Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Trading Places?

When Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln finally made it to Ireland early this year, some of my Irish friends were confused by it.

They said things to me like, “I thought it was the Republicans were always trying to keep black people down. The movie made it seem like the Republicans were trying to help them.”

Of course, they were confused. The film depicts accurately the Republican Party in the 1860s seeking to end slavery while the Democratic Party worked to preserve it. Nowadays, though, “everybody knows” it’s the Democrats who are looking out for African-Americans and the Republicans who want to go back to the days of Jim Crow.

How did we get from there to here?

It depends on whom you ask. If you ask a Democrat how the two major American political parties seemed to have swapped places on civil rights, you get a story that, briefly, goes like this. In the 1960s the liberal wing of the Democratic Party championed the civil rights movement and the conservative Republicans opposed it. As a result, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which was largely based in the South, over time defected to the Republicans, while some liberal and moderate Republicans switched to the Democrats. Therefore, two parties that both had fairly wide spectrums of political philosophy (heterogeneous, in political science parlance) wound up shifting to the left and right, respectively. So, according to our Democratic historian, you wind up with a Republican Party that is conservative (and anti-civil rights) and a Democratic Party that is liberal.

If you ask a Republican (or at least certain Republicans) the same question, however, you get a somewhat different narrative. She will tell you that, while many positions in the two parties have shifted over time, Republicans have been fairly consistent on one principle: that all people should be treated equally under the law. That is why the Republican Party was founded (in 1854) largely for the purpose of ending slavery. The principle of human equality continued to be upheld in the passage of civil rights legislation in the 20th century. She will point out that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with 80 percent Republican support in both houses of Congress. (Democrats supported it with 61 percent in the House and 63 percent in the Senate.)

Our Democratic historian will reply, yes, but that was the old “moderate” Republican Party. Before it went all right-wing and Tea Party and brought on board the old racist Dixiecrats. Our Republican historian will say, it’s more complicated than that. She will argue that programs like affirmative action have not only violated the principle of treating all people equally but that they have actually made social and economic conditions in the African-American community worse, not better. If she’s feeling particularly provocative, she will even suggest that the Democrats have gone from the party of the old Southern plantations to the party of modern virtual plantations that keep African-Americans hooked on welfare and other social programs to such an extent that they feel they have no choice but to vote invariably as a massive bloc for the party that promises to preserve and expand those programs. (The percentage of African-Americans voting for the Democrat in the last four presidential elections ranged between 88 and 95 percent.)

One of the most articulate and convincing proponents of the idea that legislation and policies designed to help African-Americans has often had the opposite effect is the economist Thomas Sowell. A Marxist in his 20s, Sowell (who happens to be African-American) now describes himself as a libertarian. In his writings, he produces statistics that suggest that to date the period of most rapid narrowing of the economic gap between whites and blacks was in the period immediately before the advent of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He further argues that the gap tends to close during boom times (in other words, a rising tide really does lift all boats), which means that during a period of recession or stagnant growth—as we’ve been experiencing for years now—African-Americans do worse than others.

This is something President Obama, who has now been in charge of the economy for about half a decade, was complaining about recently—the worsening gap between rich and poor. I think Sowell would advise him to focus less on income equality (because that just makes it worse) and more on economic growth (because that makes it better).

Sowell argues that even well-meaning and seemingly benign policies such as raising the minimum wage hurt African-Americans disproportionately—because a higher minimum wage tends to reduce the number of entry-level jobs, which would be the ones most likely to benefit young people and those who have been out of work.

It would be naive to believe that there is not an element of racism in the modern Republican Party. Yes, you can be against affirmative action out of principle, but you can also be against it because you don’t like black people. But it would also be naive to believe that there is no racism in the Democratic Party, even if it is unconscious or unintentional. Is it that unbelievable that at least some party operatives view the black vote cynically—relying on it to make the difference in elections even while the economic lot of African-Americans has worsened under Democratic stewardship of the economy?

