How Democrats Lost the Working Class

By Thomas Frank (Thomas Frank is editor of the Baffler magazine and author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” This article was adapted from that book by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Co)

WASHINGTON — That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than 30 years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this movement has largely been brought about by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is less commented upon.

And yet the trend is apparent, from the “hard hats” of the 1960s to the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s to today’s mad-as-hell “red states.” You can see the paradox firsthand on nearly any Main Street in Middle America, where “going out of business” signs stand side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush.

I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my home state of Kansas, a place that has been particularly ill served by the conservative policies of privatization, deregulation and deunionization — and that has reacted to its worsening situation by becoming more conservative still. Indeed, Kansas is today the site of a ferocious struggle within the Republican Party, a fight pitting affluent moderate Republicans against conservatives from working-class districts and down-market churches. And it’s hard not to feel some affection for the conservative faction, even as I deplore its political views. After all, these are the people that liberalism is supposed to speak to: the hard-luck farmers, the bitter factory workers, the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the disreputable.

Although Kansas voters have chosen self-destructive policies, it is clear that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and liberalism just as surely lost places like Wichita and Shawnee as much as conservatism won them over.

This is due partly, I think, to the Democratic Party’s more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.

Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as “class warfare” and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party’s very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on bread-and-butter economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where’s the soft money in that?

Read the rest. Please. Just click the title.

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