What’s the matter with the USA?

‘ When you inquire into the causes of the counter-revolutionary successes, there you are met on every hand with the ready reply that it was Mr This or Citizen That who “betrayed” the people. Which reply may be very true or not, according to circumstances, but under no circumstances does it explain anything – not even show how it came to pass that the “people” allowed themselves to be thus betrayed. And what a poor chance stands a political party whose entire stock-in-trade consists in a knowledge of the solitary fact that Citizen So-and-so is not to be trusted?’
Engels, ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany’, Marx Engels Selected Works (Progress, Moscow, 1983), I, p301

In Britain a ‘liberal’ generally means someone who doesn’t have extreme opinions, while a ‘conservative’ means someone who is something of a political fossil, wrapping themselves in the Union Jack. Yet it is possible for a liberal and a conservative to sit down and discuss without disputing reality and without name-calling. In the United States, by contrast, ‘liberals’ (Democratic Party leftwards) are in a vitriolic confrontation with ‘conservatives’ (Republicans and further right), where there is not even agreement on basic facts. In the US it is as if conservatives are a political Flat Earth society, backed by a vast choir of commentators, TV networks, bloggers, and talk-radio hosts who ridicule any suggestion that the world is round. The energy, anger, hatred and contempt they spew are symptomatic of something far deeper than individual psychology: these are the seismic symptoms of deep class tensions of tectonic proportions.

In the big chain bookstores in the US, tables groan under the mounting weight of liberal anti-Bush books: Bushwhacked, Misunderestimated, Worse than Watergate, The Bush-hater’s handbook. Some blame a village in Texas for allowing their idiot to escape; others see sinister neoconservative conspiracies at work, a lunatic Christian Right hurtling headlong for Armageddon, the machinations of oil companies, middle-class fear of eroding values. None of these theories, however, can explain how Bush could win so successfully at the polls. As Engels shrewdly puts it: how did it come to pass ‘that the “people” allowed themselves to be thus betrayed?’ The answer is to be found in the relationship between the classes, not in psychology or conspiracies. Only Thomas Frank’s book about Kansas politics2 looks at this. A Mid-West state, part of the ‘heartland’, Kansas is a political laboratory for studying the class dynamics of the Conservative movement in a near-pure form, the better to understand this deadly bacillus, which, free in the wild, now infests the United States and stalks the world.

Kansas was one of the states essential to Bush’s victory in the 2004 presidential election. All but two of its 105 counties went for Bush. Yet it was not always so. Abolitionists and free-soilers settled the state to block the expansion of slavery by armed force. John Brown and his sons, who set out to instigate slave rebellion, were Kansans. The radical agrarian Populist movement (‘raise less corn and more hell’) swept into power in 1890 (pp 30-34, Frank). The revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs accepted the Socialist Party nomination for President there in 1908. Explaining how Kansas switched sides helps understand how the entire country could.

What’s the matter with Kansas?
Today Kansas could hardly be more different: the centre of the anti-abortion fight, anti-gay propaganda, the removal of evolution from the state science standards – Frank catalogues the various strands and aspects of this ‘backlash conservatism’. But – and this is where Frank parts company with his fellow liberals – he analyses the causes behind the changes and puts his finger on the problem: ‘above all it is a class war.’ (p102) Sections of the working-class have peeled away from the Democratic Party and transferred allegiance to right-wing Republicans. Like some grotesque pantomime, workers suffering from conservative policies vigorously, enthusiastically line up demanding tax cuts for their class enemy and vote them into power. (p109) A coalition has formed of a section of the working-class with the right-wing upper class – lawyers, executives, etc – in support of conservative backlash Republicanism.

No longer only in Kansas: California’s recall election
But it is not only happening in Kansas. Such a coalition may seem both impossible and inexplicable. Professor Mike Davis, a left-leaning academic who contributes to New Left Review, was left reeling and spluttering in disbelief and bewilderment about another conservative populist backlash, the California Governor’s recall election in October 2003, which installed Arnold Schwarzenegger:

‘Analyzing this election is an adventure in a realm of stupefying paradox and contradiction...Strange...that almost two-thirds of the voters in the mega-state that supposedly belongs lock, stock, and barrel to the Democrats... endorsed the stealth return [of a Republican governor]...These are the kinds of election returns you expect to see from GOP [Grand Old Party – Republican] bedrock states like Idaho or Wyoming, not from the vaunted Left Coast.
‘When you peer at the dynamics of recall rage up close, the whole phenomenon becomes stranger still...what explains this astonishing mobilization of voter emotion, particularly in affluent white suburbs?’ (Mother Jones, 13 October 2003)

According to Davis, ‘exit polls show that, in San Diego as well as state-wide, support for Schwarzenegger increased with income’. When combined with the ‘central role of traditional racist demagoguery and the revival of the Brown Peril [ie Latinos]’ and Arnie’s charisma: ‘not just another actor in politics...an extraordinary lightning rod...for dark, sexualized fantasies about omnipotence ...the predominantly white voters of California’s inland empires and gated suburbs have anointed a clinically Hitlerite personality as their personal savior.’

