Atlantic: Ross Douthat: From Willie Horton To William Ayers

Atlantic: Ross Douthat

From Willie Horton To William Ayers

Let’s watch some vicious right-wing attack ads: 

Okay, what was that ad about? “White racism!” cry the liberals. But table that argument for a moment: What else was it about? Crime. Take out the racial element, and you’re still left with a devastatingly effective ad for an era – the late 1980s – when crime rates were near an all-time high. 

Here’s another one, just as infamous: 

Again, what’s this ad about? White racism? Again, table that debate – what else? Jobs. The Helms-Gantt Senate race took place in 1990, at a time when the Reagan boom was giving way to the Bush-era recession – and when North Carolina’s manufacturing sector, in particular, was taking a big hit – and the ad’s effectiveness depended almost entirely on its very direct connection to N.C. voters’ economic anxieties. 

As regular readers know (and are probably tired of hearing about), one of the many things Grand New Party attempts to do is explode the notion – made famous by Thomas Frank, but really a near-constant in American political analysis; it shows up, for instance, in an uncharacteristically lazyFrancis Fukuyama essay in this week’s Newsweek – that America’s working class is uniquely vulnerable to purely cultural and symbolic appeals from conservative politicians. Of course symbolic appeals have resonance in American politics, but that resonance is hardly limited to working-class America; more importantly, many of the issues that liberal pundits like to call “symbolic” – from crime to guns to affirmative action to “family values” – resonate with working-class voters precisely because they’re perceived as having socioeconomic as well as purely symbolic consequences. In reality, and contrary to a great deal of conventional wisdom, the Republican Party didn’t win working-class votes by stoking the culture war and ignoring everything else; it built a majority because a lot of its economic policies did, in fact, benefit working America as well as the rich (ask most “Joe Sixpacks” whether they’d prefer the Reagan and Clinton and even the Bush expansions, wage stagnation or no, to the economic landscape of the Carter years, and I’m pretty sure you’d get more yeses than no), and because Republican politicians became extremely adept at linking the culture war to issues like public safety, social stability, and economic security

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