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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

All nations are unique, as either George Orwell or Leo Tolstoy might have said had either one thought about it, but some are unique-er than others. Because it is unique in so many ways simultaneously, the United States of America is perhaps unique-est. How you feel about this depends on your personal priorities. If for instance, you hate counting in meters or measuring things by kilograms, or if you think it’s everybody’s God-given right to own an automatic submachine gun, then this is pretty much the only country for you. The same is true, alas, if you think it perfectly natural that people living from paycheck to paycheck should support a political party whose aim is to redistribute what little wealth they enjoy to millionaires and billionaires.

The conundrum remains barely acknowledged by the political media, but the question of just why much of the American working class, alone among those of capitalist democracies, should support the party of plutocracy is the topic of Thomas Frank’s new book, "What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Have Won the Heart of America." As Frank noted in a recent op-ed, "You can see the paradox firsthand on nearly any Main Street in Middle America, where "going out of business" signs stand side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush," and yet no one seems to find anything odd or interesting in this paradox.

The net result is that by employing a sub-rosa political strategy, the American right has found a way to exploit "social issues" such as school prayer, immigration and gay marriage to obscure their positions on the typical "bread-and-butter" issues that dominate virtually every other industrialized nation’s elections and used to determine ours. Frank finds the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM) complicit in this operation. He writes that "Conservatives are only able to compartmentalize business as a realm totally separate from politics because the same news media whose "liberal bias" [they] love to deride has long accepted such compartmentalism as a basic element of professional journalistic practice."

Frank demonstrates the manner in which the punditocracy have supported the ludicrous notion that so-called Blue-state Midwestern America is a land where traditional American values survive the relentless assault of effete latte-consuming liberals who laugh at the rural rubes and teach their children French. "For more than three decades," Frank opines, that conservatives in America have relied on the "culture war" to rescue their chances every four years, from Richard Nixon’s campaign against the liberal news media to George H. W. Bush’s campaign against the liberal flag-burners. In this culture war, the real divide is between "regular people" and an endlessly scheming "liberal elite." This strategy allows them to depict themselves as friends of the common people even as they gut workplace safety rules and lay plans to turn Social Security over to Wall Street. Most important, it has allowed these same class-warriors to speak the language of populism."

By casting the right as the guardians of traditional American values, conservatives effectively crowd out any discussion of the effect on everyday Americans’ lives of their beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies. Naturally, they are going to react to Frank’s attempt to shine a light on this tactic with their typical sleight-of-hand smear tactics. In his review of "Kansas" Josh Chafetz followed these talking points perfectly, writing that "A large number of the Democratic faithful view the Midwest and evangelical Christians as socially backward, politically amusing and religiously nutty — and the objects of this disdain are sick of it. The more than 65 million Midwesterners are sick of being considered ”flyover country”…The estimated 70 million evangelical Americans are sick of being called wing nuts or Jesus freaks. And the socially conservative are sick of being derided as Neanderthals." That this review, which contained the libelous equation of Frank’s carefully-argued, scrupulously-documented work, with the hysterical screeds of Ann Coulter, appeared in that bastion of alleged liberal cultural domination, the New York Times Book Review, no doubt only goes to show how clever we are… somehow

So too, does the entire career of George Will, in alleged bastions of liberal media groupthink, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and ABC News. Will, who has never published a significant book length examination of anything, save baseball, finds in Frank’s arguments the kind of "fevered thinking [that] is a staple of what historian Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ a style practiced, even pioneered, a century ago by prairie populists. You will hear its echo in John Edwards’s lament about the "two Americas" — the few rich victimizing the powerless many." Perhaps Messrs Chefetz and Will might wish to turn their attention to the front page of July 20 edition of that liberal elitist publication the Wall Street Journal, in which we find it reported that the economic aspects of Frank’s analysis are almost perfectly borne out by the Bush administration’s tax policies. "Upper-income families," report Jon E. Hilsenrath and Sholnn Freeman, "who pay the most in taxes and reaped the largest gains from the tax cuts President Bush championed, [have driven] a surge of consumer spending a year ago that helped to rev up the recovery." Meanwhile, the reporters continue, "Lower- and middle-income households have benefited from some of these trends, but not nearly as much. For them, paychecks and day-to-day living expenses have a much bigger effect. Many have been squeezed, with wages under pressure and with gasoline and food prices higher. The resulting two-tier recovery is showing up in vivid detail in the way Americans are spending money." In other words, two tax cut bills written and passed by the White House and Congress heavily favored the rich, giving out 77 percent of the benefits to the top 20 percent of households in 2003, with the same 20 percent receiving about 50 percent of the 2001 tax cuts, leaving the remaining 80 percent of Americans to split the difference.

It is a particularly cynical strategy, in part because it is predicated not only obscuring the political interests of those whose emotions are manipulated, but also because the forces behind it have little if any interest in actually delivering on the cultural issues with which they manage to muddy up debate. Even when they lose they win, Frank argues, as with the recent failure of the senate to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, "Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers," he observes. "It mobilizes the base. Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party’s all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat — especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated — is the culture warrior’s very object."

While many of the issues are themselves phony—an amendment to the constitution to protect "marriage" was hardly necessary given the current state of federal law even if you believe in banning all forms of non-heterosexual unions, the political dynamic that supports it is not going to go away. Democrats and liberals have had little success preaching a populist economic agenda in areas of the nation where so-called "family values" reign supreme. And so long as the media continue to mock the very investigation of this issue as "paranoid," insulting, and just this side of subversive, the conservative class war against the war will continue, unreported and unimpeded.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress. Research assistance was provided by Paul McLeary.




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Eric Alterman

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