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Webb and Moynihan

I don’t know if choosing Jim Webb as veep could solve Obama’s working class white problem (or perhaps more accurately his “Appalachian” problem) but his nomination surely would give pundits some real meat to chew on. Webb may not quite be an intellectual in politics at the level of the late Daniel P. Moynihan, but he is miles beyond anyone in today’s Senate in terms of willingness to think sociologically and innovatively.

In this NPR [1] interview, Webb notes the similar problems of American blacks and poorer Scots-Irish whites, suggesting they have considerable political common interests. So far at least, the whites turning out in landslide numbers for Hillary Norma Rae Clinton haven’t cottoned on to this yet. Webb doesn’t specify what those interests are, though one obvious direction is the protection of working class manufacturing jobs, long the bedrock of social and economic stability for both communities.

He also makes a fascinating digression about affirmative action, pointing out how it was invented and passed as compensation for the particular African-American experience of slavery and racial discrimination, and then was transformed during the 1970’s into a bizarre anti-white stew in which all groups could benefit so long as they could claim some chromosomal difference from the people who founded and built this country.

Furthermore, (though Webb doesn’t get into this), the way it worked out in practice was that whites who didn’t benefit from legacies or have a cultural history of high intellectual achievement soon found themselves the one group regularly under-represented in elite institutions, the gateway to top positions in American society. Ron Unz pointed [2] this out years ago in the Wall Street Journal.

In his (co-authored with Nathan Glazer) classic “Beyond the Melting Pot”, Moynihan had argued that the black community could follow some of same strategies for upward mobility that the once wild Irish Catholic slums of New York had pursued in previous generations:–political power, patronage, cultural self-discipline. It hasn’t worked out quite that way, but Moynihan’s suggestion of commonality between two seemingly dissimilar groups was provocative and important. Kudos to Jim Webb for raising these kinds of questions again in a new context.