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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Is this the real and fair picture of the democrats? 

If so, it is disheartening, unless it wakes everybody
up.

Thomas Frank appeared on the Charlie Rose show on Friday, 16th. July, 2004.
I think I agree with just about everything he says in his book, but, I don't believe
a REAL progressive liberal could get elected to the WH. Take a look at what happened
to Dennis Kucinich (who I supported in the primary). Bottom line, this is a conservative
county.

Published on Friday, July 16, 2004 by TomDispatch.com

Red-State America Against Itself
by Thomas Frank

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 Main Street in middle America -- "going out of
business" signs side by side with placards supporting
George W. Bush.

I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my
home state of Kansas, a place that has been
particularly ill-served by the conservative policies
of privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization,
and that has reacted to its worsening situation by
becoming more conservative still. Indeed, Kansas is
today the site of a ferocious struggle within the
Republican Party, a fight pitting affluent moderate
Republicans against conservatives from the
working-class districts and the downmarket churches.
And it's hard not to feel some affection for the
conservative faction, even as you deplore their
political views. After all, these are the people that
liberalism is supposed to speak to: the hard-luck
farmers, the bitter factory workers, the outsiders,
the disenfranchised, the disreputable.

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 Kansas
voters have chosen self-destructive policies, 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 failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the
last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to
huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we
can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and
Shawnee, Kansas with as much 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 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
Kansas where social conservatives war ferociously on
moderate Republicans and they rub their hands with
anticipation: Just look at how Ronald Reagan's "social
issues" have come back to bite his party in the ass!
If only the crazy Cons push a little bit more, these
Democrats think, the Republican Party will alienate
the wealthy suburban Mods for good, and we will be
able to step in and carry places like super-affluent
Mission Hills, Kansas, along with all the juicy boodle
that its inhabitants are capable of throwing our way.

While I enjoy watching Republicans fight one another
as much as the next guy, I don't think the Kansas
story really gives true liberals any cause to cheer.
Maybe someday the DLC dream will come to pass, with
the Democrats having moved so far to the right that
they are no different than old-fashioned moderate
Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally
come over to their side en masse. But along the way
the things that liberalism once stood for -- equality
and economic security -- will have been abandoned
completely. Abandoned, let us remember, at the
historical moment when we need them most.

Movement building on the right

The true lesson for liberals in the Kansas story is
the utter and final repudiation of their historical
decision to remake themselves as the other
pro-business party. By all rights the people of
Wichita and Shawnee should today be flocking to the
party of Roosevelt, not deserting it. Culturally
speaking, however, that option is simply not available
to them anymore. Democrats no longer speak to the
people on the losing end of a free-market system that
is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day.

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 Hollywood whose
hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far
overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an
environment where Republicans talk constantly about
class -- in a coded way, to be sure -- but where
Democrats are afraid to bring it up.

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 America, and
unmourned by a therapeutic left that never liked those
Archie Bunker types in the first place. Among the
broader population, accustomed to thinking of
organizations as though they were consumer products,
it is simply assumed that unions are declining because
nobody wants to join them anymore, the same way the
public has lost its taste for the music of the Bay
City Rollers. And in the offices of the union-busting
specialists and the Wall Street brokers and the retail
executives, the news is understood the same way
aristocrats across Europe greeted the defeat of
Napoleon in 1815: as a monumental victory in a war to
the death.

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
Wichita, channeling their millions into the political
battle at the highest levels, subsidizing free-market
economics departments and magazines and thinkers. Then
there are the think tanks, the Institutes Hoover and
American Enterprise, that send the money sluicing on
into the pockets of the right-wing pundit corps, Ann
Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, and the rest, furnishing them
with what they need to keep their books coming and
their minds in fighting trim between media bouts. A
brigade of lobbyists. A flock of magazines and
newspapers. A publishing house or two. And, at the
bottom, the committed grassroots organizers going
door-to-door, organizing their neighbors, mortgaging
their houses even, to push the gospel of the backlash.


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.

Kansas in the vanguard?

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 Kansas is an extreme case, and that there
are still working-class areas here that are yet to be
converted to the Con gospel. But it is also true that
things that begin in Kansas --the Civil War,
Prohibition, Populism, Pizza Hut -- have a historical
tendency to go national.

Maybe Kansas, instead of being a laughingstock, is
actually in the vanguard. Maybe what has happened
there points the way in which all our public policy
debates are heading. Maybe someday soon the political
choices of Americans everywhere will be whittled down
to the two factions of the Republican Party. Whether
the Mods still call themselves "Republicans" then or
have switched to being Democrats won't really matter:
both groups will be what Kansans call "fiscal
conservatives," which is to say "friends of business,"
and the issues that motivated our parents' Democratic
Party will be permanently off the table.

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 Kansas, with the world we are becoming.


Behold the political alignment that Kansas is
pioneering for us all. The corporate world -- for
reasons having a great deal to do with its
corporateness -- blankets the nation with a cultural
style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy
teens in Skechers flout the Man; hipsters dressed in
T-shirts reading "FCUK" snicker at the suits who just
don't get it. It's meant to be offensive, and Kansas
is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its
culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser
and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for
revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid
things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And
when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss
on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams
for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes
running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those
rock stars' taxes.

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
Kansas City. He is editor of The Baffler magazine and
the author of One Market Under God, a study of "New
Economy" thinking, and The Conquest of Cool, an
examination of the roots of corporate hipsterism. This
piece is adapted from his new book, What's the Matter
with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of
America.

Adapted from the Book: What's the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas
Frank.

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