Bush, the working class hero

Thomas Frank on the extraordinary story of how poor Americans were persuaded to vote for right-wing

The poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of straggling ranches and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000, George W Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 per cent.

This puzzled me when I first read about it, as it puzzles many of the people I know. For us, the Democrats are the party of the workers, the poor, the weak and the victimised. Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs of adulthood. When I told a friend about that impoverished High Plains county so enamoured of President Bush, she was perplexed. "How can anyone who has ever worked for someone else vote Republican?" she asked. How could so many people get it so wrong?

The question is apt; it is, in many ways, the pre-eminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This derangement has put the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government; it has elected presidents, senators, governors; it shifts the Democrats to the right and then impeaches Bill Clinton just for fun.

Americans who earn over $300,000 a year owe a great deal to this derangement. They should raise a glass to those indigent High Plains Republicans as they contemplate their good fortune. It is thanks to such self-denying votes that they are no longer burdened by the estate tax, or by troublesome labour unions, or by meddling banking regulators. Thanks to the allegiance of these sons and daughters of toil, they have escaped what their affluent forebears used to call "confiscatory" income tax levels and can buy two Rolexes this year instead of one.

Yet many millions of average-income Americans see nothing deranged about this at all. For them, this picture of hard-times conservatism makes perfect sense, and it is the opposite phenomenon - working-class people who insist on voting for liberals - that seems puzzling. As a bumper sticker I spotted at a Kansas City gun show put it: "A working person that supports Democrats is like a chicken that supports Colonel Sanders!"

It was such people who stood up for America back in 1968. They were sick of hearing those rich kids in beads bad-mouth the country every night on TV. They thought they knew exactly what Richard Nixon meant when he talked about the "silent majority", the people whose hard work was rewarded with constant insults from network news, the Hollywood movies and the know-it-all college professors.

Some were pulled into the conservative swirl by Ronald Reagan and the way he talked about that sunshiny, Glenn Miller America they remembered from the time before the world went to hell. Others were won over by Rush Limbaugh, with his daily beat-down of the arrogant and the self-important. Yet others were pushed: Bill Clinton made Republicans out of them with what they saw as his patently phoney "compassion" and his obvious contempt for average, non-Ivy Americans, the ones he had the nerve to order into combat even though he himself took the coward's way out when his turn came.

Nearly every American has a political conversion story of this kind that they can tell: how their dad had been a union steelworker and a stalwart Democrat, but how all their brothers and sisters started voting Republican; or how their cousin gave up on Methodism and started going to the Pentecostal church on the edge of town; or how they themselves just got so sick of being scolded for eating meat or for wearing clothes emblazoned with the state university's Indian mascot that one day Fox News started to seem "fair and balanced".

Take the family of a friend of mine, a guy who came from one of those Midwestern cities that sociologists used to descend upon because it was supposed to be so "typical". It was a middling-sized industrial burg where they made machine tools, auto parts, and so forth. When Reagan took office in 1981, more than half the working population of the city was employed in factories, and most of them were union members. The ethos of the place was working class, and the city was prosperous, tidy and liberal, in the old sense of the word.

My friend's dad was a teacher in the local public schools, a loyal member of his union, and a more dedicated liberal than most: not only had he been a staunch supporter of George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, but in the 1980 Democratic primary he had voted for Barbara Jordan, a black congresswoman from Texas. My friend, meanwhile, was in those days a high-school Republican, a Reagan youth who fancied Adam Smith ties. The dad would listen to the son spout off about Milton Friedman and the godliness of free-market capitalism, and he would just shake his head. Some day, kid, you'll know what a jerk you are.

It was the dad, though, who was eventually converted. These days he votes for the farthest-right Republicans he can find on the ballot. The particular issue that brought him over was abortion. A devout Catholic, my friend's dad was persuaded in the early 1990s that the sanctity of the foetus outweighed all his other concerns, and from there he gradually accepted the whole pantheon of conservative devil-figures: the elite media and the American Civil Liberties Union; the la-di-da feminists; the idea that Christians are vilely persecuted - right here in the US of A.

His super-average Midwestern town, meanwhile, has followed the same trajectory. Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city's industries, unions and neighbourhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform. With every bit of economic bad news, the city seems to get more bitter, more cynical and more conservative still.

This derangement is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling on to the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late 1960s. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasised fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilises voters with explosive social issues - summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art - which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshalled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements - not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars - that are the movement's greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatisation, deregulation and de-unionisation that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail, their libertarian schemes don't deliver and their "new economy" collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers' fantasies of "globalisation" and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, USA.

The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but it does not speak as the capitalists of old did, invoking the divine right of money or demanding the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary, the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history's receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.

In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement's basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern - that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of F D Roosevelt's New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. They have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country's return to a 19th-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable harm to working-class people.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may "matter most" to voters, but they always take a back seat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This earmark of the phenomenon is absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted, affirmative action never abolished, the culture industry never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. "Reagan made himself the champion of 'traditional values', but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority," wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. "What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the Twenties: the repeal of the New Deal."

