Frank Discussion


It is interesting to see how centrist Democratic types (who ought to be heading to the hills in the wake of yet another centrist disgrace) are spinning the disturbing capture of many white working-class/lower-middle-class votes by a party (the Republicans) that happens to be opposed to working-class economic interests and militantly aligned with concentrated hyper-wealth. What is that great American socio-electoral derangement all about?

“There are parts of the country,” the head of the “moderate’ Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Bruce Reed told the Wall Street Journal two days ago, “where our message isn’t getting through because concerns about moral issues and security are are keeping just enough people from voting their economic interests.” This quote appears in a November 4 page 1 WSJ article titled “Defeated Again, Democrats Are Pondering a Shift In Philosophy.” The article is sub-titled “Wanted: a Charismatic Leader to Capture Religious Vote and Retake the South”

The problem here is that Reed naturally ignores his party’s considerable DLC-inspired abandonment of the MORAL issue of economic justice, an abandonment that contributes significantly to the suppression of lower and workng-class voter turnout (higher voting rates by poor and working-class people would have led to a Kerry victory) and to Republicans’ success in capturing all too-many non-affluent votes, which are aligned with the long conservative-populist ‘backlash” against the supposed horrid moral/amoral excesses of metropolitan liberalism.

Near the end of his now oft-quoted book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), which is all about the white US lower middle/working class’s “self-destructive” alignment with the Republicans, Thomas Frank has a few things to say about how the liberal establishment (what the “mainstream” media likes to call a “left”) Lost the Heart of America. I quote at some length:

“Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia, and of good people led astray. I have spent much of this book enumerating the ways in which Kansas voters choose self-destructive policies, but it is just as clear to me that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failing are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional [working-class] constituency, and we can say that liberalism LOST places like Shawnee and Witchita with as much as accuracy as we can point out that conservatism WON them over.”

“This is due partially, I think to the Democratic Party’s more or less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McCauliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far out-weighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, ‘New Democrats’ think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, dergulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as ‘class warfare’ and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for working-class voters who were until recently the party’s very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worhipiing country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where’s the soft money in that” (Frank, WTHMWK, pp. 242-243).

That’s rather different than Reed’s formulation. For DLC cretin Reed, workers are being diverted from their real economic interests by smart Republicans who know how to press the “moral issue” and “security” buttons well enough to get folks to vote against their own pocketbooks. For the more social-democratic Frank, the economically conservative DLC has collaborated with the Bushcons in taking economic issues —- if I were writing Frank’s paragraph would have said “the people’s economic issues” —- “off the table,” thereby encouraging lower-class resentment (which abhors a vaccum) to flow into reactionary channels. The Democrats may be “marginally better” on the people’s economic issues, but that’s not saying much and there’s little aggressive Democratic effort to put those issues — which I consider to be issues of MORAL ECONOMY, for what that’s worth — at the top of the “liberal” agenda.

I think that great Democratic failure is a relevant part of what happened on Tuesday. People might be voting against their pocketbook interests when they ‘choose’ Republicans, but it’s not like the Democrats are all that clearly aligned with non-affluent peoples’ moral economy issues or making much of a point of that mild alignment!

The day after the election (as the results were still unclear), the creepy centrist New york Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seemed to build off a recent ZNet column of mine by noting that many working-class voters would be gong Republican and that Thomas Frank’s book explains part of the reason. His column was titled “Living Poor, Voting Rich.” Interestingly and predictably enough, it shared Reed’s inabilty to grasp the role of the liberals in essentially abandoning working and poor people in the United States. Kristof’s recommendation for how the Democrtaic Party can “reconnect with the heartland,” partly based on his reading of Frank, is to be less culturally yuppie-like and speak more in terms of religious and faith-based values. Maye Kristof didn’t quite get to the parts where Frank is suggesting that the Democratic Party ought to shed its knee-jerk neoliberal yuppie economics and recapture working-class votes by bringing an egalitarian moral direction to their economic agenda.

I don’t think the party will ever do that, by the way, which is why I’m relieved by the horrible outcomes Tuesday in one key sense: I don’t have to dance with centrist liberals anymore.

Now to the less impressive side of Frank’s book. Frank misses some really critical things in the big picture of how and why so many poor, working-class, and lower-middle class whites (yes whites, by the way) vote Republican these days. Race, well racism, and the pseudo-compensatory “psychological wage” it grants to disadvantaged whites (see W.E.B. Dubois and David R. Roediger) is a much bigger part of the equation than Frank wants to admit.

And then there’s this little matter —- totally missing in Frank’s book, published three years after Nine-Eleven —- of what Reed calls “security.” More than thirty years ago, in a passage discussing the US Cold War policy elite’s use of the supposedly great Soviet threat to justify massive imperialist bloodshed in Southeast Asia, Noam Chomsky noted that the US government “does not really hope to convince anyone by its arguments, but only to sow confusion, relying on the natural tendency to trust authority and avoid complicated and disturbing issues. The confused citizen turns to other purstuis, and gradually, as government lies are reiterated day after day, falsehood becomes truth.” The citizenry is “whipped into line by fear that we will be overwhelmed by an external enemy if we let down our guard.” (For Reasons of State, p.53).

We can’t have a serious discussion of what happened on Tuesday without talking about the classically Owellian uses of fear to whip people into line, encouraging them to give into their authoritarian tendencies and cower under the umbrella of the incumbent officials of the natonal [in-]security state.

Along the way we might also like to think about combining DuBois and Chomsky to ponder the racially loaded psychological wage that imperialist butt-kicking grants to much of the populace, a fair part of which relies (at the lower socioeconomic levels) on military employment, and to the role that imperialism plays in simultaneously deepening homeland inequity and alleviating the feelings of insecurity (which carry a considerable displaced economic dimension) that the masters are so “smart” (I just think unprincipled) in cultivating.

Here is a quote from James Madison that continues to hold shocking relevance for the American domestic political scene in the early 21st century: “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad” (1799).

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004 [www.paradigmpublishers.com]). >

Leave a comment