Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dustbowl Politics

I just caught the second part of Ken Burn's superb "The Dustbowl" about a seldom-covered but shocking chapter of American history (Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", which was by no means a complete account, was such an all-encompassing blockbuster that media for decades has hesitated to retread that period).

The parallels to current issues like climate change, short-sighted greed, and the role of the federal government in fiscal stimulus and in calamity relief are quite clear. But I was even more fascinated by the conservative side, which wasn't covered directly. The program filled in a few pieces for me.

I've long understand how the South turned Republican. Nixon's Southern strategy was cemented by the unholy coalition between evangelicals and billionaires. What I've been less clear on is why so many western ranchers, so flagrantly enjoying the federal dole, have a hypocritical Libertarian streak. And I haven't at all understood what made Orange County, California so staunchly conservative. Neither question was directly answered in the program, but one can connect the dots.

First, Orange County. When thousands of "Oakies", starving and desperate, fled the Dust Bowl for fertile central California, it triggered, naturally, a backlash against the flood of paupers by locals fearing overburdened social services, grimy human blight, and just the whole overall bummer of all these poor people who don't "share our values". Ok, that certainly accounts for the firm foundation of conservatism in the most emigrated-to part of the state.

(Their ungraciousness seems utterly heartless, considering what those folks had gone through, but I can remember back in the 1960s and 1970s how twangy-talking people wearing overalls crammed into overloaded trucks were cliched images of derision. Whether they were "hillbillies" (impoverished Appalachians) or "Oakies" (impoverished Dustbowlers), I myself laughed at parodies of these shabby hayseeds and it's only at this late date of 2012 that I really see who those people were and what they went through. So I myself am capable of the same ungraciousness.)

Back in the Plains States, post-Dustbowl, the government, trying to keep too much soil from being worked (over-development had caused the dust/erosion problem in the first place), began paying farmers and ranchers not to grow things. And the speculators who'd greedily torn up their soil with unsustainable plowing (causing the catastrophe); and who'd bailed out during the dust bowl years, making them much more severe (small farmers who'd stuck around practiced new techniques of soil conservation during the crisis, but the abandoned farms' soil kept blowing over and burying their own fields), ran back as soon as the drought abated. They accepted the federal dole, and started growing lots of water-intensive hog feed, draining the Ogallala Aquifer below the region, which will spur a new dust bowl (this time with no drinking water) in a couple of decades. And those short-sighted, predatory, hypocritical dole-taking assholes are, unsurprisingly, Libertarians (or, I should say, cynical Libertarian poseurs...I do understand what true Libertarianism theoretically is).

Of course, the full story is surely complicated. For one thing, it's hard to grok why the descendents of suffering Dustbowlers saved by the New Deal went nearly entirely Republican - with an innate preference for Hoover-ish budget austerity during massive unemployment. Though if there's one lesson to be learned from all this, it's that we have extremely short I shouldn't be surprised.

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