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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

What's the Matter with Kansas?

Hello eveyone. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books -- a great periodical for nerds both literary and political -- there is an article by the guy who wrote What's the Matter with Kansas? I think everyone is pretty familiar with Thomas Frank's main argument in the book, but the article is still worth reading becasue of the way frank relates his thesis to the election of '04. Maybe this hits closer to home for those of us from red states, but I still think this is an issue of crucial importance for all of use to be thinking and talking about. Frank explains the frames of the parties thusly: (more in expanded post)
A newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House. Republicans, meanwhile, were playing another game entirely. The hallmark of a "backlash conservative" is that he or she approaches politics not as a defender of the existing order or as a genteel aristocrat but as an average working person offended by the arrogance of the (liberal) upper class. The sensibility was perfectly caught during the campaign by onetime Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who explained it to The New York Times like this: "JoeSix-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it." These are powerful words, the sort of phrase that could once have been a slogan of the fighting, egalitarian left. Today, though, it was conservatives who claimed to be fighting for the little guy, assailing the powerful, and shrieking in outrage at the direction in which the world is irresistibly sliding.
I guess none of this is particularly new, but I think that another way of stating the same ideas is perhaps more provocative: conservatives are better at sounding like liberals than liberals are. And that is why a lot of people vote for them. (By liberal here I simply mean advancing the interests of and empowering and enfranchising individual people who are not currently so empowered, which is by and large what Democratic policies do and Republican ones don't, despite the rhetoric). When President Bush can successfully masquerade as the protector of the people and make Kerry seem hopelessly aloof and cold, it must mean that policy doesn't matter at all in elections, but that rhetoric (broadly defined) means everything -- and that liberal rhetoric wins. And this means two things: we liberals have to turn the debate into a policy debate, because then we win. And it means that we have do much better about making our rhetoric/packaging/image/whatever more aligned and indicative of what policies they are promoting. Frank has a brilliant example:
It didn't matter that the accusations angrily advanced by the "Swifties" (as they are fondly known on the right) crumbled under the slightest scrutiny, just as it didn't matter that the principal members of the Bush administration had actively avoided service in Vietnam while Kerry had volunteered for it, and just as it didn't matter that the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had botched the nation's current military effort and even sent insufficiently armored soldiers into action. The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment's notice.
Given that, there is a hard road to hoe in order to redefine the Democratic Party, but an essential one. Also, Thomas Frank is going to be speaking in the Kirkland House JCR on Thursday afternoon at 6:45. Hopefully see y'all there. Anybody have any thoughts on this? Let's rock some comments!

7 Comments:

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Paloma said...

I have to say, having read bits of WTMWK and read breathless reviews in several esteemed publications I have come to three conclusions.

1. Frank thinks non-liberals are stupid, or, as JFKerry euphemistically puts it, "lacking information".

2. Democrats will continue to commit the sin of not respecting their customers as long as they stick with this "voting against their economic self interest argument." Sam Simon wrote a great column a while back, one point of which was that if Democrats really believed nobody should vote against their self interest, they would forcibly eject wealthy people from their party (for their own good) because lower taxes for the rich are apparently a Republican idea.

3. Frank, like so many Democrats after the election, is in the "blame the voter" mode. What Frank fails to realize is that it is the job of political parties and campaign professionals to convince, persuade and motivate the voter. When a voter votes for the other guy, that doesn't mean the voter is stupid-- it means you failed.

Frank's point in his column, that conservatives are co-opting liberal language, is more than a bit ridiculous given that Howard Dean and Hilary Clinton, the luminaries of the Democratic party, are arming themselves with the verbeage of the right (particularly on abortion) in a concerted effort to reach the "values" voter.

Frank alleges in the article you link to that conservatives never talk about class in regard to economic policy-- Frank must have turned into a pumpkin when President Bush advocated progressive indexing to protect the poor in his effort to reform social security.

John Kerry was a bad candidate, and no amount of "blame the voter" will make him otherwise. Pretending that the voters are stupid, and treating them as such, will only make Democrats into further caricatures of Limousine Liberals, will guarantee electoral failure, and is a sure way to persuade nobody.

