'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

What's the Matter with Kansas? 

Yesterday Salon posted an interview with Thomas Frank about his new book that attempts to explain why the American Midwest forsook its leftist populist beginnings and swung rightward over the course of the 20th century. Frank is the founder and editor of the little journal The Baffler, a unique voice on the left, very hard to concisely describe -- perhaps the excerpt below will give you a feeling of what Baffler articles are like:

Q: One of the strongest portions of your book is when you reveal that you understand the conservative backlash because you were part of it. It takes a big man to admit to having been a teenage Reaganite.

A:[Laughter.] What's really funny is that the transition that I made -- I wrote this entire book about how material self-interest has been submerged in this culture. If you think about it, it would've been much more in my interest, coming out of college, to be on the right. If I had stuck with it, I'd be sitting pretty today. Think about the right-wing magazines that are similar to the Baffler. There's a libertarian magazine, same cut size, publishes articles of about the same length. It's edited by quality people, they do a good job. Their circulation is smaller than ours, but everybody that works there has healthcare and generous salaries.

Q: A welfare system for libertarians.

A: Yes! They go in and out of the think-tank world and the political world. I mean, they just go from one cushy gig to the next.

[ ... ]

Q: OK, this is a dumb question, but given your personal feelings about Reagan, did you have any emotional or visceral response to his death?

A: Well, I never like media frenzies. Those are annoying. But yeah, there was a little bit of wistfulness, and I'll describe it to you. I was watching TV and they were running a lot of news footage from that era, the late '70s and early '80s. It was images of the fabled Reagan Democrats, you know, blue-collar guys voting for Reagan. I was thinking about the world that those guys came out of, where 20 percent of the private-sector workforce was in a union, and blue-collar people could live next door to white-collar people. The gap between the social classes wasn't that huge. They loved that world so much, they loved that affluent society. They voted for this candidate who evoked it so well, who talked about it so beautifully. And he killed it. Conservatism killed that world. It's so sad. It's just tragic. What's that old term? One of the great ironies of American history. But this is way beyond irony. It's tragedy.

[ ... ]

Q:You blame the Democratic Party, to a significant extent, for its own predicament in places like Kansas. You use the phrase "criminally stupid" to describe its strategy and tactics since the 1970s. Explain what you mean.

There are two different errors that were made, and both of them have amounted to jettisoning the working class, so that the working class is no longer the central focus of the party. In the McGovern era they described this as the "new politics." The error of that was apparent at the time, because McGovern went down in flames. The idea was, we'll build a new coalition around students, feminists, environmentalists and so on.

The Democrats are forever trying to come up with some kind of demographic coalition that will get them to 51 percent. They talk about that all the time. That was one of the first efforts to do that, and it was discredited really fast. But the Democratic Leadership Council is, I think, a far more poisonous purveyor of this idea, getting rid of the working class. Or not getting rid of them, but no longer appealing to them as the center of the coalition, the bulwark of the party. Instead, it's suburban professionals or whoever.

Bill Clinton is, in their minds, the great success story for this strategy. He signed off on NAFTA, on welfare reform, on so many other Republican issues. He basically accepted the Reagan agenda on economic issues, whether it was deregulating the banks, doing away with New Deal farm policy, doing away with welfare, deregulating telecom, free trade. In all those ways, he was essentially a Republican. But he fought it out very vigorously on the cultural issues. And according to the New Democrats, this is the way to do it.

They point to Clinton and say, "Look, we won the presidency! We won twice! Therefore this is a great strategy." And I would point out that while they won the presidency, they are no longer the majority party, either in Congress or the nation. That is a staggering reversal. Look, when you and I were growing up, the Democrats were always the majority. It was the party of the working class. Duh! It was the party of the majority. I thought the day would never come that they were no longer in that position. Now, I believe Republicans actually outnumber Democrats in registration. That is staggering.

It has happened because of this strategy. You take people who would be natural Democrats -- because they work in industry, they're blue-collar people -- and you suddenly remove the economic issues from the table. You say, well, the Democrats are the same as the Republicans on those issues now. And all that's left for them to consider are the cultural issues.

I talked to several people in Wichita -- I quote one of them in the book -- who come right out and say, "When the Democrats went with NAFTA, they no longer had anything to offer me, and I started voting Republican." That is a catastrophe.

A friend of mine pointed out that when the Democrats decided they would no longer contest these elections on economic issues -- of course none of these blanket statements are 100 percent true. There are still Democrats who do fight it out on economic issues, and they tend to do all right.

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