Is Jim Webb Running for President ... of the Confederacy?
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb has always been an outspoken advocate of what he views as the forgotten southern white population. In the video announcing his exploratory committee last month, he pointed to Appalachian poverty, noting that some of the poorest counties in America are 90 percent white and located in the South.
Webb makes some valid points. The South receives very little national media attention, and when it does, the focus is often on the lingering aspects of racism rather than the severe class inequities that impact people of all races. Much of the country's image of the South is still the bumbling racist white man from the 1950s. Yet today's South is an economically unequal region, though not much more racially integrated.
But though Webb seems to want to stand up for the poor and disadvantaged in the rural South, he is doing so by engaging in the very same culture war rhetoric that divided the country to begin with.
First, he urged the country to slow down on its efforts to remove the Confederate flag, writing on Facebook:
"This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War. This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect."
Just weeks later, the South Carolina legislature, dominated by white conservative Republican lawmakers, voted to remove the flag. Neighboring Georgia did it more than a decade ago, with 73% of Georgians voting in favor of doing so.
There is little support for flying the Confederate flag in the South today, and almost everyone who wants to isn't even in the political party Webb is courting. Webb's words would have made a lot more sense in 1985.
Webb doubled down recently, even comparing antipathy toward Southern whites to the remarks by GOP candidate Donald Trump defaming immigrants as murderers and rapists.
Then Webb's quest for a constituency that doesn't exist got worse. When Webb appeared on Fox News Sunday, the host asked him, in a “party that seems to thrill to Bernie Sanders and maybe long for Elizabeth Warren, who are the Jim Webb Democrats?”
Webb responded by trashing Warren and Sanders, saying, “I believe we can bring a different tone to the Democratic Party. You're right. The party has moved way far to the left, and that's not my Democratic Party.”
This is a curious claim, as Warren and Sanders are not known for South-bashing or cultural liberalism. Both are increasingly popular with the white working class; this past weekend over 300 people gathered in Alabama to support Sanders, while similar numbers or more came together in Kentucky. Sanders is expecting 5,000 people to greet him in Phoenix. Sanders did a tour of the South in 2013, and has promised to focus on Dixie in this election. He explained on Face the Nation this weekend:
"I am going to be going around the country, not only to blue states, John, but to red states, conservative states; we're going to go to Alabama, we're going to go to Mississippi. We're going to go to conservative states. We're going to talk about poverty in this country, the fact that we have 45 million people living in poverty and highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country."
If anything, the razor-like focus on economic justice and the avoidance of cultural issues by figures like Warren and Sanders has earned them criticism from those who say they should do more to appeal to racial minorities and smaller identity groups concerned about social issues. Sanders in particular has been getting into squabbles with gun control activists over his more moderate views on guns.
Which raises the question, what is Webb doing to differentiate himself from Sanders' paycheck-focused campaign and Warren's thundering against Wall Street? One of this season's major issues that cut across party lines and angered much of the country's white working-class base was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the wide-ranging agreement with several countries that threatens to undermine worker rights and expand corporate monopolies.
Webb's only commentary on the agreement has been the need for “transparency,” he never even challenged the basic substance of its terms that we can identify. Although Webb's website has much of the same boilerplate economic justice arguments you will find from any Democrat, he has proposed no specific policies to eliminate the endemic poverty in regions he aligns himself with, like Appalachia.
He might even make it worse. He argues for lowering the corporate tax rate and even shifting away from the progressive income tax toward a “consumption tax”— taxing goods people buy. It's a well-known economic fact that this sort of taxation slams the poor and workers the most. He even boasts, “We did not even have a federal income tax in this country until 1913.”
Jim Webb's stated theory that a singular focus on social issues and demonization of Southern whites is unhelpful is solid. But he is not offering an alternative by staying mum on some of the nation's top economic justice concerns while advocating policy that would hurt the Southern poor (of all races).
It's almost as if Webb isn't so much crafting an electoral strategy that could bring the South back to the Democratic Party (Sanders and Warren, ironically, are more likely to excite Appalachia) so much as pursuing a personal cause: rehabilitating the image of the Old South, which was a much more bigoted, racist and violent place. He's campaigning for Southern whites who existed decades ago, not the ones today, who are attending the rallies of his opponents, ready to move the region forward, not defend the noxious actions of its past.