Why Nixon Didn’t go to Russia

Having run just last year on a strict no-tax-increase platform, Alabama’s Republican governor tried a “Nixon goes to China”: he proposed a reform of the state’s horrible tax system to make it more progressive, close the budget deficit, and fund a school system that Lower Slobovia wouldn’t be ashamed of.

Yesterday, he got creamed; the voters rejected the proposal by 2 to 1. Various self-described libertarians were chortling in advance, and no doubt will be rejoicing today, that Alabama’s poor people will continue to pay more than their share of the burdens of government and that Alabama’s children will remain mired in Red-state ignorance. That’s what libertarianism too often turns out to mean: the assertion of the sacred right of the prosperous not to support programs that help the non-prosperous. I suppose comfortably-off people are as entitled to be selfish as any other political group; I just wish they wouldn’t wrap it up in all that horsehockey about “liberty.”

And it’s impossible to ignore the racial subtext here: part of the reason the poor white people of Alabama, who would materially have been winners from the plan, voted against it was their disinclination to have the state do anything for Alabama’s poor blacks. They’re willing to remain poor and ignorant if that’s what it takes to keep blacks even poorer and more ignorant. (A quarrel between the black leadership and the governor, plus what is by now the usual round of deceptive ads paid for by conservatives purporting to warn blacks of evil white plots against them, cost the program black votes as well.)

There’s a broader lesson to be drawn: A party or factional leader can lead his troops to compromise on side-issues, but not on the basics. Nixon could go to China as a strategic move in the Cold War; he couldn’t “go to Russia” in the same way, because anti-Communism was what his core really believed in. Clinton could support welfare reform, but not any rollback of the civil rights laws or reproductive choice. Anti-tax theology is so deep among Republican voters and party organizers that a Republican can’t compromise on it.

That matters to Californians thinking about how to vote next month. As pointed out before in this space [*], Schwarzenegger’s budget numbers don’t add: if he keeps his promises, the state will go bankrupt. So the only reasonable hope for Schwarzenegger voters was that Schwarzenegger would break his promises, and that his status as a newly-elected Republican governor would secure the necessary votes to get a tax-increase package through the legislature.

The Alabama instance shows how tough that would be. In particular, Governor Schwarzenegger would have to deal with Senator Tom McClintock, who is a genuine, clinically-diagnosable taxophobe.

So voting for a candidate who advocates insolvency in the hope of getting solvency instead on the Chinese Visit Principle is very unlikely to work. And since no Republican is allowed to advocate solvency, those who regard welsching on one’s debts as dishonorable have no choice but to vote against the recall, for Bustamante, or both.

No, I don’t like it either. But that’s life in the big city.

Update Several readers disagree with the analysis of the Alabama disaster above — in particular with its emphasis on the role of race — and they have some good points. Still, while acknowledging the complexities, I want to hang on to my basic theme.

It is certainly true that the anti-tax side’s explicit appeal was to Alabamians’ distrust in government rather than to their racial prejudices. But let’s not forget that the anti-government hatred — no less charged word will do — that characterizes Southern politics today is largely the produce of the role of governments, especially but not exclusively at the federal level, in overturning Jim Crow.

Poor blacks, as well as poor whites, distrust Alabama state government. No surprise there: that government treats them better than it did in the past, but not as well as it ought to treat them or as well as it treats whites, and it is dominated by people who win political power by promising, tacitly if not explicitly, not to use it in ways excessively favorable to black interests. (The technical term for that position in Southern politics is now, as it was in Jim Crow days, “conservative,” while the opposite stance is called “liberal.”)

In this case, that distrust was exacerbated by the quarrel over re-enfranchisement between some black legislators and the governor, and exploited by ads run on black-oriented radio stations featuring voices with recognizably black speech patterns warning that “they” wanted to raise “our” property taxes “up to 400 percent.” [*]

It is regrettable, but not really surprising, that such appeals worked, just as it is regrettable, but not really surprising, that poor whites were willing to vote against their clear material interests. A political scientist friend points out that badly-performing government is a social trap: voter disgust with poor performance helps prevent the addition of resources that might enable better performance.

It’s also true that higher-income voters were less unfavorable to the proposition than lower-income voters, which at first blush seems a bad fit with the rather populist account I gave of the rich bamboozling the poor. But “higher-income,” dear reader, means people like you and me, not the owners of the banks and the timber companies. If we had voting figures for the upper tenth of one percent of the Alabamian income distribution, and the mangers of Alabama’s large companies, no doubt they would look very different.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com