My friend Henry McLeish, who’s very knowledgeable about American politics, recommended a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a fascinating account by the author Thomas Franks, explaining the political sea change that’s swept across America.
Now seen as red-neck country and a Trump heartland, I’d forgotten that Kansas had radical roots. It was formed, after all, by northern abolitionists, eager to block the westward march of slavery. Inspiring the likes of John Brown, they were prepared to fight for their cause long before the Civil War erupted.
In later generations, as poverty became the issue, the mantle passed to political radicals in the Farmer Labor cause before and during the dustbowl and the depression. A county in Kansas even voted for Eugene Debs, the great American socialist, in the presidential election of 1912. The only other three that he won were also in the Mid-West, which’s hard to imagine now in an area that’s deepest red – American political colours being the inverse of our own, red for Republican and blue for Democrat.
Despite the obvious failings of the Trump administration, the state is a banker to vote for him in the election later this year. It’s never been a wealthy state, and it certainly isn’t now. Firstly, small farmers and then industrial workers have been put to the sword, replaced by a low-wage economy and welfare. Corporate tax cuts have been matched by cuts to public services, the rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind.
Yet, it’s lapped up by many and most especially in former blue-collar areas where generations ago the cause of Labor was supported. As Franks so vividly writes it’s “like a French Revolution in reverse – one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy”.
Christians voting for Caesar
So how did it come to pass? Well there’s not one simple answer but it’s as much down to Democrat failures as Republican actions. The supposed glory days of Bill Clinton accelerated many of the underlying economic problems. Rather than seeking to support the workers, the Democrats sought to “triangulate” – as was the buzzword – stealing the centre-ground but also marginalising their former core support.
A failure to give political hope saw many seek solace elsewhere. As orthodox class politics disappeared, it was replaced in many poorer areas by cultural issues of abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage. As again Franks poignantly details, the followers of Christ have ended up voting for Caesar, as representatives of the self-proclaimed moral majority, in order to deliver a corporate rather than a Christian dream.
It wasn’t simply whipped up by Christian zealots or Fox News but was added to by the Democrats’ behaviour. Not only did they appear alien in their views, but they were condescending in manner, or so it appeared to those by now dispossessed. Joe Biden isn’t going to turn them, and it’ll be a long way back for the radical cause in the Mid-West.
Bedrock of the Yes vote
Neither American society nor American politics are directly transferable across the Atlantic but there are some similarities. The New Labour years weren’t golden for many who were forgotten. Class politics was abandoned and replaced by a British equivalent, albeit more nihilistic than moral. The Brexit vote in Sunderland, with the self-inflicted harm of Nissan’s likely departure, was a cri de coeur from the left-behinds.
Then the collapse of the Red Wall in the December general election, by people and in areas who’ve suffered most through inequality. Places where once Tories feared to tread instead viewed Labour as the alien beast failing to speak for them and condescending in their attitude towards them. It wasn’t just Brexit but on a swathe of issues where Labour seemed out of kilter, almost a metropolitan elite out of touch with former working people.
So far, this has passed Scotland by as the constitution remains the central issue. But remembering your core vote remains essential. Opinion polls are staggering for the SNP now but once the same applied both to the Clinton Democratic machine and New Labour hegemony. But as the economy falters post-Covid-19, the areas that were the bedrock of the Yes vote will be worst affected.
Supporting them must be a priority. It’s difficult within current powers which is why downplaying a second referendum’s foolish. It was about “hope” in 2014 and it’ll remain so now, a belief that a better world can come must be fundamental. Which is why indyref2 matters.
But it’s also about respect and understanding. An agenda that seems dominated by gender and sexual identity is an anathema to many, socially conservative with a small “c” but nationalist with a capital “N”. Ramming that down their throats is as damaging as ignoring their financial plight. The crude lesson from Kansas is don’t crap on your own support.
Kenny MacAskill is SNP MP for East Lothian
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