It's the All the Fault of the DLC

Thomas Frank is one of my favorite authors. I found his book One Market Under God to be hilarious as well as educational. This impression, I should say, is not universal; two friends who read the book on my recommendation found it repetitious. On the other hand, one of these friends (Hi Den) recommended Six Thinking Hats, one of the worst books I've ever read. So you're on your own. If you're interested in how marketers mess with peoples' heads, you'll like it; if not, you won't. If you're a marketer, shoot yourself now. (Little Bill Hicks reference there. “Standing above the crowd, he had a voice that was strong and loud. We'll miss him.” Ten points to the person who knows that reference.)

But Frank's latest book, What's the Matter With Kansas, published in Britain as What's the Matter With America, is of interest to a much wider audience. I requested it from the library, and when it arrived two and a half months later, there were over a hundred other people with holds on the book behind me.

This is what's the matter with Kansas, and with America. From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Websites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, with a promotion and a bonus every year, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in midwestern burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

This is what Thomas Frank is about. The subtitle of the book is “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”, and he has some real insights on this topic. I highly recommend this book. One of the friends who found One Market Under God repetitive loved What's the Matter With Kansas; the other has yet to read it.

Frank introduces some specialized terminology to make discussion easier. Perhaps the most important term is “backlash”. In an interview with Terrence McNally, Frank leads up to a definition:

[Q] ...there are still fewer Republicans than Democrats, yet the Right dominates the White House, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court and much of the rest of the federal courts, plus the military and a majority of governorships. When one adds unrepresentative reapportionment and election by TV ads, they no longer even need majorities to dominate government. How have they pulled that off?

[A] You've really laid out the big picture, but if you were to say that to a Republican, they would immediately point out that they are in fact victims, that they are on the receiving end of modern life, because our culture is still being made by Hollywood and liberal elites in academia and in the newspapers. Just turn on Fox News some time. These people understand themselves as victims. They are on the receiving end of history. The fact that they control all three branches of government never enters into it. They understand themselves as a victimized majority fighting for their usurped rights.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. A victimized majority? This is a ridiculous concept, prima facie. How do people whose representatives control all branches of government manage to see themselves as victims? Well, that is a major theme of the book:

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal.

So what is this “backlash”?

[A] That's my term for populist conservatism from the late 1960's up to the present. I consider it as more or less one phenomenon, even though it has many different chapters and many different personalities. We've been in this historical stage where conservatives are able to win elections this way and that, talking about these hot button cultural issues and by using conservative pop culture.

[Q] A "backlash" against what?

[A] It originally began as a backlash against the anti-war movement, and to some degree against the civil rights movement. You remember its first great leader was -

[Q/A] (in unison) ...George Wallace.

[A] ...who was an overt racist.

Starting from a base of racism, it's not so difficult to bring in other crazy ideas like opposition to evolution, and the extremes of anti-abortionism. Personally I don't think anyone is pro-abortion, but there are reasonable positions and crazy ones in this area. To prohibit abortion in cases where it would save the mother's life, for example, is crazy.

I've come to believe that the wacko anti-abortionists are really not so much against abortion as against sex. They seem to believe that sex, even the coerced variety, is so evil that it should always be punished by a public eighteen-year debt to society. This sort of thing leads to a large number of unhappy parents who treat their children horribly, leading in turn to poorly raised children becoming angry adults. Where's the logic in that?

One aspect that all these issues have in common, in my opinion, is that the US government has no business making rules here. It's not the government's business to make my children pray in school, or to prevent my girlfriend from having an abortion if she decides that's the right thing to do, or to arrest me if I decide to burn the flag in protest of what my government does. These are personal choices, and the way I understand the Constitution the government is required to stay the hell out of my way. All these choices fall within the parameters of my right to swing my fist, because in no case does my fist contact anyone's chin, or any other part of their anatomy.

The backlashers, on the other hand, seem to believe that what I want is irrelevant, and that somehow the freedoms written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights allow them to force me to act as they think I should. This, of course, leaves us with a culture war, though as far as I can see the backlashers have not even a hint of a constitutional leg to stand on.

