Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Thomas Frank's book "What's Wrong with Kansas" is the most stimulating work of its kind since E.J. Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics." In some senses it is even a sequel. Where Dionne charts the collapse of the Vital Center at the hands of the New Left, the New Right, Neoconservatives, and history, Frank explains what has happened since. His message is actually quite simple: Democrats abandoned the class war, so the Republicans were able to divert working class antagonism away from corporations and against liberalism. The DLC's neoliberal strategy just made it worse.
I won't get into the whole DLC thing here, but otherwise I think Frank is probably on target. You see, I grew up in the reddest part of a very red state- a small military town in the South. And I can tell you that the hostility to liberalism always baffled me. There is nothing so frustrating as a man who seems determined to slit his own throat.
So we are still in the midst of a class war, a war the upper crust is winning with the help of the peasantry it is destroying. The saddest part is that there really is nothing new about this problem. Marx called religion the "opiate of the masses." Bismarck backed universal suffrage because he knew rural Germans would vote against the Socialists and Liberals. And W.E.B. DuBois described how democratic socialism in America was thwarted by racial conflict. Once again, the legacy of slavery has proven to be an almost inescapable curse, with the South made poor, devout, and divided.
It's the oldest and grandest trick of the right. Find something, anything, to change the subject. Take your pick- liberals, blacks, athiests, foreigners, communists, jews, gays, the list is endless. Divert the anger of the working classes against each other or their own allies, and your victory is won. It is no accident that the rise of multiculturalism has paralleled the rise of conservatism. It gives the plutocrats someone else to pit us against.
All of this was pointed out by Weber, who argued that class was not, as Marx suggested, strictly economic. It was cultural and educational as well. And those cultural divisons can cut across the neat economic lines, complicating the class picture. And making more difficult any working class alliance. It is reverse Madisonianism with a vengeance: minority factions managing to oppress the majority by splintering it.
Of course, identifying the disease is only the beginning of finding a cure. Now we need a prescription for the patient.