The misdirected rage of middle America

Thomas Frank What’s the Matter with America? The Resistible Rise of the American Right, London, Secker and Warburg, 2004 (306 pp). ISBN 0-43620-539-4 (paperback) RRP $37.95.

Jarvis Ryan

At last November’s US presidential election, 60 per cent of those describing themselves as full-time workers gave their vote to George W. Bush, according to CNN exit polls. Allowing for the fact that some of these people would be managers, professionals, and small business owners—not workers in the technical sense of the word—the figure still represents a large chunk of working America. Even among union members 39 per cent said they voted for Bush.

So how is it that the Republicans—the traditional champions of big business—have become the preferred party of so many working-class Americans? This is the question Thomas Frank sets out to answer in What’s the Matter with America?

BACKLASH POLITICS

Frank’s starting point is what he calls the Great Backlash, a 30-year reaction against the gains achieved by the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. The backlash has profoundly redefined the national political debate, particularly traditional notions of class, causing a fundamental realignment in political loyalties. The focus of debate has shifted away from economics (wealth redistribution, public versus private ownership, and so on) towards culture and social values. The Republicans have retained their commitment to free market economics but transformed their image, using the language of populism to recast themselves as the party of the little guy, defending the values of ‘ordinary Americans’ against a decadent ‘liberal elite’ which they claim has lodged itself in key posts in the media, the courts, government bureaucracies, schools and universities. The leaders of the backlash charge this elite with presiding over a ‘moral decline’ in American society.

The Bush camp quite deliberately made moral values a central issue at the recent election, with chief strategist Karl Rove ensuring amendments outlawing gay marriage were on the ballot in eleven crucial swing states (including the decisive Ohio). Those who rated moral values as the most important issue voted for Bush over Democrat candidate John Kerry by a margin of four to one.

The Bush camp deliberately made moral values a central issue at the recent election.

But those who vote Republican in the hope of preventing the nation’s moral decline are being hoodwinked, Frank argues: moral values are an elaborate Trojan horse disguising the Republicans’ real agenda of aggressive free market capitalism.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once elections are won … Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act (p. 6).

Instead the Republicans harness the anger whipped up by the backlash and channel it towards pro-business policies.

Republicans have been refining this delicate marriage of free market principles and moral values for decades, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s disastrous run for presidency in 1964. Goldwater had some success in stirring white resentment against the civil rights movement, but made the mistake of ‘attacking vastly popular New Deal reforms … which benefited the middle classes quite as much as the working classes’ (Davis 1999, p. 169). The descendants of Goldwater learned to downplay their support for neo-liberal economics in favour of solemn promises to defend the ‘American way of life’. Frank writes:

While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues—summoning public outrage over everything from busing [public bus provision to end racial segregation in schools] to un-Christian art—which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends (p. 5).

PRECIPITOUS DECLINE

That’s the method. Harder to explain is how the same trick works over and over again. Shouldn’t the workers have woken up to the fact that they’re being screwed? On the contrary: many workers are not only voting for backlash politicians, they are the vanguard of the movement. Much of Frank’s book is taken up with the changing of the guard in the Republican Party. This is a bitter and ongoing factional war between the Mods (moderates), who tend to be wealthier, more educated and liberal on issues like homosexuality and abortion, and the Cons (conservatives), who are predominantly blue collar, religious and socially conservative. This latter group consists, ironically, mainly of those who have suffered most from the dislocating effects of three decades of economic restructuring. This economic restructuring, or more precisely the insecurity it has generated, is what underpins the cultural backlash.

In just a generation, the lower and middle ranks of the American working class have suffered a precipitous decline in their living standards and job security. In the 1950s US wage earners were the best paid in the world, with secure jobs for the majority and a union movement with a strong presence in almost every sector of the economy. Employers were able to live with this because of America’s dominant position in the world economy, particularly manufacturing.

Shouldn’t the workers have woken up to the fact that they’re being screwed?

But by the early 1970s employers, seeing their dominant position in the global economy being eroded by their Japanese and German counterparts, launched a concerted counter-offensive. Industrial production was gradually shifted from union strongholds in the northeast to the low-wage South, where union organisation was almost non-existent. In addition, most new jobs were now being created in the service sector. The aggregate result was a decline in well-paid, unionised manufacturing jobs and a rise in low-paid, insecure service-sector jobs.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the real wages of the average American worker fell continuously for more than 20 years (Elwell 1994), before stabilising somewhat in the late 90s. Over that same period unionisation levels went into free fall: from 30 per cent in 1970 to 18 per cent in 1990 to less than 14 per cent today, including only 8-9 per cent in the private sector, the lowest level since 1901 (Friedman 2002; Davis 2005).

