There’s an outstanding book about the Red State phenomenon. Consider: the poorest county in America isn’t in West Virginia, “…it’s out on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of the year 2000, the Republican candidate for President, Mr. George W. Bush, carried that county by a majority of greater than 80%.”
Why would people do something so manifestly against their best interests? Frank’s central thesis is that this is a deliberate, cynical construction of those in power, designed to fan a never-satisfied sense of aggrievedness on the part of social conservatives, mobilizing them to vote against their economic interests again and again:
“While earlier forms of Conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the Backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues, summoning up our outrage over everything from busing to Blashpheming Art, which outrage it then marries to pro-business economic policy.
So here’s the key: cultural anger is marshalled to achieve economic ends.
The backlash [claims] that it is a foe of the Elite, that it’s the voice of the unfairly persecuted, that it’s a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today, in fact, control all three branches of government matters not a whit; that its greatest beneficiaries, are, in fact, the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause. In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of Economics.
The movement’s basic premise is that cuture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern, that “Values Matter Most,” as one book title has it, and on these grounds it rallies citizens who had once been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of Conservatism.
Now, once Conservatives are in office, however, the only old-fashioned situation they ever care to revive is the economic one, of low wages and lax regulations, and over the last three decades they have smashed the Welfare State, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally returned the country to a 19th Century pattern of wealth distribution.
So thus, we have the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalcuable historic harm to working-class people.
The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk Corporate; values may matter most to voters, but they always wind up taking a back seat to the needs of money once the elections are won, and this is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Think about it: abortion is never halted, school prayer never returns, the culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.
…The trick never ages, the illusion never wears off: You vote to stop abortion, and you receive a rollback in Capital Gains taxes. You vote to make our country strong again, and you receive deindustrialization. You vote to get those politically-correct college professors, and you receive electricity deregulation. You vote to get government off our backs, and you receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat-packing. You vote to stand tall against terrorists; you receive Social Security privatization. You vote to strike a blow against Elitism, and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power, and CEO’s are today rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.
Like a French Revolution in reverse, in which the sans-culottes come pouring down the streets demanding, “More Power to the Aristocracy!”, the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, and further to the right, and having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the 1960’s, and those of the 1930’s, its leaders today turn their guns on the earliest years of Progressivism, things like the Estate Tax, and the anti-trust regime of Theodore Roosevelt. With a little more effort, I think, the backlash may well be able to repeal the entire 20th century.
And yet, the Backlash continues to dream its terrifying dreams of national decline, epic lawlessness, and betrayal at the top, regardless of what’s actually going on in the world. And along the way, what was once genuine and grass-roots and even Populist about the backlash phenonmenon has been transformed into a stimulus-response melodrama with a plot as formulaic as an episode of The O’Reilly Factor, and with results as predictable and as profitable as Coca-Cola advertising. At one end, you feed an item about, say, the menace of Gay Marriage, and at the other end, you generate almost mechanically an uptick of Middle-American indignation, angry Letters to the Editor, and an Electoral harvest of the most gratifying sort.
Now, when you look at the world through the lens of CNN, it sometimes seems like we live in a country where everything works, where everything is in its place, where Junior Executives stride confidently through offices humming with purpose and determination. This is a new Age of Reason, they tell us, a New Economy, even, with the web sites singing, each to each, with the mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtlely-shifting tastes, and with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing.
But on closer inspection, I sometimes think, this country we live in seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances, of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land, of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their kids will never be able to afford college, or even proper health care, of working-class guys in Mid-Western cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their entire region into a Rust Belt, will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.”
What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
by Thomas Frank
(also available as an abridged lecture from Audible.com)