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How the Left Lost Its Heart

Thomas Frank is editor of the Baffler magazine and author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" This article was adapted from that book by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Co.

That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than 30 years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this movement has largely been brought about by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is less commented upon.

And yet the trend is apparent, from the “hard hats” of the 1960s to the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s to today’s mad-as-hell “red states.” 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.

I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my home state of Kansas, a place that has been particularly ill served by the conservative policies of privatization, deregulation and deunionization -- and that has reacted to its worsening situation by becoming more conservative still. Indeed, Kansas is today the site of a ferocious struggle within the Republican Party, a fight pitting affluent moderate Republicans against conservatives from working-class districts and down-market churches. And it’s hard not to feel some affection for the conservative faction, even as I deplore its political views. After all, these are the people that liberalism is supposed to speak to: the hard-luck farmers, the bitter factory workers, the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the disreputable.

Although Kansas voters have chosen self-destructive policies, it is clear that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and liberalism just as surely lost places like Wichita and Shawnee as much as conservatism won them over.

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This is due partly, I think, to the Democratic Party’s more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and -- more important -- the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.

Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as “class warfare” and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party’s very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on bread-and-butter economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where’s the soft money in that?

This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the “New Politics” days of the early ‘70s. Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes, but, as political writer E.J. Dionne has pointed out, the larger result was that both parties have become “vehicles for upper-middle-class interests” and the old class-based language of the left quickly disappeared from the universe of the respectable. The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters -- their traditional base -- the big brushoff, ousting their representatives from positions within the party and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer, to the dustbin of history. A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would be difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming.

Curiously, though, Democrats of the DLC variety aren’t worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.

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Such Democrats look at a situation like present-day Kansas, where social conservatives war ferociously on moderate Republicans, and they rub their hands with anticipation: Just look at how Ronald Reagan’s “social issues” have come back to bite his party! If only the crazy Cons push a little bit more, these Democrats think, the Republican Party will alienate the wealthy suburban Mods for good, and we will be able to step in and carry places like superaffluent Mission Hills, along with all the juicy boodle that its inhabitants are capable of throwing our way.

Though I enjoy watching Republicans fight one another as much as the next guy, I don’t think the Kansas story really gives true liberals any cause to cheer. Maybe someday the DLC dream will come to pass, with the Democrats having moved so far to the right that they are no different from old-fashioned moderate Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally come over to their side en masse. But along the way the things that liberalism once stood for -- equality and economic security -- will have been abandoned completely. Consequently, at precisely the historical moment when we need them most, Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day.

The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school-prayer; it’s that, by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans, they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class -- in a coded way, to be sure -- but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.

Democratic political strategy simply assumes that people know where their economic interest lies and that they will act on it by instinct. The glaring flaw in this thinking is that people don’t spontaneously understand their situation in the great sweep of things. Liberalism isn’t a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance as subject to setbacks and defeats as any other.

Consider our social welfare apparatus, the system of taxes, regulations and social insurance that is under attack these days. Social Security, the Food and Drug Administration and all the rest of it didn’t just spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; they were the result of decades of movement-building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating and thankless organizing.

More than 40 years passed between the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s and the actual enactment of its reforms in the 1930s. In the meantime, scores of the most rapacious species of robber baron went to their reward untaxed, unregulated and unquestioned.

Today, while liberals sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right has embraced the task of building a movement that speaks to those at society’s bottom, that addresses them on a daily basis. From liberals, the nation’s working class hears little, but from the conservatives it gets an explanation for everything. Even better, it gets a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue.

My home state has proudly taken a place at the front of the pack in the common man’s rush to conservatism. It is true that Kansas is an extreme case, and that there are still working-class areas there that are yet to be converted to conservatism. But it is also true that things that begin in Kansas -- the Civil War, Prohibition, Populism, Pizza Hut -- have a historical tendency to go national.

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So maybe Kansas, instead of being a laughingstock, is in the vanguard. Maybe what has happened there points the way in which all our public policy debates are heading. Maybe someday soon the political choices of Americans everywhere will be whittled down to the two factions of the Republican Party.

Sociologists often warn against letting the nation’s distribution of wealth become too polarized, as it clearly has in the last few decades. A society that turns its back on equality, the professors insist, inevitably meets with a terrible comeuppance. But those sociologists are thinking of an old world in which class anger was a phenomenon of the left. They weren’t reckoning with Kansas, with the world we are becoming.

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female pop stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas runs to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those pop stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries feed off each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: One mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the mocker. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much further, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed. All the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism.

Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?


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