Friday, July 29, 2005Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas has been the most talked-about political book in years. His basic thesis is that Democrats have permitted conservatives to displace class-based populism with culture-based populism, in part because Democrats have forgotten how to talk intelligibly about economics.
Frank has gotten his fair share of criticism, most lately by Todd Gitlin in TPM Cafe (via PolySigh). Gitlin argues that Frank is engaging in "crass Marxism" by asserting that economics should be foundational to politics. Gitlin suggests that cultural and ethical motivations are fundamental motivations too, both on the left and the right. Civil Rights and Feminism weren't driven by economics but "values." Frank's materialism therefore neglects what might be the central feature of American politics. Gitlin also points to the dark side of populism in America, as well as its persistent political failures.
Frank defends himself by saying that Marx isn't the only one who has argued that economics are the most important motivator in human behavior, or to believe that "false consciousness" is a real political problem.
I'd like to re-frame the issue a little bit. The problem with cultural populism isn't that it's ignoring economics - I have no real problem with that. The problem is that its value concerns are other-regarding. The cultural traditionalism of right-wing populism seems obsessed with extinguishing ways of life (feminist liberation, gays, minorities, foreigners, people who live in cities, etc., etc.) it finds objectionable. No one is forcing these people to become homosexuals or have abortions. What they hate is the fact that other people can make these choices.
This focus on how others are choosing to live their lives is in fact a sterling example of false consciousness, or what Dr. Brazen Hussy calls "look at the funny monkey" politics. The right-wing populists are being told that they should ignore their own lives and focus on destroying other people to make themselves feel better. Frank is suggesting that today's conservative politics have abandoned their own interests in order to compromise the interests of someone else. It is the evil flip-side of the altruistic social justice liberalism of the 1960's.
My other objection to Gitlin's analysis is political. Populism does in fact have a dark history - the plumbing of that dark side is precisely what Frank is analyzing. But it also has a good side - namely its alliance with the progressives and social justice liberals during the New Deal coalition. It is the fracturing of this alliance that has allowed conservatives to create a political majority. Frank's work suggests that by re-engaging populists, by reminding them of their old economic motivations, we might win some of them back and re-gain our majority. While populism alone does not win elections, I have never seen an example of Democrats winning without it.