are relatively few in number), they try to erase the economic divisions, describing their supporters as the salt of the earth and the Democrats as out-of-touch elites.

Where Frank's book fails is that it largely buys into this culture argument. That is, he maintains that culture war politics are actually working - that working class whites are abandoning the Democrats due to cultural appeals. As Bartels shows, that's not true. If anything, the class schism in this country has become more pronounced over the past few decades, with the wealthier far more likely to vote Republican than they used to be. Working class whites are still plenty Democratic. The main difference from earlier decades is that white Southerners are no longer Democrats. That has nothing to do with Republican culture war speeches and everything to do with the Civil Rights Movement.

What does this have to do with Edwards? Everything. None of the other Democratic candidates (except maybe Kucinich, but he's got a host of other problems) are talking about politics in class terms. They've accepted the culture war arguments, which is why Obama tries to reach out to Christian conservatives and why Hillary Clinton supported an anti-flag burning law and why John Kerry was spotted duck-hunting in the last election. They don't seem to realize that that's not the way the electorate rolls. Edwards seems to get that.

Edwards has been criticized for being too strident and angry this year. His attitude may have even cost him the endorsement of the Des Moines Register. So be it. Frankly, I'm a bit distrustful of anyone who can look at this graph without getting hot under the collar. The gap between the rich and the poor is large - about as large as it was in the 1920s - and growing. This issue needs to be addressed. Edwards is the only one addressing it.

Strip away all the hot air about Republicans liking NASCAR and beer and Democrats liking Volvos and wine and you see that the real split between the parties is economic. And it's not just rhetorical - poorer people do better under Democratic presidents than they do under Republican presidents. Poorer voters seem to get this, and there are a lot more of them than there are wealthy voters.

So I say let's support Edwards. Let's have the conversation about class. And let's put it to a vote.


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