We can argue all day about the merits of affirmative action, but one thing I don't think we can argue about is the political effectiveness of it. Basically while being a major issue of public debate for some time now, affirmative action policies have never been particularly popular with the American electorate. In fact whenever it's been forced to prove it's merits outside of the stuffy confines of academy or the liberal blogosphere and inside the political arena, it has had a tendency to go down in flames. And to make matters worse for affirmative action advocates, the Robert Court has been sending strong signals for quite some time that race based admissions policies to colleges days are numbered. I'm not saying that affirmative action policies in higher education are inherently unjust or should be ended, I'm just saying that they don't appear to be particularly politically sustainable.
I've been getting some push back on social media for blogging too much about many of the mistakes we progressives make. And while I am sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings I think these types of conversations are really important to us. In fact, I'd say that the whole affirmative action debate gets to the heart of one of the bigger problems that we progressives have been facing for quite some time now: how do we sell our ideology to the American people? There's one thread of thought that seems to think that if we have enough conversations about things like "privilege" or the legacy of racism in American social policy, the American electorate will come around and see how right we have been all along. It's not that far conceptually with the argument that if President Obama goes on national television and lectures us long enough about the wisdom of Keynesian Economics, the American public will come around and see the wisdom of deficit spending in an economic downturn. The problem I have with these types of arguments is that they strike me as being wildly unrealistic about the people who actually live in our society. Basically the public doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to economic theory and tends to associate the word "deficit" with the concept of "bad stuff" as thus oppose things like "deficit spending." Likewise the American electorate by and large might agree that racism is bad and we should find ways to help people who've been the victim of it. But few people are going to accept the idea that their child in particular should have to go to Oakland County Community College instead of the University of Michigan because as Bouie puts it, "The redlining and forced housing segregation of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are one reason African Americans are disproportionately concentrated in poor urban areas." Bouie is of course right, but in my experience housing segregation in the 1930's doesn't weight that heavily on that many voters' minds.
Back in 2005 Matt Yglesias wrote a great piece about the danger of Naomi Klein style anti-matieralizism in liberal politics. As he saw it:
Anti-materialism on the left tends to reflect, I think, a kind of moral vanity. Many of us, especially during an era when we haven't been very good at winning elections, like to think that not only are our adversaries mistaken about what the best policies would be but also that we're morally better than they are. On this view, liberalism is a kind of charity venture undertaken by kindhearted people, while our opponents on the right are greedy. To win, we need to make more people kindhearted and charitably inclined, hence the need to combat materialism.This is part of a bigger post about what progressives should focus on after their disappointing loss in 2004, and I think it is one of the best critiques of the self-defeating tendencies of progressivism that I've ever read. I also think it applies quite well to problems with selling affirmative action. You can see Lee Atwater's infamous "Hands" and Willie Horton themed campaign ads from the 80's as offensive race baiting trash (and they were offensive race baiting trash) but they were also devastatingly effective. They link some of the most powerful negative emotions we can experience in our ordinary lives, the frustration with not getting the job that you need, the fear of being the victim of brutal violence, with a politician you can vote against. That's why they worked so well, it's hard to remember now but it the spring of 1988 Michael Dukakis really was beating George H. W. Bush by double digits in most polls. It would be nice if we lived in a world where people ignored or were offended by things like "Hands," but we don't. What we need is not an attempt to radically change the nature of American society, but our own devastatingly effective ads. And promoting unpopular policies just won't cut it.
One problem here is that it's not going to work. People are not averse to doing one another a good turn now and again, but fundamentally we're an acquisitive, status-conscious species. Given the option between more stuff and less, people are going to want more. And with reason: Stuff is great! More fundamentally, liberalism-as-charity is self-defeating. If you really could persuade most people to put their greedy instincts aside and sacrifice for the sake of others, there would be no need for liberal policies that deliver the groceries. When you think about it, the project of trying to transform Americans into a self-sacrificing, charity-oriented race is fundamentally a conservative one, especially in its "compassionate" form. This view holds that we don't really need government action to tackle public problems. Instead, moral leaders will simply exhort citizens to volunteer time and donate to charity as a way of making a better country and taking care of the poor. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't work. People give and people volunteer, but not on the scale necessary to do more than rub off some of the rough edges of serious problems. This is because people like stuff, and they like freedom; they want more, not less, of the stuff they've worked hard to acquire. Our economy is based on this principle, and our politics need to be, too.
I'm not saying that we should do away with affirmative action. As I see it, the affirmative action policies we do have have proven to be woefully inadequate at tackling entrenched social pathologies like inter-generational poverty and racism. But that doesn't mean we should double down on policies that have never been very popular with American electorate. I'd argue that we should do things like create more effective charter schools that send minority kids from impoverished backgrounds to college or adopt central banking policies that seriously attempt to reach full employment or increase the size of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The bad news is this list could go on for pages. But the good news is that things like good schools, more jobs and more money are super popular, and that's why we should sell those ideas.
Long ago a very smart man pointed out that trying to redivide our economic pie in a "fairer" way to make up for the fact that in the past some folks only got crumbs would never be a viable political option for us liberals. His name was Hubert Humphrey and Rick Perlstein summed up his argument as:
And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”He was right then, and he's right now.