Monday, April 25, 2005

The party of the Rich and Enlightened

In a review of Byron York's new book, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, Timothy P. Carney noted that
York's chapter on the ACT [Americans Coming Together, a liberal 527 PAC] is the best part of the book. It thoughtfully examines the rewritten ground rules of politics and also begins to dismantle the myth that the GOP is the rich party. Characters like Soros and other filthy-rich leftists pervade the book, but York doesn't aim to leave the perception that they are exceptions to the rule.

"People who contributed less than $200 to politicians and parties gave 64 percent of their money to Republicans," writes York, based on 2002 campaign-finance data. "People who gave $1 million or more to politicians or parties gave 92 percent to Democrats."
In this same vein, Jon Weiner believes it is this fact that has undermined the traditionally effective class-warfare waged by the Democrats in the past.

In a critique of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, Weiner begins
If only working-class and poor people would register and vote, liberal Democrats would win every election-that's what we thought, until November 2, 2004. Democrats work on voter registration, Republicans work on vote suppression. So tens of millions were spent on Democratic voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts over the summer and fall. But on November 2 we discovered how wrong we were. Turnout in poor and working-class precincts was unprecedented, but many of those voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush-especially white people from non-union households, especially outside of cities. How did the Republicans do it? How did they get poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich?

Thomas Frank became the pundit of the hour for his answer to those questions. In his best-selling book What's the Matter with Kansas?, published before the election, he argued that Republicans distracted and confused ordinary voters with a phony kind of class-war rhetoric and with the culture wars. In short, they fostered what we used to call "false consciousness." In Marxist theory, when workers accept the ruling ideology that justifies their exploitation, they have false consciousness. It's "a failure to recognize the instruments of one's oppression or exploitation as one's own creation, as when members of an oppressed class unwittingly adopt views of the oppressor class"-that's the dictionary definition. It's when ordinary workers "insist on re-electing the very people who are screwing them" - that's Tom Frank's definition.
This theory presumes that the American people, especially the poor, white one's in middle-America, have been tricked by Republicans into holding social, cultural or moral issues as more important than economic ones: this is so-called "false consciousness." For example:
The culture wars foster false consciousness above all by focusing on abortion. Take away people's good industrial jobs, Frank writes, and the "next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics." How do you get poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich? By convincing them that the issue is not tax cuts for the rich, it's stopping the slaughter of the unborn. And if you really believe the fetus is a person with a right to life, saving the lives of those helpless "babies" is a moral imperative that makes tax policy pretty insignificant. And if abortion is not your thing, there is school prayer, gun rights, and gay marriage-lots of issues to get angry about. This consciousness is false because it depends on "a systematic erasure of the economic." It really is a trick, a kind of sleight of hand: don't look at people who are taking away your jobs; look at the people who are taking away your guns!
In other words, emphasize culture over economics. Wiener and Franks negatively portray this as Republicans tricking the poor, culturally "traditional" voters into voting against their own economic interests. Another way to put it would be to say that Republicans have convinced poor, culturally "traditional" voters into voting for higher principles above their own self interest. Wiener does point to the flaw in Frank's thesis.
Frank's case is a powerful and compelling one, but it has come in for some sharp and significant criticism from writers who know a lot about false consciousness. According to the theory, for consciousness to be false, a challenge to the ruling ideology must be available to ordinary people. That challenge would lead to "class consciousness"-an awareness of social conflict and of the potential power of working people to transform the status quo.

But if it's false consciousness for poor and working people to vote Republican, does a worker with class consciousness automatically vote Democratic? Here Frank's argument gets shaky. The "true" interests of the working class in America today start with jobs. But the de-industrialization of America, and the export of good industrial jobs to Mexico and now to China, was the policy of Bill Clinton, who introduced, fought for, and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. John Kerry went along with that project. His jobs program in 2004 was pathetic: tax cuts for the rich-in this case, for corporations that don't export jobs. But if unemployed industrial workers in Kansas wanted to vote their true interests in protecting decent jobs, why would they support the candidate and the party that established the policies that did away with those jobs?

. . . The opposite of false consciousness is class consciousness. Where does class consciousness come from? Does it arise spontaneously from the experience of ordinary workers? Frank says no-people do not necessarily understand their situation or know how to act to defend their interests. The role of a political party is to explain these things, to define interests, and then to fight for them. But the Democrats have little to say about the interests of ordinary people, while the Republicans are full of angry arguments that identify problems and propose solutions.

