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June 04, 2005

Ed Kilgore on American Social Democracy and the Information Age

He writes from the Josh Micah Marshall Imperium:

TPMCafe || Politics, Ideas & Lots Of Caffeine: The Golden Age of Social Democracy By Ed Kilgore Section: Politics: Matt Yglesias has posed, and Mark Schmitt has elaborated on, a central question about the relationship between the progressive vision and our understanding of where were are as a society in the broader sweep of history. I'll have more to say about the general issue at a later date, but for now, I wanted to immediately respond to a comment Mark made about the transformation we've experienced in the last few decades. "Again and again, we have traded, voluntarily or involuntarily, the security of the 1950s middle class for greater opportunity, but also greater risk."

This axiom captures a major source of the communications breakdown that has long affected discussions between Democrats from different regions and different social backgrounds.

It took me a while to figure this out, but after wondering for years about the strong resistance of many traditional Democrats from the midwest and northeast to economic change, I finally began to understand that the 1950s and 1960s represented for them a sort of social democratic "golden age." It was, if you were a unionized industrial worker in, say, Michigan, an era in which you could graduate from high school, get your union card and go on the line, work your way up, buy a house, raise kids on one salary, maybe even send some or all of them to a state college, and eventually, retire and move to Florida to bask in the sun and maybe bet modest amounts at the greyhound track. Sure, there might be bumps in the road, and periods when you had to rely on strike funds. But this basically secure existence was a reality for many members of what the Marxists called America's "labor aristocracy."

Well, where I come from, in the Deep South, this golden age never existed, and the 1950s in particular were a pretty crappy time, especially if you were black, but so, too, if you were white (per capita income in the South was barely more than half of the national average well into that decade).... Precisely because the South (with the exception of a few heavy industry and unionized pockets) only marginally enjoyed the fruits of the industrial age, southerners, and particularly rural southerners, have a peculiar openness to post-industrial economic opportunities and policies.

If you paid any attention at all to Mark Warner's successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign, you had to be struck by the fact that this stereotypical urban tech magnate actually won in southwest (i.e., Appalachian) Virginia (the same region where Al Gore and John Kerry just got killed in 2000 and 2004) with an economic message based on technology, education and worker training as the salvation for the "backwards" regions of the state. And this same approach is generally accepted in economic development circles elsewhere in the South: people and communities who were basically "losers" in the industrial economy might catch up with, or even leapfrog their urban kin with a combination of distance-shrinking technology, skills-focused education and training, and a superior quality of life.

I make this point for two reasons: (1) I think it's important to understand why the politics of social-democratic nostalgia doesn't work very well in less-industrial parts of the country; and (2) we all need to get over the stereotype that "information-age" economic strategies, including a focus on technology, training, and quality of life, are just a latte-class relic of the 90s tech boom that we should now acknowledge as a partial betrayal of the economic interests of working Americans.

But who knows: maybe my perspective is colored by the fact that I am posting from a cheap motel in eastern North Carolina that nonetheless has an ethernet connection in every room. Or perhaps I am feeling especially southern because I have a belly full of barbecue and brunswick stew.

Posted by DeLong at June 4, 2005 10:16 AM