April 30, 2008

Fiddle on Fire

What’s the Matter with Kansas? The Culture Wars that’s what! Or at least Thomas Frank said so in 2004 right in time for John Kerry’s defeat by a second-term bid from an unpopular George W. Bush. In his bestseller, Frank argued that too many Americans vote against their economic and social interests because conservative Republicans successfully caricature Democrats as Volvo driving latte guzzling elitists who speak French and wind-surf. Democrats are also portrayed to be “tolerant” if not half-heartedly “sympathetic” to some kind of reckless libertinism, whether it be gay-rights, abortion, affirmative-action, or some other “liberal cause.” They are, of course, “soft” on terrorism, and often "allegedly tied” to 60s radicals and crazed Christian preachers better kept in the closet. So while the GOP has given away wholesale American labor and the middle-class through Reaganesque deregulatory economic policy and rhetoric, which, as Frank pointed out, is responsible for unprecedented economic inequalities, Republicans have also been able to bait and mobilize “red-state” resentment against being led around by the nose by all those establishment, selfish, college-educated – and get this – rich, intellectuals.

“Like any industry,” Frank reminded us, “the culture business exists primarily to advance its own fortunes, not those of the Democratic Party.” Not to be overlooked is Frank’s censure of “New Democrats,” like Joe Lieberman, Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson, and John Kerry, who when not stepping across the aisle wither in the face of corporate crime waves, decreasing wages, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the defusing of labor unions. “Moving to the center” in the 1990s may have certainly enabled the Democrats to gather greater bundles of cash come election time but it has also put them in an awkward position to earn street-cred with working class voters. And Hillary Clinton sitting on the Board of Wal-Mart for six years lasting up until her husband’s bid for the Presidency in 1992, as well as her support for NAFTA, WTO, and the Iraqi war, has certainly not made it easier.
When Frank was asked to weigh-in on Bittergate he repeated his thesis that “what soldiers on all sides are doing is talking about class without actually addressing the economic basis of the subject.” One difficulty with the Frank thesis is that it tends to reduce political life to economics, and presume merely an “ideological” legitimacy to debates over Culture and Values, whether it be debating abortion rights, writing a marriage Amendment into the US Constitution, instating school-prayer, or teaching Creationism in public schools. Thus the reaction to Obama’s San Francisco gaffe by William Kristol, murderous lying ideologue himself, was to throw the book at the Senator, (Frank’s book that is,) and decry “Marxism” is what stirs underneath the Senator’s skin.
Everyone knows that the November election will surely be debated along the lines of frivolous gaffes, insinuations, and 3AM ads. The question again will be whether the Democrats will stand-up to the bluff, and hammer away at the Republicans for having lied, misled, and sucked the people dry of their blood, savings, trust, and patience. That wingnut punditry will again revel in stereotyping a Democratic contender not only co-opts the discourse of economic class by conveniently transferring it to “questions of authenticity” but also neutralizes an electoral lightening rod: eight crazy disgraceful years of scandals, cover-ups, and incompetence, including record profits and corporate bailouts for the few in spite of a failing economy for the many.
Electoral campaigns are about selling a product. If those in the red value good honest work, individual responsibility, and some of that ‘ol time religion as a counter to what they believe to be the wayward left, those in the blue will certainly have their work cut out for them. “Real” Americans speak from the gut. They chug down shots with the rest of ‘em. They like plain talk, aren’t squeamish about guns, and are free and easy about it. Those who remain aloof from realpolitik only play on their heels – and they eventually lose. One dogged insinuation after another, one “character” question too many, all take their toll as the agenda gets set by someone else, and the talking points and photo-ops add up. Gone will be the speeches, gone will be the hope. It will be our worst fucking nightmare. Burn, baby burn….