Last week I ended by asking, “How did we get to the point where a ‘liberal’ is understood to be someone who wants high taxes and more government involvement in your life?” That was not a rhetorical question. I am sincerely interested in how political labels get changed in meaning, just as political parties are seen to swap from one side to the other on major questions.

The fact is that there is actually a significant portion of the Republican Party that really doesn’t see itself as conservative at all but rather truly liberal, in the classical sense of the word.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

London Calling?

The big news last weekend for fans of Irish football (not to be confused with American or Canadian or even Australian football or, for that matter, soccer) was that on Sunday Monaghan beat Donegal for the Ulster provincial championship.

Less surprisingly, on the same day Mayo clinched the Connacht championship by defeating London. London? Yes, that London. The capital of Great Britain.

So how did London wind up in the playoffs for an Irish province that encompasses the western portion of the Emerald Isle? I haven’t a clue. It’s all too complicated for me. Everything about Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) sports confuses me. For example, when you look at the final score of a match, you need a calculator to figure out who won. Case in point: Mayo vanquished London by a score of 5-11 to 0-10. Good luck working out the point spread there. (For the record, the numbers before the hyphens denote goals, which are each worth three points, so Mayo had an effective 16-point margin over the team referred to by sports writers here as the Exiles.)

In actual fact, it is not strange that there is a GAA football club in London. There are GAA clubs wherever there are significant numbers of Irish lads physically capable of kicking or tossing a ball, which is to say, all over the world. When my brother-in-law lived in California, he played for a GAA club called St. Joseph’s, after its home city of San Jose.

I’m not going to pretend to be a sports fan, but there was one aspect of the Mayo-London match that intrigued me. Once it became clear that Mayo’s championship opponent would not be Galway or Roscommon or some other county that is actually geographically located in Connacht but, rather, London, a kind of groundswell began agitating to get the mayor of London to attend the match in Mayo’s largest town, Castlebar. There was an online campaign, and Castlebar’s mayor set to work organizing a formal invitation to him via GAA bigwigs. #GetBorisToCastlebar began tending on Twitter. In the end, though, the London mayor issued a statement of support for the London GAA team but said that he would be unable to attend the match.

Why would Mayo football fans care whether the mayor of London traveled for a match in Castlebar? As with so many things, I have no clue. As far as I know, the London mayor doesn’t have any particular personal Irish connection. But he does seem to be popular in Britain. Still, it’s not really common for an English politician to be popular in Ireland—especially one who is a member of the Conservative Party.

But Johnson is not your typical Tory. Last month there was an interesting article about him and how his politics resonate with the generation currently coming of age in Britain in The Economist. The headline was “Politics and the young: Generation Boris.”

For me, the most interesting thing about the article was how it illustrated how totally useless political labels have become. As profiled by the long-running British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, the young British generation is extremely liberal, but not exactly in the contemporary sense of the word. Instead, the young seem to have instinctively embraced the original meaning of liberalism. In other words, they have “tolerance for social and cultural difference” and “are more relaxed than others about drugs, sex, alcohol, euthanasia and non-traditional family structures.”

But the article continues, “Young Britons are classical liberals [my emphasis]: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.” A pollster named Ben Page is quoted as saying, “Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last.”

The writer concludes by describing how he spoke to young people of varying backgrounds, regions and levels of political engagement and asked if there were any politicians that appealed to them. “The reaction was strikingly uniform,” he writes, “silence, then contemplation, then a one-word answer—‘Boris’—before a flood of agreement: ‘Oh yeah, I’d vote for Boris Johnson.’ The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain’s libertarian youth in the bag. The 2020 election beckons.”

Forecasting how any group of 18 and 19-year-olds will vote seven years hence—no matter how many surveys and interviews have been conducted—is a dicey business. And Boris’s (people tend to want to refer to him by his first name) popularity seems to have as much to do with his personality as his politics. I won’t be running down to Paddy Power to lay down any money on the 2020 UK elections just yet.

What is much more interesting to me is the idea that there may be a generation coming up that actually gets back to the original spirit of liberalism, which was always about restricting government power and upholding personal liberty. How did we get to the point where a “liberal” is understood to be someone who wants high taxes and more government involvement in your life?