Jim Webb vs. Entitled Elites

Jim Webb gave the keynote speech at the American Conservative Magazine's conference. He spoke a week after Trump's victory, but before everyone had time to sort out what they thought about it. It's a speech rooted in that moment, and is I think a useful criticism for Democrats for whom "conservative" is a curse word.

Here it is.


Joel Leggett said...

That was an interesting article. One of the reasons it was so interesting was due to the profound ignorance Mr. Webb demonstrated regarding how the Democratic Party became entangled with, and enslaved to, identity politics. Once the Democratic Party embraced class consciousness as its animating principle and public brand (the party of the working class), the slip into identity politics became inevitable. Identity politics and class consciousness are simply different sides of the same coin of tribal politics.

The Democratic Party's embrace of Class consciousness/tribal politics began in earnest with William Jennings Bryn. Prior to that, the party of Jefferson and Jackson, especially under those two gentlemen, was primarily a democratic populist party seeking to secure a place for middle/lower class voters at the same public table as the rich and powerful. This was different from what we see today, and even under FDR, where class/ethnic groups are pursued with promises of public goods dispensed from and paid for through the public purse financed by extortionately taxing "the rich."

Such tribal politics seek to acquire political power by exploiting the resentments of one group against another. Once such a path to power is embraced it can and will take whatever form is most advantageous to the power seeker. Preferred parties will only stay preferred so long as they convey a political advantage. The Democratic Party courted white working class voters as long as they were perceived to be a political advantage. Once such voters were seen as baggage they were abandoned for the more (perceived) advantages of the ethnic minority voter.

Grim said...

That's an interesting reading, Joel, because I have typically seen people contrast class consciousness with ethnicity and tribalism. The appeal to class is supposed to cut across the natural tribalism that people ordinarily feel, the theory goes, allowing people with similar interests to come together whether they are black, white, Asian, or whatever else.

I thought that was a plausible reading because I've seen religion play a similar role. In Iraq, where literal tribes were often at war with one another, sometimes the mediator who could bring them together was an imam reminding them of their common submission to Islam. 'You may be Obeidi or Jabouri, but you are all Muslims,' seemed to me a similar claim to 'It doesn't matter if you're black or white, you're all small farmers and you have the same interests.'

Grim said...

I take something like that to be his point when he says, "Every racial and ethnic group has wildly successful people at the very top and desperately poor people at the bottom. Using vague labels about race, ethnicity, might satisfy the quotas of government programs, but they have very little to do with reality. Whether it’s blacks in West Baltimore, who have been ignored and left behind, or whites in the hollows of West Virginia."

Instead of abandoning the white working class because they are white, in other words, why not pursue policies that help the American people who need help?

Joel Leggett said...

The problem is that the class consciousness rhetoric that emerged with William Jennings Bryan combined class with a victim/us-against-them narrative that promised retribution and justice through expanded government power. It sought to exploit frustration and resentment for political power. The hallmark of such a model is the drawing of distinctions and separations between favored groups and "others." Once such an approach is accepted by political leaders, no one should be surprised to see the favored groups change or morph as perceived political advantage or influence shifts from one group to another.

The above approach was very different from the democratic populism of Jefferson and Jackson. Their populism simply sought to make room at the table of political participation for more citizens. That form of populism retained a limited government view that never saw government or the public purse as a tool to promote the specific interests of a particular class/group.

Joel Leggett said...

My last post was in response to your 11:09 post. I did not see your 11:40 post until I hit publish.

What I would like to see, and for Mr. Webb and others to recognize, is a return to a Jefferson/Jackson style of populism and an abandonment of the class/identity politics of division.

Grim said...

The hallmark of such a model is the drawing of distinctions and separations between favored groups and "others." Once such an approach is accepted by political leaders, no one should be surprised to see the favored groups change or morph...

Is a politics possible that doesn't do this? Jacksonian ideals favor Americans versus non-Americans, but also the ordinary man against (say) the central bankers (that being Jackson's own big fight).

You and I agree about the importance of an inclusive politics. I've been arguing since 2004 that we should use any time in power to shrink the scope and size of the Federal government, and re-invigorate the 10th Amendment, in part because it will reduce social tensions. Those who live in utterly blue states like California will be able to live according to their own lights under my plan to a greater degree than they would allow us to do if they won. In that way, America is for all Americans, and not just those whose ideas (or interests) I favor.

So I'm with you on the importance of protecting a common good for all. I'm just not sure that we would want, if even we could attain, a politics that didn't favor Americans over the citizens of other nations in cases when there wasn't a win-win solution.

Joel Leggett said...

Grim, you raise a fair point and one I should have been clearer about. When I am speaking of a common, inclusive political rhetoric and model I am speaking of one applied to American citizens within our country. I am by no means advocating some "citizen-of-the-world" nonsense. I want our political discourse to emphasize the inclusion of all Americans regardless of class, sex, race, or religion. I don't want our political leaders to divide CITIZENS against each other, to promise to rob Peter to pay Paul. American interests must always come first.

As an aside, when Andrew Jackson went after Nicholas Biddle and The Bank of the United States he wasn't doing so as part of some class warfare attempt to promote the interests of a particular class. Jackson's goal was to root out corruption, not pit the poor against the rich for political power. He rightly recognized the danger of concentrating the nation's financial power in a single private corporation.

Tom said...

This class-becomes-race viewpoint is one we've discussed before. It's simple Marxism transposed from class to race. Webb doesn't go into it, but it's also transposed to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and nation.

Whites (men, heterosexuals, proponents of the nation-state) are the new bourgeois and non-whites (women, LGBT, internationalists) the new proletariat.

This Marxian ideology necessarily divides us. Marxist ideas require a Marxist / Hegelian social dialectic which pits one part of society against another. The conflict itself propels progress. So, they need two broadly defined social groups and they need them to be implacably opposed.

Tom said...

... hopefully the results of this election will provide us an opportunity to reject a new form of elitism that has pervaded our societal mechanisms. This is not quite like anything that has ever faced us before in our history, at least in my reading of our history. It has many antecedents, but the greatest barrier, even to discussing it, has come from how these elites were formed, largely beginning in the Vietnam era, and how their very structure has minimized the ability of the average American even to articulate clearly, and to discuss vigorously, the reality that we all can see.

That's an interesting statement, and I really wish he had explained his claim that the formation and structure of these new elites minimizes the ability to articulate and discuss reality.

I tend to think that Vietnam did not create this sense of entitlement, but rather it developed independent of that war and was then expressed in the refusal to serve.