One of the most striking features of this culture war is the difference between the conflicts of today and those of a few generations ago. Frank points out that Kansas used to be a hotbed of radicalism. As he says in the book,

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

In Kansas the shift is more staggering than elsewhere, simply because it has been so decisive, so extreme. The people who were once radical are now reactionary. Though they speak today in the same aggrieved language of victimization, and though they face the same array of economic forces as their hard-bitten ancestors, today's populists make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold.

Again I recommend the book; I can't hope to explain here everything that Frank talks about. But to my mind the most important point he makes about how we got here is that the culture war has taken precedence for one major reason: the Democrats have stopped taking the side of the little guy in debates over economics. A generation ago, the Republicans were the party of the country-club set, and the Democrats were the party of the working person. The Republicans normally spent twice as much on national elections, and regularly lost anyway, because their positions were opposed to the interests of working people.

The Republicans haven't changed their positions. Everyone has heard the statistics on the Bush tax cuts, for example:

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said one-third of the tax cuts had gone to the richest 1% of Americans, who earn an average of $1.2m a year.

The average tax cut for them totalled $78,500.

By contrast, those in the middle income bracket got a tax cut of $1,000 and the poorest fifth were doled out the majestic sum of $250 for the whole year. Some tax cut.

No surprise here. And it's not even news that Americans are willing to screw themselves in order to give the rich a helping hand; it's often observed that most Americans plan to be rich themselves one day, and are therefore willing to skew the rules to help the class they expect to join. (I call this the Ross Perot syndrome, after the guys who drove around in beat-up pickups with Perot stickers. As if a right-wing billionaire cared about their problems.) The fact that class mobility is far less now than it used to be, and economic inequality is far greater, escapes notice, because the rich own nearly all the media. So the fantasy can be maintained by watching Pimp My Ride, even as the watcher struggles to make ends meet.

As I said, no surprises here. But given that the Republican policies hurt the vast majority of Americans, why do so many of those being hurt vote for the people who implement them? Because the economic issues have been taken off the table, so all that's left are the culture-war issues. With the Democratic party of today, Frank says,

...It's always: "We've got to move to the right. Look the Republicans are on the right, we've got to move over there." The Republicans, who started out with a catastrophic defeat of their own with Goldwater, never said "We've got to give in or change course," and eventually they won. But the Democrats seem to think that the way they're going to win is by constantly adopting bits of the Republican platform so they'll be able to appeal to corporate America to get the money they need to fund their campaigns.

When Clinton signed off on NAFTA is when disaster really commenced. That's when they lost the House and the Senate.

...

"If there's no difference between the parties on the economic issues that matter to me, I'm going to vote my conscience on moral issues."

This is the real issue, and, finally, the point I want to make. The Republicans don't have a constituency large enough to implement the policies of stealing from the poor—the bottom 95%—and giving to the rich. They can only succeed because the Democrats have been co-opted by the so-called Democratic so-called Leadership Council, the DLC.

It's the DLC that's agreed to take economic issues off the table. If the Democrats were to fight NAFTA for the very good reason that its goal is to reduce wages and increase profits, a lot of voters could identify with that argument. People on the right wing of the culture wars, such as Pat Buchanan, are strongly against exporting jobs, which is one of the main goals of NAFTA (though the DLC naturally denies it).

The Democratic wing of the Democratic party, to use that evocative phrase popularized by the martyred Senator, is facing a decision point. If the current nominee, not a charter member of the DLC but at least a fellow traveler, wins this November, the DLC's hold on the party will be strengthened, and the Democratic wing of the party will either have to shut up (which it's been good at recently), or change strategies. I'd bet on the former, which will essentially be the end of the Democratic party. If, on the other hand, Kerry loses, the DLC will claim that he was too far to the left (!), and try to integrate the party even more closely into the Republican world. The Democratic wing will have to acquiesce or bolt.

If I were still a Democrat, I'd vote for bolting. But I've already become disgusted with the Wimpy Liberal compromisers; I bolted long ago.

As Robert Reich says:

[T]he so-called center has continued to shift to the right because conservative Republicans stay put while Democrats keep meeting them halfway.

We have to stop doing this if we want our democracy to survive.

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