Monday, September 08, 2008

Inequality, the Federal Government, and the Republican Party: Or, the Passion of Sarah Palin

Having temporarily stoppoed fawning over Satyam, Matt Yglesias has linked to an interesting article indeed by David Frum in the NYT Magazine about income inequality and the Republican Party. Frum, a conservative, joins the ranks of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam as Republicans concerned that they might lose a generation of voters if they don't address issues of income inequality soon.

Frum, Douthat, and Salam are no fools. Unlike 98% of conservative intellectuals, they understand that Republicans doing well in politics is rather well correlated with low rates of inequality and white middle class to upper-middle class incomes. What they don't seem to understand is that they're exposing the very foundations that is the Big Lie of Republican politics, opening the pandora's box to the hypocrisy and sleight of hand that has kept the GOP in control for the last half century. Here, friends, is a story that begins in the South and Southwest and takes us all the way north to the very edge of the American West. Let's look at some stuff!

The picture is a bit blurry and small, but what's important are those little red dots that seem strangely conspicuous in the Deep South and Southwest. These are what are commonly called "massive military bases" and their locations are not accidental. They are just one of the many ways the Federal Government has historically provided large subsidies to traditionally poor and environmentally hostile places. These two regions in particular, along with Alaska (more on that later), owe a great deal of their development into modern states to the federal government: the South for aiding it in transforming itself from a slave-based, agrarian, and by 1864 war-devastated place to a place of more or less equal prosperity as anywhere else in the U.S.; and the Southwest for turning a rather inhospitable land (through defense dollars and federal works projects) into the fastest-growing area of the United States.

Kevin Phillips, who we owe a great deal to both explaining and realizing this reality, understands the relationship between federal dollars and Republican politics perfectly. As the former Nixon strategist/right-wing prophet wrote two years ago, referring to his 1968 book The Emerging Republican Majority:
I coined the term "Sun Belt" to describe the oil, military, aerospace and retirement country stretching from Florida to California.... If any new alignment had the potential to nurture a fusion of oil interests and the military-industrial complex, it was the Sun Belt, which helped draw them into commercial and political proximity and collaboration.
The Sun Belt is a big and complicated place. Beside the oil rig and the defense industry mandarin stands the evangelical, the geriatric, and the immigrant. To get a clearer picture of what's going on let's turn to a simpler place that I think shares many of the same characteristics.

Where else but Alaska do we get such an odd cauldron of federal intervention, welfare-state benefits, and steadfast Republicanism? I'm hoping the Palin rise to power and the attention on Alaska manages to shed some light on the curious paradox I'm referring to, because in many ways there's no better place to look than this absolute folly of a state.

Nowhere, we are told, do people so distrust big government (feds or not) as in Alaska, which has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election in its existence with the exception of Johnson's '64 landslide.

Yet nowhere do we find citizens benefiting more from federal tax coffers and largess than Alaska. Alaskans enjoy the lowest taxes in the nation along with the highest federal expenditures (and earmarks) per capita. For every year that an Alaskan spends thanking their lucky stars they've avoided the tyranny of big government and the welfare-dependent inner cities of continental America, they receive a check from the government for $3200 in Alaska. To put it simply, as Time Magazine's Michael Kinsley observes, "Alaska's government spends money on its own citizens and taxes the rest of us to pay for it."

With Alaska in mind, we return to Frum. The GOP's two-step secret to success is as follows:
1) Raise all ships and reduce inequality among Sun Belt (and Alaskan) white folks through huge (often Democratically initiated) federal subsidies and welfare checks, and then
2) Persuade these beneficiaries that any redistributionist/government subsidized economic activity is dangerous, liberal, socialist, and contrary to American values.

The beauty, of course, is that you can't have the ideology (2) without the redistribution (1) in the first place. The Republican Party simply wouldn't have the votes to survive if it weren't for the massive federal intervention necessary to raise people to a certain income level that they can no longer care about people worse off than them receiving the same sorts of benefits they did. Here, I think, is an explanation for Republican political domination that includes race as a factor, and yet doesn't overestimate it as an explanatory tool in the way Paul Krugman, for example, does.

What's alarming about seeing the Republican rise through this prism is that--as the Sheriff and I were discussing the other day--it sort of ruins the liberal fantasy world of "if we can only educate people and make them wealthier, they'll be like us!" It seems to me that a lot of wealth and education have been going to a lot of people I've been talking about in this post. Probably, I presume, a lot of these people can proudly call themselves one of the 150,000,000 Americans who say today that they intend to vote for the Republican Party. The party of Sarah Palin. She, who in one sentence, "thanks, but no thanks [to the Bridge to Nowhere]," manages to capture all of the wonder of standing principally against something after they were for it, and while they use its funds to distribute to Alaska's healthy Republican citizens. Here's to hoping that the media exposes these lies for what they are and continues to untangle this rather unbecoming web of GOP ideology.


Blogger Sebonde said...

Thanks a big bunch for this alternative to Thomas Franck. Very informative.

3:28 AM  

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