JOHN EDWARDS & JACKSONIAN AMERICA
by Virginia Postrel • Jul 6, 2004 at 2:02 pm
John Edwards won't carry the South, or even North Carolina, for John Kerry, but he may cost the Republicans some votes, as they misunderestimate him--and wildly overestimate the unpopularity of his profession. "Jacksonian America," a.k.a. Bush's base, loves trial lawyers. Nick Lemann made this smart observation in a 2000 New Yorker profile of Edwards:
It's no accident that the heartland of trial-lawyer influence, and also of powerful opposition to trial lawyers, is the South. A hundred years ago, the South was a poor, defeated, overwhelmingly rural and agricultural region. During the Great Depression, its poverty became truly desperate. What proved to be its economic salvation was building electric power grids and recruiting low-wage, high-power-consuming, labor-intensive industries from the North, notably textile mills. All over the upper South, families left played-out farms and moved to company-owned mill villages of the kind where John Edwards grew up. And many of their children went to college and wound up living in brand-new subdivisions, as Edwards did.
In most places, liberal politics rests on labor unions--but not in the South, because it is a region where unions are weak, and where industries came, in part, to avoid unions. Non-economic liberalism, based on causes like environmentalism, legal abortion, and gun control, doesn't work in the South, either, because it is such a socially conservative region. The South does, however, still have a deeply ingrained underdog consciousness, and one place where that manifests itself is in the personal-injury courtroom. Throughout much of the South, trial lawyers are, in effect, the left: an influential group that, instead of converting populist sentiment into redistributionist legislation, converts it into big rewards for a small number of people who have stories of having been screwed by powerful, uncaring figures. Big jury verdicts in tort cases are what the South has instead of unions. It does not seem at all far-fetched to imagine that this version of liberalism could someday reach a national audience. The country is moving more and more toward a courtroom-style politics of anecdote.
On television, traditional evening-news broadcasts have lost viewers, and "news-magazine" shows often have the feeling of news as tort law, featuring narratives of individuals fighting back against doctors and corporations. Tort-law movies like "Erin Brockovich" and "A Civil Action" are a popular new genre. The airwaves are full of conservative populists railing against the liberal elite, and their force is much more a function of how dramatic their stories and their rhetoric are than of their actual circumstances. (Bill O'Reilly is no less effective as a populist for being rich than John Edwards is.) A climactic moment in every State of the Union Message is the introduction of the heroic "real people" sitting in the gallery next to the First Lady.
Presidential campaigns are always presented as being about the larger-than-lifeness of the candidate, but they embody something going on in the society, too. Edwards is a political novice who aims at communicating to people one wouldn't ordinarily think of as populists--middle-class and lower-middle-class suburbanites--that he completely gets it ("it" being the way the big guys are messing with their lives), and that he's going to do something about it. As a candidate, he is placing a bet that there's much more aggrievement around in the lone superpower than most people think. No matter how his candidacy turns out, he may well be betting right.
On National Review Online, my old friend John Hood, who knows everything about North Carolina politics, warns the GOP that Edwards could in fact hurt the party in the South.