Much of the traditional industrial heartland in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan has been transformed into a ‘rustbelt’. This malaise also affected Frank’s native state of Kansas, where much of his book is set. (Frank sees trends in Kansas as emblematic of what is happening in other Republican-voting states; the US edition of his book is actually titled What’s the Matter with Kansas?.) Perhaps the most powerful section of his book is his journey into the poorest sections of the state, which are in decay because they have not been able to attract investment. He describes deserted main streets in which the only shop open is often a junk store, and rows of peeling and broken-windowed homes. His experience leaves him in doubt that ‘this is a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay’ (p. 59). It is certainly a world away from the images of the United States most outsiders see (and its self-image for that matter).

LOSS OF COLLECTIVE IDENTITY

The US labour movement has always been weaker than its counterparts in Europe and Australia. The absence of a social democratic party in the United States means corporate interests have never accepted labour as an institutional force, although they did grudgingly accede to its presence as a major player during the post-war boom. However, once conditions changed and the era of easy profits for American business ended, capitalists moved decisively to marginalise, if not completely eliminate, organised labour’s influence.

There is nothing automatic about workers’ recognising their interests are better served by acting collectively; organisations such as unions must exist to express this. One important effect of the relentless assault on the US working class was that it rapidly undermined the fragile sense of collective identity that had been built up through decades of struggle for union recognition. American workers’ ability to articulate demands as a class was severely weakened.

Frank illustrates this point well by examining the voting patterns of white males, whose lifestyles have been most affected by economic restructuring and who are thus most susceptible to backlash politics:

… in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for [Democrat candidate] Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on—when they are union members, their politics shift to the left … Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash (p. 246).

It’s not that workers aren’t angry about their situation.

It’s not that workers aren’t angry about their situation. Destabilisation of the old way of life has created a sense that something is deeply wrong in US society. For instance, opinion polls consistently show that most Americans believe the gap between rich and poor is too wide and that federal and state governments should be doing more to address poverty. But the weakness of unions and the left means such sentiments rarely find coherent expression. Instead the explanation for the anxiety many people feel is monopolised by conservative forces.

Viewed against the backdrop of such economic turbulence and social dislocation, the rapid growth of religious fundamentalism so often remarked upon by US-watchers does not seem so irrational. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild (2005) writes of the growing appeal of churches which preach the world is coming to an end in which ‘Christians will ascend to heaven in a Rapture while all others will suffer in hell’.

We can understand the appeal of the idea of a Rapture, though not, or not only, in the believer’s terms. There is a world literally coming to an end—the industrial world of the well-paid blue-collar worker. It is a world to which the workingman and woman have already sacrificed much time and from which the promised rewards are disappearing. Belief in the Rapture provides, I would speculate, an escape from real anxiety over this very great earthly loss.

DEMOCRATS CAPITULATE

The other big factor in the success of the backlash has been the almost total capitulation of the Democrats. Although he emphasises the importance of the new guard Republicans’ tireless work in building a disciplined grassroots movement (they have an emphasis on cadre-building that Lenin would have envied), Frank argues:

they would not have succeeded so extravagantly had it not been for the simultaneous suicide of the rival movement, the one that traditionally spoke for working-class people. I am referring, of course, to the Clinton administration’s famous policy of ‘triangulation’, its grand effort to minimize the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues. Among the nation’s pundit corps ‘triangulation’ has always been considered a stroke of genius, signaling the end of liberalism’s old-fashioned ‘class warfare’ … As political strategy, though, Clinton’s move to accommodate the right was the purest folly (pp. 175–76).

As Frank points out, backlash politics only works once economics has been removed from the debate: ‘systematically downplay[ing] the politics of economics’ is a central tenet of backlash theory (p. 6). Frank cites the teachings of Mark Gietzen, a key conservative Republican organiser in Kansas in the 1990s: ‘If basic economic issues have been removed from the table, Gietzen has written, only the social issues remain to distinguish the parties. And in such a climate, Democratic appeals to people of ordinary means can be easily neutralized’ (p. 176). One reviewer of Frank’s book analysed the thinking of working-class Republican voters as follows:

Putting it in sociological language, since there is so little to choose ‘instrumentally’ between the two parties, each of them dedicated to capital unbound, why not at least get the satisfaction of voting ‘expressively’ for the one which seems to speak for their values, if not their interests? (Mertes 2004).

Democrats may be embarrassed to talk about class, but Republicans are not.

Democrats may be embarrassed to talk about class, but Republicans are not, constantly invoking the supposed chasm between the lifestyles and beliefs of ‘ordinary Americans’ and the ‘liberal elite’. And although their definitions of class hinge on culture rather than economics, the Republicans have been successful in creating an ‘us and them’ dichotomy in the minds of a significant section of the population.

At least some of the workers who have shifted their allegiance to the Republicans have done so out of a sense of betrayal. Instructive is the case of Dan Glickman, a Democratic Congressional representative in a mainly blue-collar district in Wichita, Kansas, who earned the wrath of his electors for supporting NAFTA, a free trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico which unions argued would undercut wages and conditions. Dale Swenson, a unionised worker at a local Boeing factory, said: ‘When [Glickman] voted for NAFTA, I couldn’t any longer vote for him. I know a lot of union members were really mad at Glickman when he voted for NAFTA.’ (p. 177) And he was punished accordingly:

With Democrats and Republicans having merged on free trade, the only issues that remained were abortion and guns …

On election night 1994, the blue-collar districts of south Wichita went for the conservative Republican Todd Tiahrt. Whilst losing his base … [Glickman] managed to win what he calls ‘the elitist vote’—‘the high-income, east-side Wichita Republican precincts.’ The inversion was complete … (p. 177).

