Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Liberal Problem

I'd just finished reading Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas when the author showed up in the Style section of the Washington Post. In case you've missed it, Frank's thesis is:

  • The Right has used the "Great Cultural Backlash" against "Liberalism" to unite social conservatives and business conservatives.
  • They then propose social programs which they know will not pass, (e.g., no abortion, anti-gay marriage amendments to the Constitution, the Ten Commandments in courtrooms) as a screen to pass pro-business laws (tax cuts, allowance for Enron-like flim-flams, gutting of environmental laws, and so on.)
  • The business conservative half of this equation profits, the social half goes back and tries again.
  • Kansas, surprisingly a leader in social inovation (think populism, prohibition, and desegregation) is leading the way in this trend.
  • It's a great mystery why the social conservatives let this happen. It didn't used to be this way, William Jennings Bryan was a populist leader (the Cross of Gold speech) and the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Kansas is used as an example, being the author's home state, as he grew up outside of Kansas City. (Note: as I learned at KU, there is the state of Kansas, and the part of Kansas near Kansas City. Sometimes people from the later believe they belong to the former. This is not necessarily the case.) Once somewhat Liberal for a Republican state, it's now firmly in the Red. This happened in the early 1990s, when abortion crusades swept through the state.

Frank, of course, is mystified as to why people go along with this. He goes searching. He visits leaders of the social conservative movement, most of whom can be classified as working class. He likes most of them. But he doesn't really figure out why the would go against their economic interest.

It should be said that I agree with most of Frank's points. We are going to pay for reckless tax cuts with higher debt, and so higher interest rates. Our children are going to have to make up the difference later. The poor are going to be hurt first. So these people, laid-off Boeing employees, people working the Hallmark plant, should be in line for a new populist revolution, right?

Except that Frank never asks the question "are you part of the working poor?" of any of his interviews. I don't think it occurred to him. Of course these people were working poor.

But they don't think so. I know. I grew up in Kansas. We didn't have much money, but we didn't think of ourselves as poor. And we weren't. We heard about the depression, when everyone was poor. We were far beyond that. And most Kansans are.

If you're not poor, then you don't worry so much about economic issues. After all, you might need that tax cut some day. And if you don't have enough money for retirement, your children will help you out. Having this freedom from economic want (and, be fair, most Americans are far, far more prosperous than any people in previous history) you can devote your time to social issues. And, like it or not, most people are socially conservative. They might be more forgiving on an individual basis (think Sony Bono and Chastity, Dick Cheney and Mary), but overall they want certain standards upheld. Republicans currently promise to uphold these standards, even though they don't always (remind me to go off on Rupert Murdoch, protector of the nation and producer of some of the sleaziest TV shows of all time).

Abortion is a good wedge issue. You can be in favor of a woman's right to have an abortion, but be uneasy (or even horrified) at the thought of an abortion. It is a possible human life, after all. And government does interfer with things people like to do. Paying taxes for someone else's school kids might seem a waste of money. Of course, if those kids don't get to school they might spend their teens and twenties mugging people, but that's off in the future. Most socially conservative positions have some basis in reality. Liberals (and people like me) should keep this in mind.

What this book does, though, is say "people don't vote their self-interest, gee aren't they dumb." OK, not in so many words. But People do vote their self-interest. It's just not what Thomas Frank sees as their proper self-interest. You'll note that the one Democrat who got this right got himself re-elected President. Yet Frank derides the new-Democrat pro-business movement. How else, though, are you going to get a Democrat elected? Again, most people don't think of themselves as poor. If they don't have much money, they're going to get some someday.

So if we want to promote the Liberal message (by which I mean greater tolerance of diverging life-styles, and government protecting capitalism from itself) we're going to have to go out to people and convince them that this is a good thing. That means going out to talk to them, not just wondering "What's the Matter With" them.