In fact there was no simple rich/poor split. There were two Republican candidates: Schwarzenegger and McClintock, and the Latino Democrat: Bustamente. A majority of both rich and poor voters voted Republican and a greater proportion of poor people than rich people voted for the far right McClintock.3 There is plenty of racism in the USA, but that is not what’s at work here: Bustamente got 56% of Latino votes while Schwarzenegger, received 32%. Were these Latino Schwarzenegger supporters stupid or ignorant? Neither. During the election campaign, the annual demands for an increased car tax were dropping into mailboxes across California. The increased car tax could have cost the average Latino worker up to two weeks wages. Schwarzenegger promised to repeal it. Many Latinos drew the obvious conclusion. It was simple bribery. And, while there was racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, it appealed only to a minority: 64% of California voters voted down the racist Proposition 54, which would have destroyed affirmative action. The attraction of Conservatism to sections of the working class cannot be explained with simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ theories: specific conditions have to be sought in the particular cases.

Decline and change in the US working class
The US working class has been under serious attack from the 1970s on. The real weekly earnings of non-supervisory workers, in 1992 dollars, fell from $315 in 1973 to $271 in 1999. In 1979 23.7% of the workforce received poverty-level wages; by 1999 this had grown to 26.8%.4 Manufacturing employment fell absolutely from 21.9 million in 1980 to 19.9 million in 2000, a decline of 9.1%.5

With the decline of manufacturing went the decline of the most privileged sections of the US working class who had formed a strong basis of support for the Democratic Party. The Party has had to find other sources of support and turned more and more toward affluent professionals, who are liberal on social issues, and away from the working class (pp242ff). Without leadership from the left, the conservatives have moved in, providing a suitable ideology and organization, and have been benefiting ever since.

Con ideology
Frank shows how the conservative ideology works. Littered with lies, superficially emphasising the positive, it is in fact undiluted, screaming victimhood, with the endless recantation of innumerable supposed outrages against ‘traditional values’. With no Soviet Union, it’s no longer Reds lurking under beds, but liberals. In the conservative world, a faceless ‘liberal elite’ controls the media, and the government, imposing crushing taxation, rampant homosexuality, godlessness and gunlessness. It will bleed the working class Americans dry (‘Tax and spend!’ is a favourite squawk from the conservative parrots) in order to indulge its lavish, indulgent, ‘politically correct’ (squawk, squawk) lifestyle. Take any speech by Hitler, railing at Jews, substitute ‘liberals’ and you get the flavour. Ignoring unemployment and low income, the cons avoid all economic issues except taxes. Clever, since a few dollars more in the pay packet is far more tangible than ‘job creation’. Instead, con ideology focuses on social issues such as abortion, supposed attempts to force children into gay lifestyles, threats to gun ownership, ‘activist judges’, environmentalist ‘tree-huggers’ etc.

Ingeniously, the ideology is designed to keep the conservative movement eternally frustrated and angry with the ‘liberal elite’: it froths about ‘vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged...the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly’ (p121).

This vast, faceless liberal conspiracy manipulates everything from behind the scenes. Helpless Republicans, despite controlling the Presidency, both Houses of Congress, a good fraction of the Supreme Court, supported by the most powerful sectors of big business, and the military, are still, somehow, incapable of vanquishing the omnipotent, invisible liberal beast.

Intoxicated on this heady brew of anger, righteousness and fear, the conservative grass roots are building a movement from the ground up while liberals, like captive goldfish, simply stare, open-mouthed, aghast, at this monster, as if powerless.

How to fix the USA?

What is missing from Frank’s readable book is any analysis about why conservatism should be needed now, at this time, by the ruling class. It appears to be a sort of nightmarish accident, as if some dreadful weed from outer space suddenly appeared overnight, choking everything. Yet, the decline of the traditional working class, of its allegiance to the Democratic Party, the rise of conservatism, the shape and propagation of con ideology and the sophistication of con organization are not accidents, but facets of a deeply crisis-ridden imperialism. Its roots are deep, so the remedy has to be deeper.

The second weakness is Frank’s failure to provide any credible strategy for fighting the cons or to identify any agent that can be mobilized to struggle against this reaction. While noting: ‘liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon’ (p242), his only suggestion is an attempt to roll back the history of the Democratic Party and return to a time when Democrats knew how to talk to the workers. Yet it was this futile past reliance on a declining pro-imperialist labour aristocracy that brought us to where we are today. This isn’t going to be fixed by rearranging a few pieces on the political chessboard.

Real change requires finding a section or sections of the US working class, uncompromised by, and uncompromising with, imperialism – a topic we will return to in future articles.
Steve Palmer
US correspondent

1. Thomas Frank What’s the matter with Kansas? How conservatives won the heart of America (Metropolitan Books, New York, 2004). Page references in text.
2. Los Angeles Times Exit Poll No 490: California Special Recall Election, October 7, 2003.
3. Dollars & Sense Economic Policy Institute.
4. US Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2004-2005, Table 591, p385.

FRFI 184 April / May 2005


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