October 7, 2004


The Right-Wing Revolution: Populism still has a place in America. That place should be the Democratic Party. (Robert B. Reich, 10.06.04, American Prospect)

The rightwing backlash, [Thomas Frank] writes, is "a story of the nineties, a story of the recent." His template is his native state of Kansas, America’s geographic, economic, and cultural middle -- the proving ground for test marketers, chain restaurants, and suburban shopping centers. Like the rest of America, Kansas remained basically middle-of-road through the 1980s. It passed legislation to permit abortions even before the Supreme Court acted. In 1990, a Democratic majority was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives. It sent moderate Republicans Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum to the Senate.

Then something quite strange happened. "Nearly everyone has a conversion story to tell -- how their dad had been a union steelworker and a stalwart Democrat, but how all their brothers and sisters started voting Republican; or how their cousin gave up on Methodism and started going to the Pentecostal church out on the edge of town; or how they themselves just got so sick of being scolded for eating meat or for wearing clothes emblazoned with the State U’s Indian mascot that one day Fox News [an unabashedly right-wing TV network] started to seem ‘fair and balanced’ to them after all."

The heartland of America was in revolt against elites who wanted to impose their own cultural values -- who, in Frank’s words, "commit endless acts of hubris, sucking down lattes, driving ostentatious European cars, and trying to reform the world." A great burst of righteous indignation focused on God, guns, and gays. The official platform of the Kansas state Republican party for 1998 was a jeremiad against abortion, homosexuality, gun control, and evolution ("a theory, not a fact"), warning that "[t]he signs of a degenerating society are all around us." The following year the Kansas state board of education voted to delete all references to evolution and the age of the earth from the state’s science standards. When Senator Bob Dole resigned his Senate seat to run for president, Kansas elected born-again Sam Brownback, making the Kansas delegation to Congress 100 percent anti-abortion.

Frank doesn’t dwell on it, but the same revolt happened all over America, starting in the late 1980s and early 90s. The heartland (which came to be known, after the 2000 election, as "red America," comprising states whose residents had voted for George W. and appeared on standard electoral maps as bright red) was fed up with being dictated to by supposed east- and west-coast elites ("blue America"). Small towns, the alleged custodians of "family values," didn’t want to be pushed around by urban centers (inhabitants of large cities voted for Al Gore by a 71 percent to 26 percent margin, while small towns and rural areas voted for Bush by 59 to 38 percent). Across America, right-wing radio personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, and TV pundits, like Bill O’Reilly and his conservative colleagues at Fox News, filled the airwaves with diatribes against coastal media (Hollywood, the major TV networks, The New York Times); America’s great coastal universities, especially the Ivy League; and intrusive government bureaucrats, snobby professionals, and Washington do-gooders (the American Civil Liberties Union, trial lawyers, environmentalists).

As Frank emphasizes, the backlash has been cultural rather than economic. Yet it emerged about the same time that the heartland’s economy was unraveling. Through the late 1980s and ’90s, huge chain stores like Wal-Mart crushed local retail businesses. During the same years, giant agri-businesses drove tens of thousands of small farmers into ruin. What was left of America’s factory jobs skipped off to Latin America and China. Meanwhile, a steadily smaller number of wealthy Americans grew even wealthier. The free market didn’t accomplish this on its own, of course. It was egged on by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and even Bill Clinton, all of whom deregulated, privatized, and opened American markets to foreign competition.

No wonder the heartland has felt oppressed and angry. But why is the resentment expressed in cultural, not economic, terms? In its drive to stop liberal elites from "intruding," the backlash has even embraced free market ideology -- the same ideology that has been responsible for its economic free fall. Kansas "sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate -- and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place."

Republican fat cats must be laughing all the way to the banks and ballot boxes. They pose as heartland Americans and rail against Ivy League stuffed shirts when they themselves graduated from the same institutions. George W. Bush, a president’s son, educated at prestigious Andover Academy, Yale, and Harvard Business School, plays at being a down-to-earth Texan. Republican leaders of congress curse haughty professionals when they themselves are mostly lawyers and bankers. Bill O’Reilly pretends he’s a proletarian while taking home millions from his TV and radio shows and book tie-ins. Rush Limbaugh condemns drug addicts and turns out to be one. Newt Gingrich decries the gross immorality of liberals (especially Bill Clinton’s extra-marital adventure) while having an affair. Bill Bennett, the Republican’s self-appointed "morality czar," is revealed to be a gambling addict. The Bush administration poses as champion of blue-collar America yet is run by corporate tycoons.

