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.


Anonymous said...

Well, you describe the Daily Mail reader perfectly -- and, as it happens, my only male friend on the paper as well, a man who earns at a guess twice what I do, but remains convinced that everyone in authority is out to get him and his family.

MikeS said...

It is, as always, a question of education. The problem with 'our 'liberal left is not that we see the world in a more objective sense than our opponents, it is that we see the world in a more objective sense than the people whom we believe should be our natural voting base.
I listened today to a number of Liverpool people respond to a BBC inquisitor, and they said "'corse I'll vote labour, me dad and me grandad voted labour". I truly hope dat (sorry, slippin' intu' de vernacula') these people cannot be 'arsed, because they do not have the intellectual faculty to reason a decision which I would wish to be universal. I truly believe that governement should be an intellectual, not fiscal, meritocracy.