That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than thirty years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is a less comfortable fact, one we have trouble talking about in a straightforward manner.
And yet the backlash is there, whenever we care to look, from the “hardhats” of the 1960s to the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s to today’s mad-as-hell “red states.” You can see the paradox first-hand on nearly any
I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my home state of
Democrats shed the language of class warfare
Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia, and of good people led astray? Though
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 McAuliffe, 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 outweighing 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, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as “class warfare” and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party’s very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where’s the soft money in that?
This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the “New Politics” days of the early seventies. Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes, but, as political writer E. J. Dionne has pointed out, the larger result was that both parties have become “vehicles for upper-middle-class interests” and the old class-based language of the left quickly disappeared from the universe of the respectable. The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters — their traditional base — the big brush-off, ousting their representatives from positions within the party and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer, to the dustbin of history. A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would be difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting.
Curiously enough, though, Democrats of the DLC variety aren’t worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.
Such Democrats look at a situation like present-day
While I enjoy watching Republicans fight one another as much as the next guy, I don’t think the
Movement building on the right
The true lesson for liberals in the
The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school-prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the sneers of
Democratic political strategy simply assumes that people know where their economic interest lies and that they will act on it by instinct. There is no need for any business-bumming class-war rhetoric on the part of candidates or party spokesmen, and there is certainly no need for a liberal to actually get his hands dirty fraternizing with the disgruntled. Let them look at the record and see for themselves: Democrats are slightly more generous with Social Security benefits, slightly stricter on environmental regulations, and do less union-busting than Republicans.
The gigantic error in all this is that people don’t spontaneously understand their situation in the great sweep of things. Liberalism isn’t a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance as subject to setbacks and defeats as any other. Consider our social welfare apparatus, the system of taxes, regulations, and social insurance that is under sustained attack these days. Social Security, the FDA, and all the rest of it didn’t just spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; they were the result of decades of movement-building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating, and thankless organizing. More than forty years passed between the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s and the actual enactment of its reforms in the 1930s. In the meantime scores of the most rapacious species of robber baron went to their reward untaxed, unregulated, and unquestioned.
An even more telling demonstration of the importance of movements in framing people’s perspectives can be found in the voting practices of union members. Take your average white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on — when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union leaders. Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash. Here, values matter almost least of all, while the economy, health care, and education are of paramount concern. Union voters are, in other words, the reverse image of the Brown-back conservative who cares nothing for economics but torments himself night and day with vague fears about “cultural decline.”
Labor unions are on the wane today, as everyone knows, down to 9% of the private-sector workforce from a high-water mark of 38% in the 1950s. Their decline goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate its fealty to corporate
While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the vast and complex structure of conservative “movement culture,” a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart anymore. There are foundations like the one operated by the Kochs in
And this movement speaks to those at society’s bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all. Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue. And why shouldn’t they get to dream their lurid dreams of politics-as-manipulation? They’ve had it done to them enough in reality.
American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet. For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation. Or between the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into the red-state dust — which forces they praise in the most exalted terms.
In this onrushing parade of anti-knowledge my home state has proudly taken a place at the front. It is true that
Sociologists often warn against letting the nation’s distribution of wealth become too polarized, as it clearly has in the last few decades. Societies that turn their backs on equality, the professors insist, inevitably meet with a terrible comeuppance. But those sociologists were thinking of an old world in which class anger was a phenomenon of the left. They weren’t reckoning with
Behold the political alignment that
As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much farther, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed. All the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism. Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?
Thomas Frank was born and raised in the suburbs of
Adapted from the Book: What’s the Matter with
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]