July 13, 2004

When the people in the small towns look around at what Wal-Mart and ConAgra have wrought and decide to enlist in the crusade against Charles Darwin

Thomas Franks' new book, What's the matter with Kansas?, is an intriguing but ultimately only partly successful attempt to tackle the prima facie paradox of the contemporary political dominance of hard-core social and economic conservatism. More specifically, there seem to be three basic political stances in the US these days: Liberal on social and economic issues -- in favour, say, of legalizing gay marriage and a War on Poverty-style welfare system -- Conservative on social and economic issues -- opposed to legalizing gay marriage and in favour of welfare `reform' -- and a Moderate position -- which may not be committed one way or the other on gay marriage, but certainly wants to do whatever the Chamber of Commerce has in mind. Any given individual might straddle more than one of these positions, of course; I'm thinking of these three more as archetypes of political opinions than a strict system of classification. The leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties is mostly Moderate (think Bob Dole and Bill Clinton), but the Conservative wing of the Republican party enjoys much more media and political prominence than the Liberal wing of the Republican party.

This prominence must come from some level of support at the polls. But here is the paradox: the sections of society which benefit from the actions of Conservatives in government are too small to be the bulk of this popular support. There is a significant chunk of the working class population which votes Conservative, even as Conservatives in government have acted almost exclusively in ways that harm the working class. Frank provides highlights of the 1998 platform of the Kansas Republican party:

* A flat tax or national sales tax to replace the graduated income tax (in which the rich pay more than the poor).

* The abolition of taxes on capital gains (that is, on money you make when you sell stock).

* The abolition of the estate tax.

* No ``governmental intervention in health care.''

* The eventual privatization of Social Security.

* Privatization in general.

* Deregulation in general and ``the operation of the free market system without government interference.''

* The turning over of all federal lands to the states.

* A prohibition on ``the use of taxpayer dollars to fund any election campaign.''

Along the way the document specifically endorsed the disastrous Freedom to Farm Act [which largely eliminated federal support for family farmers in favour of agribusiness], condemned agricultural price supports, and came out in favour of making soil conservation programs ``voluntary,'' perhaps out of nostalgia for the Dust Bowl days (76)

By contrast, prior to the mid-twentieth century (indeed, prior to the '60s), Liberalism, at least economic liberalism, enjoyed the support of almost all the American working class. Recall that abolitionism, FDR, and William Jennings Bryan (a radical leftist fundamentalist politician early in the twentieth century) enjoyed overwhelming popular support, and the original Populist party was associated with calls for government support of farmers and other Liberal economic policies (32). Frank undertakes to unravel this paradox by examining how his home state of Kansas shifted from radically liberal to radically conservative. His approach, unfortunately, is anecdotal, not sociological, and I feel this is the critical weakness of his book. However, his thesis is robust and intriguing, if not robustly supported.

Frank spends the first half of his book illustrating this gradual shift. The second half lays out the sketch of his argument, and then fleshes things out with further anecdotes of his encounters with prominent Kansas Conservatives.

His resolution begins by noticing a striking parallel between the populist Liberal rhetoric prior to the '60s, and the populist Conservative rhetoric since then: except for one crucial detail, they sound remarkably similar.

Even the rhetoric of the backlash, with all its regular-guy flourishes, sometimes appears to have been lifted whole cloth from the proletarian thirties. The idea that average people are helpless pawns caught in a machine run by the elite comes straight from the vulgar-Marxist copybook, which taught generations of party members that they inhabited a deterministic world where agency was reserved for capitalists. (130)

Conservative rhetoric, like Liberal rhetoric, engages and activates its audience, appealing to the latent outrage at the injustice of the present system. But where the malevolent Other of Liberalism was the plutocrat, in Conservative rhetoric it is the elitist, technocratic, sophisticated yet simultaneously shallow, latte-swilling liberal who is using activist courts, political correctness, and rap music to threaten The American Way Of Life.

Of course, this is completely ridiculous, and only the most naive would buy into it without two critical features of the rest of our media landscape. Liberals ARE, in fact, elitist, shallow, self-righteous assholes; and economics is incidental to the way the world works. That is to say, the sort of liberals who are most prominent in the mainstream media -- Hollywood celebrities -- are condescending when they express a political opinion, and generally not a group of people to be admired. The typical This Modern World fan or reader of The Nation is not someone the average Conservative voter is liable to be familiar with. Similarly, the media have presented economic issues for decades as of interest only to businesswomen and -men -- welfare `reform' is something the stock market will like and saves money, a universal health care plan will hurt the insurance industry and cost money, not something workers need to carry about, because what really matters to real Americans is abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action, and `values'.

Hence, Conservatism enjoys such extraordinary popular support not only because it portrays itself as a radical rejection of the dominant power structure, but derives its credibility from the injustices of the dominant power structure and actually supports the dominant power structure in turn by lending popular support to economic policies that exploit the working class. If you're thinking I'm being excessively Marxist, here's Frank:

Conservatism provides its followers with a parallel universe, furnished with all the same attractive pseudospiritual goods as the mainstream: authenticity, rebellion, the nobility of victimhood, even individuality. But the most important similarity between backlash and mainstream commercial culture is that both refuse to think about capitalism critically. Indeed, conservative populism's total erasure of the economic could only happen in a culture like ours where material politics have already been muted and where the economic has largely been replaced by those aforementioned pseudospiritual fulfillments. This is the basic lie of the backlash, the manipulative strategy that makes the whole senseless parade possible. In all of its rejecting and nay-saying, it resolutely refuses to consider that the assaults on its values, the insults, and the Hollywood sneers are all products of capitalism as surely as are McDonald's hamburgers and Boeing 737s. 242

Over the past few days, I've found Frank's analysis to be a powerful tool in deconstructing such things as the progress (or lack thereof) of the Hate Amendment. But theoria is not enough; we need praxis. And what really needs to be done is to get his ideas dispersed as widely as possible, to start challenging Conservative rhetoric. This last should be done, however, not by pedantically dissecting the logical fallacies and factual mistakes of Conservatives, but simply challenging the populist credentials of their ideas. Is globalization in its current form really going to bring real income back up to its 1973 high? Should our priorities on health care be with guaranteeing the bottom line of insurance companies, or with making people as healthy as possible? Is testing teachers and students really going to make schools `accountable', and is `accountability' more of the problem with education than lack of proper allocated funding and the crappy pay teachers make? While possibly personally offensive, is legal recognition of gay marriage really a threat to our society as a whole?

These are the sorts of questions I believe we should be asking our Conservative friends and family, and Liberals in the media and government should be asking Conservatives in the same places. While not outstanding as a piece of social science, Thomas Franks' book is an excellent polemic and means to organize a promising challenge to Conservatism. I highly recommend it.


MosBen said...

I'm running out of power on my laptop so I'll post a couple very short comments.

When you define the three different political viewpoints, don't you leave out Libertarians? They're not the biggest group, but there are plenty of them and more that don't think of themselves as Libertarian but are anyway.

Noumena said...

Most of the Libertarians I've met are far more concerned about having laissez-faire economics than having maximal civil rights. They might be members of the ACLU, and probably inclined to go along with a proposal to recognize gay marriages, but they spend much more time calling for `free trade' and decrying the tyranny of affirmative action. Hence I'd lump them in with the pro-business Moderates.

As for the complementary, civil-oriented Libertarians, I do acknowledge they don't fit into the Liberal/Mod/Con scheme. But such Libertarians don't seem especially common.