A couple of days ago, Russell wrote a comment that got me thinking**:
for about 50 years in the middle of the 20th C things were progressively (not capital-P progressively, just the normal usage of that word) better for "regular folks", however you want to define that. Not so much for black regular folks, not so much for women regular folks, not so much for regular folks who colored outside the lines in any kind of sociological way. But for garden variety traditional nuclear family white and white-ish folks, it was pretty damned good.It occurs to me to wonder: How did that happen? How did we get 35 years of popular support for a party which wants to enrich less than 20% (maybe less than 10%) of the population at the expense of the rest? What's the attraction?
It wasn't evenly distributed, but a hell of a lot of people were able to live their lives without profound financial distress and worry.
We know what made that happen, and for the last 35 or so years we've been ripping it down.
Start with a little history. After the Civil War, the Democrats had total control of the "Solid South". For a century. It didn't matter what policies the national Democratic Party pushed. All that mattered was that the Republicans had freed the slaves, so they were anathema to Southern whites. Well, it almost didn't matter. Until the Democratic Party passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said "we have lost the South for a generation." But (if he really said it) he was an optimist -- a century would have been a more reasonable guess, based on past performance. Generations of family tradition, and lifetome habits, aren't cast aside in an instant. But within a decade, the South (specifically Southern whites) became solidly Republican. Again, without reference to what other policies the GOP was pushing.
The point is this. It is a political truism that, absent an actual shooting war, people vote for their pocketbook experience rather than abstract issues like on foreign policy or overall economic proclamations. And comparing those two, that's pretty fair. But the thing is, none of those are really the big factor. The elephant in the room is, people are at least as likely to vote against something as to vote for something. So we were looking at first anti-Republican and then anti-Democrat voting from Southern whites, rather than anything else.
So maybe we ought to look for something like that to explain current voting behavior. The GOP base isn't voting their economic interests, we can see that. And lots of them are outside the South and its overwhelming racial issues, so that's not the real story. So why do they vote the way that they do?
I think it really does come down to what is simplistically referred to as "culture wars." I say simplistically because a lot of cultural change that we have seen in my lifetime has been positive. And a big chunk of even the Republican base would agree with that. They may not be enthusiastic about change for its own sake, but they will be OK with at least some kinds of change. So why those and not others? What are the Democrats seen as advocating that are deal breakers for the Republican base?
I think it comes down to a straight matter of family. Changes which were seen as hurting families, pushed by Democrats, lost them a huge portion of the population, even though those same people were hurt by the Republican's economic policies. Which were those?
Not, perhaps to the astonishment of cultural reactionaries, something like gay marriage. Why not? Because a couple of gays getting married has no real effect on other people's traditional families. The GOP base wasn't enthused about making a change; they are, after all, basically conservative, so changes get viewed with skepticism initially. But neither were they generally hysterical about it once it happened and the world didn't end. (Yes, there are those who are and will remain so. But we aren't talking about them.)
Neither is it support for the poor, even poor members of minority groups. Not so much even for the safety net in general. Obamacare got opposed because all changes get greeted with skepticism. But by now, trying to take it away is a vote-loser. Big time. Because it turns out that it helps families survive, rather than breaking them up.
Rather, the driving issue is this. Democrats are seen as embracing things that really do hurt families. Things like unmarried women getting pregnant and raising families, or couples just not having children at all. Those hurt traditional families, and the social structures built around them. Likewise, they are seen as hostile (or, at absolute minimum, indifferent-to-negative) to religion. And religion is another part of what helps support traditional families.
Granted, far from all Democrats embrace those positions. But that's where the big megaphones on the left are. "Feminism", not as economic empowerment of women, but as women building lives and families without men. And so long as that perception holds, the leaders of the GOP can push damn near any economic policies they like, without having to worry about losing their electoral base. If the pain gets bad enough, the base may scream at their legislators. They may vote them out in the primaries. But they won't turn on their party in the general elections in any significant numbers.
** I started writing this yesterday, but didn't get it finished. Meanwhile, the discussion has kept going under We are truly screwed. Sorry about that.