Hypocrisy is nothing new to politicians and pundits, of course. The interesting question, which Frank never quite answers, is why America’s vast middle and working class hasn’t caught on. For twenty-five years, the wages of workers without university degrees -- that is, the vast majority -- have dropped steadily (adjusted for inflation) even though the American economy has almost doubled in size. Most of the rest has gone to the top. America’s top 1 percent now own more assets than the bottom 90 percent put together. We’re back to the days of the robber barons of the 19th century. The rich didn’t get where they are solely through hard work. The captains of American industry and their Wall Street advisors have shown no lack of ingenuity in robbing small investors and duping blue-collar employees. They’ve showered campaign contributions on politicians in order to get special favors and lower taxes. They’ve bankrolled right-wing media.

Why doesn’t middle America connect the dots? Why did it support Bush-the-younger’s tax cuts, two-thirds of which went to the very wealthy? Why is the electorate of the world’s greatest democracy actively choosing to transfer more and more wealth to a smaller and smaller fraction of itself? America’s economic elite answers that "class warfare" won’t fly here because everyone in America wants to be rich someday; the rich are admired and emulated, not scorned. But this convenient explanation glosses over Frank’s cultural backlash. If middle America resents the snobbish lifestyles of the rich, surely it could bring itself to resent their greediness as well.

The real reason is that no one is explaining to middle America what’s actually happening.

Mr. Reich seems a smart enough guy and possessed of sufficient sense of humor that it's almost possible to believe this is some kind of Andy Kaufmanesque prank. After all, what he writes here is that there's an understandable conservative backlash against liberal elites telling people that their values are wrong but if people only knew what was good for them, as he's happy to explain, their values would be different, more like his.

Someone who was not an elitist intellectual might pause to consider a different possibility--perhaps the Reagan economy of the past twenty years has been good for folks and they're voting their self-interest as well as their values.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2004 4:21 PM

Wow, that is some impressive strawman. But we need a new term of use. What do you call it when one is bewildered by the fact their his fantastic (in the literal sense of the world) strawman argument is near totally divorced from the reality right under his nose? And I though Ruy Texiera was the master of this art.

Posted by: jim at October 7, 2004 4:52 PM

Econopundit went up against him on Milt Rosenberg's show earlier this year.

I asked him how he could contain himself and not reach over and slap him silly.

Posted by: Sandy P at October 7, 2004 5:04 PM

When one's central premise is that 50% of Americans don't understand the stunningly obvious, what should be obvious is that they do understand... They just don't agree.

Which is not to say that a new approach to explaining one's own position couldn't change minds; it worked extraordinarily well for Newt Gingrich.

Now, Robert Reich was a Rhodes Scholar, the US Secretary of Labor under Clinton, and is currently the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University, so when he writes that the top 1% of Americans own more assets than the bottom 90% combined, I can't believe that it's just shameful ignorance.
That would be a LIE, meant to slip undetected past America's unwashed masses, those poor fools so deluded by the manipulative right wing.

Further, it's a foolish sort of lie, one that doesn't much matter, even if it's believed. An Al Gore lie, one might say.
Wouldn't it be just as effective to say that the top 20% own as many assets as the bottom 80%, which is closer to the truth ?
Those who care would be just as outraged.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 7, 2004 7:44 PM

Reich's brain must be shrinking as he gets older.

Posted by: ratbert at October 7, 2004 9:16 PM

Its a stunning performance.

I think Reich really does believe that us flyover folks are dumber than dirt. He must be so frustrated.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 8, 2004 12:26 AM

There is another explanation for the "false consciousness" of the flyover Americans. Let's pretend for the sake of the discussion that the left's programs would confer some financial benefit on "average citizens." How much money is a dead baby worth? How much money would it take to bribe us to turn our backs on our culture and our Faith? That the left cannot understand that some of us value permanent things and have treasures in other places tells as much about them as it does about us.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 8, 2004 6:01 AM

Isn't the definition of insanity 'doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result?' Reich's nostrums have been tried again and again and again all over the world and have utterly failed.

Shouldn't he just go back to his pre-Clinton job of being Sneezy or was it Happy at the Snow White exhibit at Disney World? I understand Kenny Baker has retired from the role of R2-D2 in Star Wars, so if that genetic mistake can make whistling noises, he has another job opportunity.

Posted by: Bart at October 8, 2004 11:05 AM

All I remember is that the Reagan years was the one time in my life I was free of money worries.

Even when my company went bankrupt under me, I was able to secure my present job (at only a 5% pay cut from the old job) in less than three months.

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