This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement's true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a 20th try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make the country strong again; receive de-industrialisation. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere, from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive social security privatisation. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

Backlash theorists imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful and well connected - the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious East Coast elite - pull the strings and make the puppets dance. Yet the backlash has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of string-pullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here is a rebellion against "the establishment" that has wound up abolishing the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at unions and workplace safety programmes; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.

Like a French revolution in reverse - one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets, demanding more power for the aristocracy - the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable ever further to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of right-wing economic nostrums from history's dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the 1960s (the war on poverty) and those of the 1930s (labour law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson's estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt's antitrust measures). With more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire 20th century.

As a formula for holding together a dominant political coalition, the backlash seems so improbable and so self-contradictory that liberal observers often have trouble believing it is happening. By all rights, they figure, these two groups - business and blue collar - should be at each other's throats. For the Republican Party to present itself as the champion of working-class America strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously. The Great Backlash, they believe, is nothing but crypto-racism, or a disease of the elderly, or the random griping of religious rednecks, or the protests of "angry white men" feeling left behind by history. All of which is true, to some degree.

But to understand the backlash in this way is to miss its power as an idea and its broad popular vitality. It keeps coming despite everything, a plague of bitterness capable of spreading from the old to the young, from Protestant fundamentalists to Catholics and Jews, and from the angry white men to every demographic shading imaginable.

It matters not that the forces that triggered the "silent majority" back in Nixon's day have long disappeared; the backlash roars on undiminished, its rage carrying easily across the decades. The confident liberals who led America in those days are a dying species. The new left, with its gleeful obscenities and contempt for the flag, is extinct altogether. The whole "affluent society", with its paternalistic corporations and powerful unions, fades farther into the ether each year. But the backlash endures. It continues to dream its terrifying dreams of national decline, epic lawlessness and betrayal at the top regardless of what is actually going on in the world.

From an air-conditioned suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the websites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rewards just keep flowing, and with a parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection America seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper healthcare; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will transform their region into a "rust belt".

Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia and of good people led astray? Liberalism itself must bear some responsibility. Somewhere in the past four decades it ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency. The Democratic Leadership Council, which produced Bill Clinton and Al Gore, has pushed 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 council wants desperately to court are corporations capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organised labour. 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, welfare, social security, labour law, privatisation, deregulation and so on. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as "class warfare", and emphasise their friendliness to business interests. They take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the new Democrats figure they will have nowhere else to go. Besides, what politician in this success-worshipping country 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 since the early 1970s. As the political writer E J Dionne has pointed out, the 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 blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters 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 hard to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting.

Curiously enough, though, the new Democrats aren't worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is a coming-together of the rich and self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel. Perhaps they are right to believe that, if crazy conservatives push a little bit more, the Republicans will alienate the moderates in the wealthy suburbs and the affluent will go over to the Democrats en masse. But along the way the things that liberalism once stood for - equality and economic security - will have been abandoned completely, at the historical moment when we need them most.

The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school-prayer. It's that, by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans, they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues such as guns and abortion, whose appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class - in a coded way, to be sure - but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.

Democratic political strategy assumes that people know where their economic interest lies and will act on it by instinct. There is no need for any business-bumming class-war rhetoric, and there is certainly no need for a liberal actually to get his hands dirty fraternising with the disgruntled. Let them look at the record and see for themselves: Democrats are slightly more generous with social security benefits, slightly stricter on environmental regulations, and do less union-busting than Republicans.

The gigantic error in all this is that people don't spontaneously understand their situation in the great sweep of things. They don't automatically know the courses of action that are open to them, the organisations they might sign up with, or the measures they should be calling for. Liberalism isn't a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance. Social security didn't spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; it was the result of decades of movement-building, of agitating, educating and thankless organising. More than 40 years passed between the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s and the enactment of its reforms in the 1930s.

Look at the voting practices of union members. In the 2000 election, white male voters chose Bush by a considerable margin. White males who were union members, however, voted for Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retired people and so on - when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union leaders. Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash, because unions give priority to issues such as the economy, healthcare and education rather than to vague fears about "cultural decline". But today only 9 per cent of the private sector workforce are union members against 38 per cent in the 1950s, and the unions' decline goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to show its fealty to corporate America.

It is now the right that understands the central significance of movement-building, and it has taken to the task with diligence. It has foundations, channelling their millions into politics at the highest levels, subsidising free-market economics departments, think-tanks and right-wing pundits; it has a brigade of lobbyists, a flock of magazines and newspapers, a publishing house or two. And, at the bottom, it has committed grass-roots organisers, going door to door, rallying their neighbours, mortgaging their houses, even, to push the gospel of the backlash. This movement speaks to those at society's bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the conservatives, they get an explanation for everything that seems to have gone wrong. From the left, they hear nothing at all.

Thomas Frank is a founding editor of the US magazine The Baffler. This essay is from his latest book, What's the Matter with America?, published on 2 September by Secker & Warburg (£12)