Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kansas Again

The New York Review of Books: What's the Matter with Liberals?

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.

Would Frank's prescription, putting the bread and butter issues on the table and going back to the old time religion work for Democrats? I wish it would because I'm a leftist Democrat with little sympathy for centrism, but I doubt it: working class conservatives may be prepared to trade off their economic interests for their agenda on "values"--or even for lip service to their agenda.

What is going on here? I can only speculate because it's exceedingly difficult to get straight answers with Culture Wars in full swing. I suspect that working class conservatives are motivated largely by fatalism, cynicism and fear.

Working class conservatives are fatalistic. They do not believe that anything can make them more secure. Unemployment, catastrophic illness and bankruptcy happen--nothing can change that. The best you can hope is that your family, neighbors and church will help you out if they do. Schemes to avert these natural and inevitable catastrophies, particularly government schemes, are ineffective, expensive and only make things worse.

Working class voters are cynical. They believe that their taxes are tribute to Big Men who line their own pockets and use the excess to provide patronage for bureaucrats, sycophantic lawyers and academics, and the urban underclass. They do not believe that they benefit from the money they pay in taxes and regard tax cuts as pure profit.

Most of all, working class Americans are scared of crime, violence and chaos. They're scared of foreign powers stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and terrorists out to do violence and destroy their way of life. They're scared of the urban underclass who, if not controlled by cops, prisons and tough treatment will rape, pillage and riot in the streets. They're scared of their own kids who if not disciplined and protected will turn the world into a simulacrum of the beach at Spring Break and destroy themselves with drink, drugs and promiscuity. They live in an island of calm and cleanliness surrounded by a sea of filth, violence and disorder: they want guns to defend themselves, cops and the military to keep the bad guys away and religion to keep everyone in line. Any softness or compromise or deviation from the Rules, can open the floodgates.

Maybe I'm off base on this. If so I'd like to know.

If however I'm right then Thomas Frank's solution is not likely to work and winning the working class back to the Democratic Party will be much more difficult. They will have to be persuaded that it is possible to provide people with economic security and the guarantee of a minimally decent life, that tax money provides goods and services that benefit them and that they don't have to support harsh treatment, military operations and religious puritanism to live decent, happy, safe lives.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

American Jihad

The New York Times > Washington > Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue

As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees...The telecast also signals an escalation of the campaign for the rule change by Christian conservatives who see the current court battle as the climax of a 30-year culture war, a chance to reverse decades of legal decisions about abortion, religion in public life, gay rights and marriage.

"As the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, wrote in a message on the group's Web site. "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the A.C.L.U., have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."

As a child I learnt about the Scopes Monkey Trial, along with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, the assassination of President Lincoln and the bombing of Pearl Harbor at my mother's knee. Thanks to Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, Elmer Gantry was a cultural icon and the war between fundamentalist demogogues with their rural white trash constituency and civilized, educated, humane Americans was a recurrent theme. I never knew any fundamentalists as a child and no one I knew knew any: they were mythological beasts.

Everyone was of course religious, but the going religion was the Religion of Ike: Catholic, Jewish or Mainline Protestant, different denominations were just a matter of family tradition and personal style--and it didn't matter what you believed as long as you "lived right."

With this heritage, Americans will not go for the current regime's jihad. In a tight race, where Americans' view on substantive policy issues are in the balance and Republicans can play to the gallery with the cult of personality, the fundamentalists can tip the race. But if Republican policies are unacceptable, as they are on Social Security, and they can't produce a candidate with more eye-appeal than his Democratic rival, the white trash vote will not give them a majority. The repugnance for white trash fundamentalist demagogues is broad and deep: we don't want Elmer Gantry.

Unless, of course, the Democrats blow it in an effort to play to what they take to be their base: a small minority of elite urban Americans who are overtly hostile to religion in any form, however innocuous, and see no difference between Methodists who go to church for the sake of their children, cafeteria Catholics who buy what they like or liberal Episcopalians like me and fundamentalists on jihad.

It just isn't that hard. Democratic candidates don't have to make noises about their deeply held personal religious convictions or claim to be born again or promise to block the teaching of evolution in the public schools or to impose further restrictions on the availability of abortion. They only have to affirm their belief that religion is generally a good thing, that there are objective standards for right and wrong (without saying what they are), and that interpreting separation of Church and State to mean that kids can't sing Christmas carols in school is simply silly.

On the way back from my last conference I read Madeleine Albright's memoir, Madame Secretary on the plane. Marrying into the Albright family she joins the Episcopal Church but confesses that she finds it difficult to give up the kind of piety she grew up with as a Catholic--the rosary and devotion to the Virgin Mary, etc. When she learns that her grandparents were Jewish, and that three were killed in the Holocaust, she's confused and notes that she doesn't go to church as often as she used to, but that she does make a point of going on Christmas and Easter. This is the kind of story Americans can understand and the kind of religious conviction, however minimal, with which they can sympathize--the sort of story Democratic candidates should tell.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Beyond Universal Wimpery
Powell's Books - Review-a-Day - Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (A Progressive Guide to Action) by George Lakoff, reviewed by The Atlantic Monthly

America, now more than ever, needs a vibrant, viable, progressive alternative. The challenge to liberals, then, isn't to reify their differences with a mythical red America and its strict daddies but, rather, to find common ground. Perhaps they ought to start by taking their own sermons about diversity a good deal more seriously. Diversity should be much, much more than a code word for racial affirmative action. It also entails, as Potter and Heath argue, "[making] peace with mass society" and learning to live with what the philosopher John Rawls called "the fact of pluralism." Modern America is large and, yes, diverse enough that it's absolute folly to think some sort of progressive or nurturant world view can -- or should -- become majoritarian. Who would want that sort of conformity in any case? "We need to learn to live with disagreement -- not just superficial disagreement, but deep disagreement, about the things that matter most to us," Heath and Potter conclude.

The trick of effective politics -- as opposed to thinly disguised self-affirming psychotherapy and aesthetically gratifying rebel poses -- is precisely to unite people with different views, values, and families around programs, candidates, and campaigns on which they can reach some consensus, however minimal. Before liberals and progressives dash out with their new vocabulary to try to convince others of the righteousness of their values, they might consider spending some time listening to others instead.

When I read read about this Lakoff stuff I wonder why I'm a liberal. I find the idea of "nurturance" sickening. I have no interest in preserving the environment except to the extent that it suits human interests. As regards foreign policy I am a hawk: though I regarded our adventure in Iraq as thoroughly unmotivated, I thought it might have been a good idea to intervene in Liberia--and think it would be a very good idea to show some muscle in dealing with Sudan.

But then I remember: oh, yes, I'm a woman. On the conservative scheme, I don't get to do self-interest, greed and competitiveness or the Strict Parent either. As a conservative I'd have to do care, nurturance and psychobabble anyway because I'm a woman--so I might as well be liberal. Maybe someday liberals will catch on to the idea that the aim isn't to valorize stereotypical femininity and promote it for men as well as women but, among other things, to give women a chance to be self-interested, greedy and competitive, and to do guy stuff.

Until then it might be worthwhile to recognize that the important issues on the table are not matters of taste, religious conviction or personal style but Social Security, foreign policy, minimum wage, and a variety of other issues that have nothing to do with Lakoff's five minute ideas.