It's The Culture, Stupid
Nikki Haley Previews What Will Matter in 2024
Deep in the Democratic Party’s DNA is the notion that the economy matters more to voters than cultural issues. Sometimes it does. It certainly did after the crash of 2008. Inflation helped defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980. And then there was 1992, when James Carville wrote his immortal words on the blackboard in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters: It’s the economy, stupid!
It wasn’t, really. We were emerging from a minor recession, but Clinton’s economic policies weren't what won the election—indeed, he changed them almost immediately after winning office, from stimulus to budget-balancing, palliating the bond market and lowering interest rates (a brilliant choice as it happened). Clinton won the presidency because he convinced voters that, unlike the past 20 years of Democrats, he was tough on crime (including a rather disgusting execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man of limited intelligence) and that he wanted to reform welfare (which badly needed it). He also presented himself as a McDonald’s supersizer and regular guy with a Southern accent, who could talk the birds from the trees. He was fortunate in his opponent, George H. W. Bush—a thoroughly decent man and a very good President but an indifferent campaigner who had broken an essential promise (Read my lips: no new taxes) and had been seriously weakened by Pat Buchanan’s rebel campaign, which portrayed him as something of an effete wimp. (The death of Bush’s campaign monster Lee Atwater, who had made culture a centerpiece of the 1988 campaign—remember the black murderer, Willie Horton?—debilitated his ability to ding Clinton.)
It was culture that mattered in 1992: Bubba beat the elite. It will be culture that matters in 2024. And if you don’t believe me, check out the reception that Nikki Haley has received since announcing she’s running for president. It’s been all about race and gender.
Haley is a talented politician and perhaps a President someday. I’ve long suspected that the first woman Commander-in-Chief will be a Republican (Republicans won’t vote for a Democratic woman; a moderate like Haley might win over some Democratic feminists.) She was a very good UN Ambassador. But I’m guessing that she’s running this time as a potential Vice President for Trump or DeSantis—a familiar gambit for first-time candidates (including, perhaps, Clinton in 1992, who figured Mario Cuomo would be the favorite for the nomination).
I’ve been a bit surprised by the attention Haley’s announcement has received. Here are a few theories about that:
Nothing much else is going on. There is a hunger in America for political entertainment. It’s a lot more fun than the debt ceiling. This is especially true among the political press, which—a year away from the first primaries—has an addictive yearning for the small-room politics of Iowa (Republicans only, this time) and New Hampshire. It is important, unpredictable and very valuable to see big-time politicians interacting with the “little people,” as the happy old populist Fred Harris used to call them. Over the course of 11—11! God help me—presidential campaigns, this was my favorite part of the process. And, until Haley started stumping, it just wasn’t happening very much.
This may be a sub-section of the last point, but Haley is a fat target. Ann Coulter, whose blond hair, black cocktail dress, pearls and nasty mouth created a cult-following, has been off the best-seller lists in recent years. She’s been overtaken by daily barbarians like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. So she makes a fabulously ugly nativist splash: Haley should “go back to your own country.”
https://nypost.com/2023/02/17/ann-coulter-tells-nikki-haley-go-back-to-your-own-country/. Haley’s family is from India; she was born in back country South Carolina. But Coulter’s been working the “America is for white people” game for years. Immigration will be one of the top two or three issues in 2024. Coulter—a very smart cookie in real life, by the way—is sending the message that Haley won’t be able to exploit nativism as well as some of the paler Republican populists.
On the other side of the coin there is the evergreen leftist garbage argument that Haley is a self-hating-non-white-person who is posing as a model minority and is really a racist because she is deficient in the woke-zone. Here is a particularly vile example of that, which appeared on the MSNBC website: https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/nikki-haleys-presidential-campaign-no-chance-trump-desantis-rcna70888.
There is a more nuanced argument to be made, closer to the real heart of the Haley candidacy: She made her national reputation hauling down the confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state capital after the racist massacre at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. It can be argued—Democrats will argue—that she’s slip-sliding away from that honorable stand by insisting in her stump speech and TV ads that America is not a racist nation. She also tweeted, “Strong and proud — not weak and woke— that’s the America I see!” The eternally solid and admirable Dan Balz of The Washington Post lays out Haley’s dilemma in the fairest terms. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/02/18/nikki-haley-racism-woke/
The “America is not a racist nation” trope needs to be unpacked before we head into 2024. It is crucial to the whole Critical Race Theory debate, which—sorry Dems—is a real issue. Those who believe that America is “racist” are arguing that the fundamental structure of American society is stacked against blacks. It is immutable. Nothing ever changes. All whites are guilty of it, especially those who claim not to be. Blacks are oppressed, forever and always.
This is arrant, destructive nonsense. Racism certainly exists here in abundance. The right-wing campaign against “wokeism” is all too often a beard for flat-out anti-black and anti-gay bigotry. Structural racism was the law of the land until the 1960s, especially in the segregationist South and the redlined housing market of the North. But those who believe racism has defined America are living in bizarro world—which is to say, too often, leftist academia. Democracy has defined America, with all its flaws and glories. Diversity—e pluribus unum—has defined America. The past 50 years, in particular, have seen unprecedented human rights progress—the growth of a substantial black middle and professional class (as well as historic progress for women, the gay community and Latinos). Those who do not acknowledge this progress—I’m looking at you, Ta-Nehisi Coates—are playing a cynical racialist game. And they are sending a dreadful, hopeless message to young black people.
All too many Democrats buy this guilt trip. Here’s another formulation that needs to be unpacked before 2024: the difference between “equity” and “equality.” Joe Biden talks about “equity” far too often—by which he, or his speechwriters, mean government programs which take race and “diversity” into account, in order to repair past bigotry. Equality is less fraught: it means the same rules and opportunities for everybody. Equity v. Equality will, I suspect, the most important debate of 2024, especially if the Supreme Court takes down affirmative action.
The equity side of the argument is a much tougher road. It is also terrible politics. It is next of kin to the idea of “structural” racism—again, the notion that white people and the institutions of American society are fundamentally racist—which is not just carelessly wrong and insulting, but a certain loser at the polls. Tell a divorced woman in West Virginia, working three jobs and trying to put several kids through school, about “white privilege.”
The reaction to Nikki Haley’s candidacy is an omen. In the absence of a war or an economic cataclysm, race will be—as it almost always has been—the central (if often underlying) issue in American politics. It is not a phony issue. It is a difficult one, easily demagogued by the racist right and racialist left. But it’s what will matter in 2024 and even James Carville thinks so: “It used to be that [Republicans] were kind of free traders and anti-Russia and pro-military and for entitlement reform,” he told The Washington Post today. “Well, that’s all out the window. The only thing they have that unifies them is cultural resentment.”
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