 
At 10:59 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

While I think it's true that liberals, as well as Frank, do tend to do the blame the voter thing, I'm not sure what it has to do with this argument. The point that Clay was making here, by way of Frank, is that the people who win elections are those who present forward thinking, empowering messages. They are the people who seem proactive, hopeful, trying to, in the words of Unger, "embiggen" the individual. Clay and I, no offense, don't think that's what conservatives are trying to do. We think they're trying to deny the individual's economic and social realities by leaving them to the whim of an amoral market. Such policies are but put in the liberal language of valuing the individual and emboldening them to take on the world, when in fact they're cutting them loose to fend for themselves.

I also don't think Clay, or Frank in this case, was doing a "blame the voter." I think they were doing a blame the party for being such idiots that they let hopeful populist language be used by our opponents, when it so naturally melds with our policies and values.

 
At 11:18 PM, Anonymous paloma said...

Thinking I missed the point, I have re-read the entire article. I am still convinced, however, Clay/Frank's argument that the voter "fell for it" still means that the voter is stupid. The idea that the Democrats would win if not for the Grinch who stole their adjectives totally misses the point-- both sides presented ideas and values which the voters understood, and pasting adjectives like "freedom" back on the left will not change the fact that a majority voted for the other guy's ideas and values.

In addition, I wholeheartedly disagree with your characterization of conservative policies and think it's more than a little specious to base policy analysis on the premise that Republicans don't "mean it", but Democrats do. They both mean it, in different ways, and the acknowledgement of salient differences beyond mere semantic scrapping is a fundamental underpinning of civilized political discourse. In this case, that would involve acknowledging that there are two possible interpretations of individual freedom to act in a capitalist marketplace.

ps. "embiggen" is awesome-- Unger makes gems sometimes, buried in the nine-segment, seven subsection labyrinth. :)

 
At 11:40 PM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

"A newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House."

Was it just me or did Bush indeed get a truckload and a half of criticism in the last election? I'm just asking. I mean, I don't remember seeing John Kerry burned in effigy or pictures of John Edwards with swastikas over his face at protest rallies. Or to pick something less extreme, wasn't Bush accused of "lying to the American people," "war-mongering," "destroying the country," "taking his eye off the ball," and a whole litany list of other criticisms?

I just don't see how anyone can make that original point quoted above.

 
At 11:54 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

If you read the actual article, it makes sense in context. He's talking about from Kerry, not from lefties in general:
"For the 2004 campaign, Kerry moved to the center, following the well-worn path of the corporate Democrats before him, downplaying any "liberal" economic positions that might cost him among the funders and affirming his support for the Iraq invasion even after the official justifications for that exercise had been utterly discredited. Kerry's pallid strategy offered little to motivate the party's traditional liberal and working-class base, but revulsion against Bush was assumed to be reason enough to get out and vote. And besides, such an approach was supposed to protect the Democrat from the inevitable charges of insufficient toughness."

 
At 12:37 AM, Blogger clay capp said...

The major thrust of what I'm trying to say is that the Dems did fail, by letting the 'Pubs co-opt the ever-potent populistic image/rhetoric, an image which is antithetical to what the Administration is doing/has done. (even though the Dems did very well considering the odds and the post 9/11 situation)(and also the quotation Jamal takes was talking about Kerry specifically).

This is not blame the voter (although I agree that Frank occasionally shades into that territory, it is not the part of Frank I find compelling) -- it is blame the terms of the debate, which both parties' leadership is responsible for framing, in practice. I'm saying the debate should be about policy, because, by and large, it wasn't, and when the debate is done over policy, then I feel the Dems will win. This amounts to great faith in voters.

PS. I think that "embiggen" actually comes from the Simpsons. It's from the episode "Lisa the Iconoclast (Feb '96)," the one about Jebediah Springfield day, for which the town adopted the slogan "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Lisa objects to the use of that fake word, and takes the matter to her teacher who responds, "[Embiggens is] a perfectly cromulent word." Hillarity. I shopped an Unger class and in the first lecture he used the word "embiggen" in such a way as made me think he was making a conscious reference to the show. I'm sorry about this; I just can't resist a good reference :)

 
At 11:42 AM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

I apologize for not reading the full article. The quote makes more sense now. Even then, I think Kerry consistently, if in a muddled fashion, criticized Bush during the campaign.

 

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