I didn’t read anything this week. I couldn’t. I pulled together a stack of hefty thrillers to get me through the next month or so, the kinds of books into which a frustrated American might escape in moments of desperation. But this week I stumbled through in a kind of daze—surface-calm while emotionally experiencing something akin to the final scene in Se7en. Kevin Spacey is Donald Trump, Brad Pitt is America, and Morgan Freeman is the rest of the world. We’re all just waiting to see what’s in that fucking box.
But books aren’t far from my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking back to things I’ve read that resonate just as strongly, or more strongly, now as before. Books that seem prescient in light of Tuesday’s results, even if (and I sincerely hope this is true) the specter of a Trump presidency proves scarier than the actuality.
I know, aggregating yourself is a bit douchey. But I hope you’ll cut me some slack in these trying, exhausting times. Continue reading
What’s the Matter With Kansas? isn’t entirely about the disappointing loyalties of the American people. Nor is it entirely about the failures of the Republican party (or successes if we’re simply talking about political victory and not economic or moral)—Thomas Frank also manages to assign blame on the other side of the aisle. Since I spent my last post railing (however sarcastically) against the aforementioned guilty parties, here’s a great excerpt about the one I left out.
Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia, and of good people led astray? I spend much of this book enumerating the ways in which Kansas voters choose self-destructive policies, but it is just as clear to me 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 we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.
This is due partially, I think, to the Democratic Party’s more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), 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 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 seventies. Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes: the word yuppie, remember, was coined in 1984 to describe followers of the presidential candidate Gary Hart. But as political writer E.J. Dionne has pointed out, the larger result was that both parties became “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 the blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters—their traditional base—the big brush-off, 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 have been difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting.
My high school history teacher once told us that politics (or I suppose history in general) is a pendulum—that the order of things is one way until slowly it isn’t anymore, and that this new order is only temporary until the previous status quo comes back again. At the time I thought this a rather interesting way of explaining the trajectory of existence, and a fairly straightforward factoid to remember for the midterm. Only a decade later do I really get how much it also happens to be true.
Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? came out in 2004, but for all intents and purposes could have been written today, or five years from now. While the book focuses primarily on the last few decades, it indirectly hammers home the pendulum point; history will, for better or worse, repeat itself. We just happen to currently be in a particularly disappointing part of the pendulum swing.
There’s a part of me that feels like I’m the last person on earth to read this book, but knowing that’s never actually the case, here’s a brief summary: Basically Frank set out to assess how middle America in general, and his home state of Kansas in particular, has transformed itself into a bastion of Republicanism, even though conservatives’ belief in the infallibility of the free market is exactly what’s resulted in a reduction in quality of life for the very people that populate middle America. (Whew.) I wish I could sum up every point Frank makes in a few easy-to-read/entertaining paragraphs, but the reality is that this is a heavily researched book, with a lot of interesting points and a lot of infuriating realities. It answers a question (or at least attempts to) that I think many of us have been asking ourselves for the last few years, and in such a way that at the end you feel simultaneously informed yet depressed, knowledgeable yet resigned. This may be an at-times infuriating phenomenon, but it’s not a new one. Continue reading