A big part of the problem is that the Democrats have welcomed this inversion. Far from being perturbed by the loss of support among battlers, many leading Democrats welcome it. Clinton worked hard during his tenure to position the Democrats as the party of the new economy, with strong links to IT, the entertainment industry, and venture capital. The leadership group of the Democrats welcome the takeover of the Republican Party by what they see as crazies, thinking this will lure the wealthy Republican moderates into the Democratic fold (p. 244). Which it might—but by then the party would be completely indistinguishable from its nemesis. Even now the differences are minuscule—if anything the Democrats came across as more fiscally severe at the recent election, with Bush cleverly playing the populist card:

[John Kerry] campaigned without a compelling economic message or serious proposals to stem further loss of industrial jobs. At the most, he promised modest tax breaks for corporations that kept jobs at home. Bush, on the other hand, had imposed temporary tariffs on imported steel in 2001. The tariff was undoubtedly a cynical Rove-inspired tactic to capture blue collar Democrats, but it worked (Davis 2004).

Frank is damning in his criticisms of the Democrats but stops short of writing them off altogether. He seems to hope for a revival of old-style, Rooseveltian liberalism. Such a dream seems utopian in the constrained political economy of contemporary US capitalism. No longer the economic powerhouse it once was, forced to embark on increasingly risky military adventures to secure its global hegemony, the United States enters the 21st century in a vulnerable position—and this despite the relentless downward pressure imposed by capital on the living standards of tens of millions of American workers and their families.

It is tempting to apply Frank’s analysis to Australian politics.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was a response to the changing needs of US capital, but also, it must be added, to the courageous actions of workers in the great union recognition struggles of the 1930s. In other words, to regain their place at the table, workers and in particular what is left of organised labour will have to fight for it. It is difficult to see where such a fight might emanate from, though the recent split in the AFL-CIO (the federation of US unions) suggests some unions may be beginning to reconsider their barren marriage to the Democrats.

AUSTRALIAN PARALLELS

It is tempting to apply Frank’s analysis to Australian politics. Many of the elements he identifies seem to apply here: the essential agreement between the major parties on economic policy, the gradual drift of working-class former Labor bastions in areas such as western Sydney towards the Liberals, the growing influence of a socially conservative Christian right in the Liberal Party. But there are important differences as well. Australian workers have not suffered the same plunge in living standards, largely because unions, despite their declining numbers, remain an important institutional presence—something John Howard is seeking to change with his proposed industrial relations laws. Economics remain an important factor in politics—everyone agrees that the single biggest reason for Howard’s longevity is the strong growth of the economy during his tenure. The rise of the religious right in politics, although something that should not be dismissed, is restricted by the lack of a mass base for its ideas—Australia is simply a much less religious country than the US, owing to important historical differences between the countries. Finally, and perhaps crucially, the rise of the Greens as a third force means that workers’ discontent need not necessarily be pulled in a right-wing direction, although to win the support of large numbers of working-class voters the Greens will need to complement their progressive social policies with ones promising economic security for workers.

Pointing out these important differences is not to rule out the possibility of a US-style scenario taking hold in Australia. Indeed, Frank has given us a salutary warning of the possible consequences for countries that pursue the US economic and social model.

CONCLUSION

Frank has given us a fine insight into the backlash phenomenon. Despite its subject matter, the book is more a wake up call for liberals than an attack on the false promises of the Republicans—an argument that the left needs to win over the ordinary folk of middle America rather than denounce them, as some have done. We can only hope his book stimulates much-needed debate about how to revive the flagging fortunes of progressive politics in the United States.

REFERENCES

Davis, M. 1999, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, Verso, London.

Davis, M. 2004, ‘Losing West Virginia’, Socialist Review, December.

Davis, M. 2005, ‘Unleashing a Left Hook’, Socialist Review, April.

Elwell, C. 1994, Does trade reduce wages of US workers?, Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress, Washington DC [Online], Available: http://digital.library.unt.edu/govdocs/crs/data/1994/upl-meta-crs-141/ [2005, Sep 22].

Friedman, G. 2002, ‘Labor Unions in the United States’, Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History, May 8 [Online], Available: http://eh.net/encclopedia/?article=friedman.unions.us [2005, Sep 22].

Hochschild, A. 2005, ‘The chauffeur’s dilemma’, The American Prospect Online, 19 June.

Mertes, T. 2004, ‘A Republican proletariat’, New Left Review 30, November-December.

Jarvis Ryan is the editor of the monthly newspaper Socialist Worker.

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