If, as appears a better-than-even bet, Chris McDaniel defeats Thad Cochran in the MS GOP SEN runoff next Tuesday, we will rightly hear a lot about ideology trumping self-interest, as Republican voters in the nation’s poorest state repudiate a Republican Senator who has done everything he can within the boundaries of Republican orthodoxy to maintain a positive cash flow between Washngton and Jackson. Indeed, the New York Times seems to be preoccupied with the folly of this slaying of a golden goose, viz. Monday’s Parker/Martin piece attributing Chris McDaniel’s strength in high-growth DeSoto county to the presence of transplants who are unaware of what they owe to Thad Cochran, and today’s Richard Fausset meditation on the tendency of Mississippi conservatives to behave like Odysseus in the land of the sirens, lashing themselves to the mast of ideology lest they succumb to the lust for federal luchre.
There’s nothing new, of course, about Republicans being ambivalent towards federal spending that benefits them. Indeed, the default drive attitude among rank-and-file conservatives is to divide federal spending into “good” categories that are either deemed essential to constitutionally sanctioned federal functions (defense) or treated as “earned benefits” to which virtuous folk like themselves are truly entitled (Social Security and Medicare), and then “welfare” and “pork” benefiting those people along with nameless bureaucrats and “corporate cronies.”
But in a state as poor as Mississippi, those people are inevitably an essential part of the economy, and “pork” is central to many major development projects the invisible hand of markets would pass over. So conservatives really do struggle there. But Fausset’s impressionistic account of McDaniel’s voters suggests their anger at their neighbors’ access to federal benefits is overcoming the sense that Mississippi has special needs only federal dollars can address.
The result is a race that is raising a question at the heart of American politics, and especially the politics of the South: Do voters hate spending even when it is spending that comes home to them? On an instinctive level, for many Mississippi voters like Randy Harris, a retired auctioneer, the answer is yes.
“Everybody’s got their hand out like these damn people at the food stamp office,” Mr. Harris, 67, said between sips of coffee on Thursday at a local barbecue restaurant. “They’ve got to put an end to all of this spending.”
Others, like Jane Buehl Coln of Olive Branch, suspect that whatever benefits have come to Mississippi have come at a steep price.
“There’s no telling what kinds of liberal things he had to vote for to get those kinds of things for Mississippi — what kind of trading he had to do,” she said.
On Friday, Mike Thornton, 65, was browsing the wares at a hunting and fishing superstore called Sportsman’s Warehouse. Mr. Thornton, a land surveyor, said he could not really see what federal dollars had done for Mississippi, other than encourage lazy welfare recipients who were “working the system.”
The general theme is a sort of inversion of the Golden Rule: instead of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, hating one’s neighbor becomes a measure of dignity and self-righteousness. Better to pass up the indirect benefits of “pork” than to encourage “the welfare,” even if that makes sense for one’s own community.
This is a heavily race-inflected attitude that has always existed just beneath the surface in Mississippi, particularly during the New Deal, which offered relief for the grinding poverty of the state in exchange for allowing some of that largesse (though as little as possible) to be shared with African-Americans. So it’s no wonder “constitutional conservatism” with its treatment of the New Deal as the most grievous mistake in American history has struck a new chord there.
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