The huge dissonance in political life — the conundrum for any thoughtful analyst with democratic values — is why so many people who share no material interests with George W. Bush voted to re-elect him president.
Most pundits seem to feel satisfied with a two-word explanation: “values voters.” Evidently it puts a cork in their curiosity to tell themselves that people care more about personal conduct issues such as gay marriage or legal abortion than they do about their own jobs or welfare.
But really, it’s hard to credit this as a clear choice. If put to them as a simple yes or no decision, do you really believe that most rural red-state voters (for instance) would say this: “Sure, I’m willing to support policies that will result in my losing the farm, so long as I can keep these gays from having a legal right right to be married.” Of course not. A lot of effort went into obscuring the yawning gap between campaign values pronouncements and actual policies: you have to whip moral panic into a pretty dense froth to hide the fact that succumbing to it equals committing economic suicide.
Clearing away some of the foam, here’s what I see: entrenched economic elites are in control of the Republican Party and the Bush administration. They want to continue operating in a way that channels public resources to people like themselves: tax cuts for the rich, corporate welfare, sweetheart deals for Halliburton and its ilk, raids on protected lands for personal gain, cuts and crackdowns in social goods that benefit poor and working people. To put this program across, they have to misdirect voters’ attention, distracting people from the real impact of their votes by pointing them toward a flock of brightly colored, meaningless shibboleths.
There is a wonderful description of this bait-and-switch program in Thomas Frank’s book, \What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America\:
“\Vote\ to stop abortion; \receive\ a rollback in capital gains taxes. \Vote\ to make our country strong again; \receive\ deindustrialization. \Vote\ to screw those politically correct college professors; \receive\ electricity deregulation…. \Vote\ to stand tall against terrorists; \receive\ Social Security privatization….”
The result, as Frank sees it, is a nation
“[O]f 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 health care; of working-class guys …deliver[ing] up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life [and] transform their region into a ‘rustbelt,’ [and] strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.”
Why is it so rare to see this home truth flatly stated, that the most greedy and ruthless in one social class are exploiting the most vulnerable in another, inculcating the view that their interests are identical with our national interests and the interests of all loyal Americans? Why, in a political climate shaped by such realities, do we almost never see mainstream media discussion of the politics of social class?
I have one answer to suggest. In politics, as in personal development, constraints on thinking are often passed down through the generations, with younger people inheriting their elders’ taboos and sore spots without even knowing it. For example, I have a friend who was beaten as a child for minor transgressions and accidents; assault and battery could be triggered by spilling a glass of milk, or failing to make your bed with military precision. My friend’s eventual realization that this was not normal behavior caused him to rethink almost everything about his life. When he tried to share his new insights with his much younger siblings, they seemed nonplussed: they hadn’t been abused, in fact, they doubted he had been. Then he saw how to remind them. “Remember,” he asked, “when Mom said ‘If you keep that up, I’m going to fetch the stick’?”) They did. “Did you ever stop and think about what stick that might be?” he asked. No, they hadn’t. “It was the yardstick she used to beat the older kids before you were born,” he explained. “She trained us so efficiently to avoid any behavior that might provoke a beating, by the time you came along, all we had to do was hand our fear down to you. By then, Mom didn’t need the stick to command obedience; she had us.”
Translate that to the realm of political culture: today’s political discourse stands in for my friend’s younger siblings, and the stick is the Red Scare of the 1950s, which put previous generations on notice that certain types of political speech could get us a licking. Do you recall during the recent campaign how references to America’s unprecedented economic divide would provoke dismissive characterizations from the Republicans? Perhaps you remember President Bush famously rejecting criticism of his tax cut proposal last year by saying, “I understand the politics of economic stimulus — that some people would like to turn this into class warfare.” Often, such dismissal is padded with modifiers: “reheated rhetoric of class warfare,” even “warmed-over Marxism.” This serves to remind people who were around for the McCarthy era that the language of class has been forever excised from acceptable political vocabulary, and that unless we want to get into trouble, we’d better not talk about it at all.
The result is that without really understanding how or why this came to be true, the biggest scandal in American politics — the shameless exploitation of this nation, its people and resources for the benefit of the greedy few — is effectively off-limits in most political discourse.
I’m against warfare in all forms. It’s not the fact that Bush is rich that makes him callous and duplicitous, it’s that he’s greedy, self-serving, and dishonest. I think this story says it all:
There was once a rich man who loved his money so much he never gave a penny to charity, but considered himself pious because he was so diligent in observing other commandments, prayers and fasts. He asked for the rabbi’s blessing, but instead of giving it, the rabbi drew him to the window near the entryway of the study house.
“When you look through it that window,” the rabbi asked, “what do you see?”
“Why, I see people,” said the rich man, “out in the streets, going about their business.”
Now the rabbi directed the rich man’s gaze to a mirror. “And what do you see here?”
“Myself, of course,” said the rich man, perplexed.
“It’s the same with the soul,” said the rabbi. “Through it, we see other people, their joys and pains, clear as glass. But if you allow it to be covered with silver, you see only yourself.”
If anyone wants to dismiss that story as warmed-over class rhetoric, my reply will rely on something every good and thrifty cook knows: some dishes are a lot better reheated.