Club Soda and Salt

No more stains

Matters Kansas

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on November 26, 2004

Just finished reading Tom Franks book Whats the matter with Kansas (my London-bought copy is actually called Whats the matter with America, which seems a bit excessive). Frank is way too much of a populist for my tastes – he hates the DLC, and constantly berates those of us who believe in free markets but the book is an excellent chronicle of the rise of movement conservatism in the Midwest nonetheless.

The book got me thinking about a few things.

The biggest question on my mind is something the double standard that exists when pundits talk about poor Republicans. Ive wondered about this for a while. Liberal political writers (as well as Frank) have spent much time talking about the apparent inscrutability of someone in the working class choosing to vote Republican. Look, they say, hes screwing himself over economically, just because he hates gays/gun control/abortion/minorities! How irrational! At the same time, affluent Democrats are allowed off the hook, despite the fact that many vote primarily on social issues as well. Hell, Im a prime example Bush wants to cut my taxes, AND he wants to give me a private Social Security account. Hes not really cutting any programs that help me Ive got health insurance, I dont have kids in need of schooling, and Im not getting shipped off to fight one of his wars, either. Yet I reject him because of his retro views on social matters. Im not alone in this either walk around my office sometime, and youll see tons of Manhattanite yuppies who would happily forgo the joy of a tax cut in order to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal. Hell, Franks even alludes to this phenomenon in his book. He talks about the fact that a number of (rich) moderate Republicans in Kansas have started to vote for Democrats like Kathleen Sebelius, so horrified are they by incidents like the infamous Kansas school board decision. Why do we vote against our economic interests? Well, some of us care about the poor, but we also just refuse to be bought off with some tax money. The extra dough simply isnt worth selling out affirmative action, abortion rights, free speech, church-state separation, or any other number of causes that are dear to us. I figure the poor Kansans who vote Republican feel much the same, and Im not going to deny them a right to choose their own priorities (as misguided as I may believe their actual views to be.)

Another point is something that Frank points out this isnt just about racism. I think that those of us who live in urban areas are inclined to believe that the entire rise of the right has been achieved through coded messages to racists. Now, as Frank notes, this is certainly true of Republican successes in the South and mini-successes in the suburbs up here. Im not withdrawing my charge of the GOP fomenting racism or anything, dont worry. But its not the only charge the Midwest simply doesnt have enough minorities to get white people riled up about. They havent got that many gays either. Its comforting for us liberals to think that Bush only won because of bigotry, but thats simply not the case, and believing that it is will only serve to undermine our efforts to improve our electoral fortunes. The fact of the matter is that people are voting Republican because Republicans have convinced them that theyre under attack by elitists.

Now, before I continue, let me be clear on one thing I do _NOT_ buy into the post-election consensus that we haughty liberals simply brought this upon ourselves, with our open contempt for hicks and what have you. What I do believe is that we have not been conscious enough of the stereotypes that are peddled about us. As a result, we end up unwittingly fulfilling them. For example: in our short-sighted rush to find someone electable we fell in line behind a damn Boston Brahmin who was married to a multimillionaire. A foreign one with a funny accent, one who got up during the DNC and greeted a no doubt horrified audience in 10 languages including the hated French. Kerry actually went WINDSURFING during the campaign, people. He did everything short of going on TV with an ad featuring him telling us about how there are some great wines coming out of Argentina. As a result, it was quite easy to paint him and his supporters as out-of-touch or elite or whatever other nonsense the right chose, and paint they did. Were not elite. Were not out-of-touch. The Democratic Party is the party of unions and blacks and Hispanics and civil rights elite, my ass. But when we sent our most elite members out to represent us well, the message gets a bit muddled. Im glad that Ben Affleck is on our side and all, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that his presence is helping us any. Frankly, same goes for John Kerry himself.

So thats where we are. Last big Q: what are we to do? Franks seems to be part of the belief that Clinton, From & co. are the root of all this. More class warfare, he insists. Its an odd conclusion, given that he spent the rest of the book talking about how people arent responding to appeals to class. He thinks that the lack of response is simply that the appeals no longer exist. Thats hard to swallow, given the infamous people v. the powerful speech of 2000, or the fact that we ran a rampant xenophobe (Im really not a fan of John E.) in the #2 spot on the ticket this year and he helped not at all. If you ask me, the reason the appeals arent working is twofold first off, Americans tend to vote not like the people they are, but like the people they want to be (so its clear that theyd rather be Arnold than Tim), a point that Franks makes briefly and then proceeds to ignore. Secondly, I think people have lost faith in the governments ability to help them or, at least, white males have. My theory (backed only by reading social observation, mind you) is that Watergate and Vietnam and Iran Contra and, yes, even BlueDressGate have left folks embittered about government. Blacks continue to believe because of personal experience, as well as the civil rights movement. (Many) women are motivated by Roe v. Wade type matters. So there are exceptions, but my point is that if you dont have a good reason to believe, the last 30-40 years arent likely to have endeared you to the cause. On top of that, the economic straits of working class folks have become increasingly dire, and the government has been powerless to help. Not because its run by evil people, but because forces like increased educational quality in developing countries have combined with increase ease of data transfer to increase the playing field on which workers compete. Its rough, and we should give these workers the best tools we can, as well as being there to catch them when they fall, but beyond that theres really not much that the government can do.

But Im rambling. My point is simply that when people see the government as impotent (and to be fair, its rather impotent in this case), politicians arent going to get votes by promising to bring us all health care, because no-one believes that that can ever happen. Dont believe me? Have a look at Trinidad. The classes are reversed there, its the educated middle and upper classes who have no time for politics, disaffected by years of corruption. No-one I know believes a word that comes out of any politicians mouth. Youre going to improve our hospitals? Not bloody likely. Our water supply? Right. Promises like these bounce off our ears, and we end up voting for the lesser evil, or not voting at all, or voting for third parties, who do much better in the affluent suburbs outside the capital than anywhere else (were talking by a factor of 10). So thats what I think. Appeals to economic issues are never going to have the potency theyve had in the past.

The real issue for Democrats is image, and thats what well need to address in 2008. That means: NO HILLARY. And Im sorry, but no Howard either. As Franks notes, conservatism has thrived by having a narrative, namely, theyre coming to getcha! They run born-agains who talk about personal epiphanies and all this other rot. We need candidates who can play that game, just like good ol Bill. People with good stories, and who, unlike Kerry, represent the BEST of liberalism. Take Clinton. He grew up dirt poor, worked hard, got into good schools, worked his way up. He was a hillbilly who became president. Thats what were about, right? Opportunity. Perhaps if we can find someone who actually represents that, we can stop people thinking about how we represent taking away their bibles, and we wont have to throw the gays off the boat, either!


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