Will Divide certainly deserves to be listened to and offers an essay on Joe with which I take nearly no exception. Nearly none. The ever slight essay I'm offering to bore you with here began as a response on his blog to his column. It expanded and became nothing I'd want to sully his page with. So, first and foremost, go read Will's piece -- you'll need that for context, then . . . .
Being the first generation out of Hell’s Kitchen, let me offer my middle class, third gen immigrant, and, while educated, much less well-read perspective . . . .
I don’t think Joe's critique of the Democratic Party is merely that it has not been paying attention to small-town Southern whites. I think it begins at their class view. Joe takes on the Dems, and blames them for not even trying to understand the underclass. The losses that the Dems have suffered are, in his view, their penalty for scoffing at these people and caricaturing them as uneducated, violent, and intolerant, and therefore marginal in the political process. This “Westchester Democrat” world-view led the party of the working class (so-called) to misapprehend, and dismiss, for example, the attachment in these communities to religion and guns.
In the 1960's pulpits drove voters to the Democratic Party. Since at least the 80's, the Dems have ceded the church crowd to the Repugs. It is probably fair to say that the process began with neglect and, by the time that the evangelicals had put together the “Moral Majority”, it became “inevitable”.
Similarly with guns – Joe reminds us that Hubert Humphrey understood the gun issue. Joe doesn’t go into it, but, along with Humphrey, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson all opposed gun control legislation. I think it is fair comment that Joe doesn’t offer an explanation on how the Democrats could have avoided the NRA turn to the right. But he strongly suggests that they could have avoided some of the animosity of gun owners if they had spent their time since the 80s trying to accept that there was some not insubstantial validity to the perspective of the other side. (Al Gore would have won in 2000 if he had taken his home state. His loss there can be credited to the last-month tactics of the gun lobby in that state.)
Most people would agree with what Will says about assault weapons. The problem for the Democrats has been that they ignored the sensitivities of the (mostly-Southern) gun owners, treating their love of their firearms as the dismissible result of being violent, stupid and intolerant. By the time that the NRA got its political machine churning it, once again, became an inevitability. It is not that the Democrats actually moved to take away the deer rifles; it is that when they crinkle their noses at gun ownership, in their knowing-better condescension, they might as well have. If they are surprised that the reaction has been “if you’re not gonna listen to me, you got nuthin to say to me”, then that’s only more fodder for the NRA.
I’m not sure that what Joe meant to describe was an ascendant culture – or perhaps in a sense he does. It is clear that, in his world view, these people are not only NOT going away, they are growing.
For Joe, what is in decay is the American myth of the middle class. We are, those non-upper class amongst us, but "two shits from the outhouse". The class war, he reminds us, is over and “we” didn’t win. I think he does lay blame here at the political parties – both of them. The "social landscape . . . dying from hatred, self-loathing, ignorance, bad diet, violence and apathy", as Will puts it, is not the small, poor, Southern town. I think Joe’s message is that is precisely what is waiting at the base of the precipice on which the bulk of American society wavers.
The solution, he makes plain, is two fold. But, it might as well not be offered as neither party has the will nor courage for implementation. An all out war against the inevitable decline he portends would require universal, free, quality education and health care for every breathing soul.
Joe makes argument for education as the antidote for religious extremism (arguably, for religion itself), education as a means for the poor, working man to get why a vote for any Republican is an act of self-flagellation, and on and on. Even a modest goal of eliminating functional illiteracy would move mountains – would have a debilitating effect on the Repugs success in the use of distilled language to obscure facts and intent.
Education, it is clear, also makes us liberal – not Democrats, necessarily – but citizens devoted to ideals of personal liberty – it is what breaks down the walls of intolerance which does pervade small, poor, uneducated communities.
Similarly, universal, free, health care eliminates slavery -- it frees the mind and body to work towards other, more productive ends. It will help rescue the economy and restore the middle class. I forget the numbers, but something approaching three-quarters of the personal bankruptcies in this country are precipitated by sudden, crushing health care costs (and, of course, in order to ensure that the losers of the class war stay lost, we’ve allowed them to make filing for personal bankruptcy infinitely more difficult).
It is through the dual tools of education and health care that the “redneck culture’ he describes can be ‘transformed’– precisely “ by seeing it through what is a terminal illness, to something decent and true beyond”. And, more than that, move the rest of us back from the edge.
To me, that’s one hell of a solution.