Here is where the objections arise. Tom Mertes, writing in the New Left Review (Nov-Dec 2004), notes that, in Frank's 250-page book, only 8 pages are devoted to criticizing the Democrats. And while the critique is "robust enough," it fails to ask the obvious question: why does the Democratic Party act the way it does? By calling the Democrats "criminally stupid," Frank implies that the solution is simply for them to get smart-to bring them to their senses, to recall their true mission: fight for equality, solidarity, and social progress.

But the Democrats' problem, Mertes argues, is not simply stupidity. The party is controlled "largely by the super-rich," and in understanding and fighting for their own interests, they have been fairly smart. The evidence lies in what Mertes terms "the blue plutocracy": virtually all of the wealthiest electoral districts in the country have become Democratic bastions. Bill Clinton may have been a poor boy from Hope, but the Democrats' candidate in 2004 was the richest man ever to run for the White House. More of the super-rich favored the Democrats in 2004-the divide was 59-41 among individuals with assets above $10 million. That's why working-class consciousness was not part of the Democratic Party message.
Additionally, Wiener points to a conference paper by Mike Davis in which Davis pointed out the context of some of Frank's statistics.
Frank offers the poorest county in the United States-McPherson County, Nebraska-as his prime example of false consciousness. It voted 80 percent Republican in 2000. But the people who vote there, Davis points out, are mostly small cattle ranchers. Their incomes put them among the nation's poor, but their assets give them the interests of property owners. So voting Republican isn't necessarily delusional or self-destructive. And their assets make them the wrong people to serve as examples of voters who are poor or working class.

A more telling example of the political consciousness of declining workers, Davis argues, can be found in West Virginia, where deindustrialization has been catastrophic, and where the shift to the right has been more dramatic than any other state. It was once a Democratic stronghold, but Kerry lost West Virginia by 13 percent. And although many mine and mill workers voted against him, they voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and Democrats held on to two of three congressional seats with an impressive two-thirds of the vote. Is this schizophrenic divide an example of false consciousness? Davis argues that it is not: the Democrats who were elected in West Virginia made jobs the center of their campaigns, while Kerry offered only that pathetic proposal for tax breaks for corporations that didn't export jobs. Bush, meanwhile, had imposed tariffs on imported steel in 2001, which could be spun as taking a stand against the European competitors who were killing West Virginia's mines and mills. That was certainly deceptive, but it was more than Kerry did.
Finally, Wiener pointed out that the election was not won because of a sort of morality-gap, as so many quickly decided based on exit polls.
Although the evidence is overwhelming that Republican media pounded away to foment culture war, it's not at all clear that cultural issues provided the basis of working-class votes for Bush. Despite the conventional wisdom the day after the election that "values" had been the Republicans' trump card, opinion polls showed that the number of voters who said they voted primarily on the basis of "values" in fact declined: in 1996 (Clinton-Dole) it was 40 percent; in 2000 (Bush-Gore) it was 35 percent; and in 2004 it fell to 22 percent. If these polls are accurate, we have to conclude that the culture war as a basis for voting has steadily lost ground over the last decade.
Instead, Wiener correctly concludes that it was terrorism and the War, stupid, that prompted so many traditional Americans to do what they usually did when voting for President during wartime: they supported the incumbent because it signalled support for his foreign policy, including a willingness to "see it through." Wiener takes a cynical view.
I don't think it is false consciousness to fear another terrorist attack; I think it's rational. And it's not a class issue. Of course, the president has manipulated that fear, used that fear as the basis of an ideology, in the classic sense of that term. Crudely put, the claim is that working- class and poor people should vote for the party that is screwing them because that party is also protecting them from our enemies. That's a different kind of "false consciousness," one that is harder to fight because it invokes real problems and real dangers.
Throughout, one can detect the elitism. I believe ideology is powerful explanatory concept, but I also think we should be careful not to ascribe too much to it or to confuse rhetoric for ideology. It is always a risk to assume that "average Americans" can have firm convictions changed because of the rhetoric of a political party. Instead, that rhetoric needs to eventually be supported by reality. To put it another way, perhaps as a regular Joe would put it, it needs to pass the smell test.

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