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Monday, February 12, 2007


Edwards as urban populist?

posted by Aziz P. at Monday, February 12, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
Nonpartisan argues that Edwards' rhetoric about the poor reveals him to be more of an urban populist than a rural one. I certainly agree that there is a difference between the types of populists that NP presents for comparison, but the evidence for categorizing Edwards seems to be thin; based largely on speeches and implications of campaign rhetoric, and allusions to former populists like FDR. NP cross-posted the piece at a number of venues but I link to the myDD version because the basic thesis comes under considerable scrutiny in the discussion thread. I have a number of observations on the essay below the fold:  

One comment I have is that FDR, presiding over the Depression, was probably both types of poopulists because poverty transcended so many boundaries. The poverty of the inner city and the poverty of rural America are very different in scope today - after all, no matter how poor you are you can get emergency care in an urban environment, to name but one example. In FDR's time however the urban poor resembled the rural poor far more. I don't think that the distinction makes as much sense.

Still, urban poverty is a porblem that deserves scrutiny. I don't think it would be a betrayal of any kind for Edwards to attempt to address the concerns of the urban poor, because it's not zero-sum with the rural poor. However, we have to acknowledge that the urban poor will benefit more directly from general improvements in our economy, by education, etc. whereas the rural poor are more insulated from the impacts of these kinds of "raise the tide" approaches. In a nutshell, urban poverty is a more transient phenomenon and you can escape it more readily, because of proximity to the resources that slosh around the system in far more concentrated form in teh urban areas. The rural areas, in contrast, are resource deserts.

But all that aside, Edwards' own record seems to be pretty persuasively rural in its focus. Elizabeth Edwards herself responds to NP's piece, with a pretty moving characterization:

The problem with analyzing rhetoric -- and remember, when I was in English graduate school, that is what I expected to spend a lifetime doing -- is that it is rhetoric.

Instead of analyzing the language of emails or snippets from selected speeches, it might be useful to think about the man himself, his career, his 2004 primary policies, his activities since 2004, and his 2008 policies.

He comes from the rural South. I remember the first time I went to Robbins. Actually it was with a boyfriend I had before I ever met John. (Improbably, his name is John Kennedy.) We parked in front of a small old theatre named, of course, the Dixie Theatre. There were two by fours across the door and a faded sign that said "Closed." Years later, John told me that the theatre closed after someone threw a soda bottle through the screen and the theatre didn't make enough profit to buy a new one, so they closed. The mobile home plant where he had his first job - closed. The chicken processing plant that was the largest employer - closed. The textile mill in which John's father worked - closed. As tobacco has struggled, so have the farms in the whole state. It is impossible, iterally impossible for a thinking person not to have these circumstances inform your adult beliefs. And they informed John. His career before work was representing, for the most part, families in the worst times of their lives -- often fighting for care and nedical treatment for their children. Where were they? Oh, some were in Charlotte -- maybe a couple over 20 years --, but most were in small towns with aging hospitals an hour's drive away or starving for doctors. A choice of doctors was almost unheard of. The most up to date equipment out of the question. And he was informed again about the hardships faced in rural America. In 2004, during the primaries, John was the ONLY candidate with a rural agenda. A fleshed out, thoughtful agenda. He had an urban poverty agenda too -- it was called Cities Rising, if memory serves me. And then he spent two years working on poverty issues, some of it under the auspices of the new Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC. What he found is that poverty and hardship don't have a single home address -- rural or urban. There is no single solution to the obstacles to success and security, although some of the solutions we know work cross these demographic boundaries. Life and life's problem, it turns out, do not care much about rhetoric.
And as for distinctions made above, I think I (as opposed to John, whose opinion on this I do not know) disagree with the way you have framed it, which may be a reflection of the time in which the rhetorical examples are drawn -- the 1890's and 1930's. The rhetoric (if backed by action) that rural America wants in 2007 is complex - a combination of what you suggest, an intervening government, and what you don't suggest, a less invasive government. And the urban example you gave is less "urban" than it is personal. You could say those words or words like them -- and I suspect John has -- anywhere in this country.
And I need to say how strongly I disagree with one of the quotations that is used to explain the divide. John does not agree, I do not agree that not all work is honorable. All work is honorable. (How we treat some workers or permit them to be treated is not always honorable.) And work by those who can work is a responsibility that each of has in a society where we depend on those who can to be in a position to help those who can't. Will you find academicians who suggest that there should not be a personal responsibility piece in the answer to poverty? Yes, of course you will, but you will not be able to say that that means they are more concerned with urban poverty versus rural poverty.
And finally, John will, again, have a rural agenda - not because he thinks that wins elections (inside campaigns some feel there are not enough votes there) but because that is what is inside him. The forgotten America. There is no danger, none whatsoever, of his forgetting it. It would be like forgetting his own name.

Elizabeth Edwards

I'd say that we don't have to worry about Edwards forgetting the rural poor. But neither should we be alarmed if he does make noise in the direction of the urban poor, either - there's plenty of uplift needed in both locales.

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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.