You know those days when you get the mean reds? … The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
– Holly Golightly,
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
I find myself wishing to talk to some Republicans lately. Not Republicans of the Bible thumping variety mind you, just some of your basic moderate, educated, professional, libertarian-leaning Republicans. I’m curious about their take on the state of their Party. I move in mostly Democratic circles, living in a “blue” state as I do. Given that the Republican party is going to begin its effective rule of the country for the first time since before the Great Depression in a few weeks, I’m curious to know what the new regime will be like.
I fear it will not be pretty. I happened to read Thomas Frank’s opus What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America on the plane back to the Land Of My Birth and after. It paints a pretty depressing picture about the future of the Democratic Party and blue state-type folks in general. If it is all true, I don’t think we can count on the Democrats winning back the Presidency for quite some time.
In the book, Frank attempts to explain why large groups of poor white folks in his home state of Kansas who were solid Democrats 75 years ago are fire breathing conservative Republicans today. Along the way, he shows how the Democratic Party has largely abandoned these people on core economic issues, allowing them to be bamboozled by Republicans using hot button social issues to vote against their own economic self interest. It makes for an interesting and compelling story.
Frank begins by dividing America into two economic groups: the “haves” and the “have nots”. The “haves” are essentially the middle and upper classes (everyone from CEOs to doctors, lawyers and other professionals) that stand to benefit economically from the widening between rich and poor that accompanied the last few Republican Presidential administrations. The “have nots” are the people at the other side of that economic divide (e.g. hourly wage earners and small farmers.)
Frank then shows how the politics of the “have nots” have changed profoundly in the last 100 years. Once social progressives, sixty years of social upheaval and liberal political correctness has left the heart of America profoundly enamoured with a mythic sense of moral order and personal freedom that evidently pervaded this country before World War II. Everyone agreed about the way things were “supposed to be” in those days, the idea goes… and the government or the culture wasn’t there to hem you in with a lot of regulations about what you could do or say. There wasn’t a liberal “expert” telling you something that contradicted your innate, humble common sense; it was just you, God, and your own personal destiny that allowed you to make your way and do well (or rather, well enough) in the world.
Enter the Republican Party. Once the bastion of the “haves” that the “have nots” should resent, the Republican party has allied itself with the “have nots” by cultivating a sense of “otherness” for liberals on social issues while completely ignoring the central economic issues that divide the two groups. We want that good old sense of order too, the Republicans say, and we’ll create it for you. We’ll oppose abortion and Janet Jackson’s breast on the Super Bowl halftime show. Don’t listen to liberals and Democrats; all they want to do is tell you in their preachy, self important, arrogant way how to live and use government bureaucracy to do it. None of us wants that. Frank then explains that Republicans tell “have nots” that Democrats have so bound the business community up in regulation that it’s kept America from being great like it used to be. So let us cut the red tape and cut taxes (more for corporations and the wealthy); you don’t want social programs, workplace protections, or environmental impact restrictions — they’re the tools that liberals and Democrats use to tell you what to do, what to believe, and how to live.
The consequence is an unholy alliance.Given that no one else has been doing much better for the “have nots” in the last thirty years, they join the Republican party in droves. They also volunteer for campaigns in droves and turn out on Election Day in droves. Republican election victory is assured.
This creates an internal sense of conflict in some of the “have” Republicans. Old school Republicans are more than not a pretty moderate, educated bunch — often educated at the very institutions that new school “have not” Republicans revile as “hotbeds of elitist liberalism”. They have a more nuanced view of the world than many “have not” Republicans and tend to take a much more moderate view on social issues near and dear to “have not” Republicans (e.g. abortion.)
Finance takes a back seat to ethics in the final analysis, however. The “have” Republicans stand to do even better on the backs of de-regulated, cheap labor of their “have not” Republican brethren. They can also win elections. By mouthing a few well-worn phrases about God and Family Values, even the most privileged, educated young “have” Republican can attract an army of dedicated “have not” followers to go door to door, make phone calls, and organize all Republicans to show up on Election Day.
Where is the Democratic party in all of this? Frank has nothing but disgust for the centrist policies of Clinton era Democrats. He argues that by agreeing with Republicans on issues like Free Trade and NAFTA, the Democrats sold out the “have nots” in order to chase after the more liberally minded “haves”. This pursuit Frank labels as largely futile; any “have” Republican is going to have to be poked and prodded pretty heavily on social issues by “have not” Republicans to jump ship and become a Democrat, especially when lots of money can be made. This approach is further weakened by the fact that it does not have any sort of popular “have not” movement behind it — it is merely an argument for better, more responsible government. That argument is one that Republicans ran on and lost on for decades. Other than that, Democrats are merely running on inertia.
Me, I can’t completely fault Democrats for this strategy. Frank’s analysis ignores a few inconvenient facts. The biggest is that the world of today is very different that the world of sixty years ago. Wage pressures from foreign labor in the quarter century following World War II were non-existent. Unions matured in this environment, and any attempt by government to preserve this wage bubble would only produce protectionist economic policy akin to mercantilism… which doesn’t work in the long run (just look at what the Japanese economy is going through these days.) Likewise, we’ve tried the “Big Government” social plan approach and it hasn’t worked quite the way we hoped. True, I think the Republicans takes a “prisons instead of schools” stick vs. carrot approach that is intolerable… but the old Democrat solution of more money and more regulation is also not the right answer anymore.
That aside, I tend to see Frank’s analysis as fairly accurate. The book was written before Election Day in 2004. The Republicans swept the Presidential election largely using the Kansas formula that Frank outlines.
The worst of all of it is that Frank’s book raises questions, but provides few answers. Where is the issue that can raise the standing of the Democratic party with a broader of the population? How can the Democratic party organize to run better campaigns?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Perhaps, like Holly Golightly, I just have a case of the mean reds — only these reds are Republicans.