Kansas, Conviction & the Future of the Dems
Lessons from What's the Matter With Kansas
TV images of transgressive sexuality, driven home again and again by the conservative media axis and evangelical preachers, have attained far more urgency than the daily experience of driving past ghostly, empty factories whose jobs had been exported to Mexico and China, and seeing Main St. crumble as taxpayer-subsidized Wal-Mart drives out local pharmacies, drugstores, clothiers, and hardware stores. Grievances based on the menacing impact of corporate power were set aside by millions of Americans in favor of cultural issues crafted by the Bush team and the Right for skillful exploitation in the campaign.
Kansas, Conviction, and the Future of the Dems
March 11, 2005
By Roger Bybee
During the Clinton years, Jeremy Tuck said he had been selling mobile homes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and, at $45,000 a year, making good money. Last year, he was assembling mobile homes, earning $15,000 and living hand-to-mouth. But Bush has his vote this November ...
"You make more money in plain terms when Democrats are in office," Tuck said with a shrug, "but Republicans are stronger on the military, and that's why I'm voting for President Bush." - quoted in the Washington Post, 6/10/04
The acute ambivalence of people like Jeremy Tuck - economically insecure about their own immediate futures but also anxious about amorphous changes in social mores and the constantly-invoked threat of terrorism for the nation as a whole - was cleverly managed and manipulated to produce a victory for George W. Bush in the most crucial election since 1932.
Strikingly, the razor-edge reality of "living hand to mouth" for millions of America's Jeremy Tucks was trumped by the Republicans' far more symbolic appeals. The vague promise of restoring "traditional values," and the promotion of a broad but empty national purpose in the contrived and mis-directed "war against terror" in Iraq, seemed to over-ride the Democrats' seemingly more direct, if muffled, appeals to plain-terms economic issues.
It's as if the Republicans and their allies had successfully plugged directly into the most primitive, reptilian portions of Americans' brains and applied massive jolts to stimulate fear - of terrorism, of gay marriage, of the unfamiliar and unknown.
At the same time, Republican campaign strategists scrupulously tracked individual voters' "anger points" on issues like gays, guns, and abortion, and then skillfully stoked the level of rage. While the Republican issue agenda was relatively remote from the everyday lives of most citizens, it nonetheless tapped into more powerful emotions than the Democrats' appeals.
To draw upon these emotions and capture uncritical "faith-based" support among the public, the Bush administration carefully created a very powerful and comforting family metaphor or frame. Bush was consistently cast by top advisor Karl Rove as the decisive, protective father figure vigilantly guarding the American family and the Homeland against both aggressive terrorist foes and slick-talking, elitist liberals. Members of the American family were assured that they could safely invest their unswerving faith in the father's resolute commitment to protect them and look out for their best interests, without troubling themselves to evaluate the evidence.
One of the most glowing moments of this post-9/11 effort to cast Bush as the national father and guardian came on Thanksgiving, 2003. Bush secretly flew into Iraq and then stood before US troops wearing a military jacket and holding a massive, delicious-looking golden-brown turkey. The fact that the photo-op turkey was actually a non-edible prop supplied by Halliburton (who else?), as the Washington Post revealed (12/4/03), did not detract from implanting a militarized Norman Rockwell-esque image in the minds of tens of millions of Americans. Bush's carefully-contrived role as the ever-alert, protective father providing for his children under perilous conditions of war (which he of course initiated) was compellingly underscored.
Bush's re-election seems to reflect the power of such images and the imperviousness of many Americans' perceptual "frame" to the vast accumulation of facts documenting the Administration's non-stop stream of lies and deceptions about the need for war with Iraq. As media specialists have documented, the perceptual "frame" that a person adopts to view and interpret the world is much more important than facts, especially those that contradict the frame.
Verification of this insight comes from a recent study the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Center for Intentional and Security Studies released Oct. 21. Specifically, 72% of Bush supporters believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 75% are convinced that Iraq was providing major support to Al Qaeda. The study indicates that, as one-time Nixon White House aide John Dean put it, "Bush supporters seem to simply ignore information they don't like - even if it is confirmed by the Bush administration itself."
Improbably, the Commander-in-Chief who steadfastly refused to abandon his post on vacation in Texas - even after reading the infamous Aug. 6, 2001 briefing paper titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US," just 36 days before 9/11 - nonetheless was able to emerge unscathed as the overwhelming favorite of those most concerned with aggressively fighting terrorism.
ELITISM CLEANSED OF ECONOMICS
ELITISM CLEANSED OF ECONOMICS
In retrospect, perhaps the Republicans' most remarkable achievement was their success in re-defining "elitism." Resentment against elitism and the growing concentration of wealth among the most privileged, as ordinary Americans faced shrinking paychecks and longer hours, was skillfully diverted away from those controlling the real levers of economic power in America.
Elitism was narrowed and re-defined to exclude economic inequities and to exempt those actually making decisions that transfer jobs to low-wage dictatorships while devastating US workers and their communities. Instead, "elite" became increasingly associated with cultural status and linked to the "liberal" news media and Hollywood. The entertainment industry and its cultural "liberalism" - sex, violence, crude humor, and coarse language - allegedly reflects the liberal agenda of reshaping American values, rather than the customary corporate strategy of generating profits through sensationalism.
Entirely erased was the existence of numerous Republican-supporting media giants like Rupert Murdoch, Adelphia, TimeWarner, and many others who have huge stakes in selling the mindless, violent, and sexually-explicit content from which many cultural conservatives seek to protect their children, as the Washington Post's Terry Neal has noted.
CROSS-DRESSING ON ELITISM
CROSS-DRESSING ON ELITISM
The importance of "morality" in the 2004 elections may have been overstated by flawed questions in some of the initial polling, as Will Lester and others have pointed out. But there seems little question that fears of gay marriage, abortion, and gun control were successfully pumped up to immense importance by the Republicans' corporate-Christian Right coalition, using the opportunity of 11 state-level referenda on gay marriage.
Worries about the growing influence of gays and abortion were inflated to the proportions of 50-foot specters boldly sashaying down the Main Streets of small rural and factory towns, pockmarked by boarded-up storefronts and shuttered factories. Located many hundreds of miles from pro-gay oases in San Francisco or Massachusetts, these communities have almost certainly never witnessed a local "gay pride" parade and abortion is probably unavailable locally, as it is in nearly 90% of US counties. Late-term abortion is a rarely-used medical procedure utilized exclusively to preserve the mother's health.
Yet TV images of transgressive sexuality, driven home again and again by the conservative media axis and evangelical preachers, have attained far more urgency than the daily experience of driving past ghostly, empty factories whose jobs had been exported to Mexico and China, and seeing Main St. crumble as taxpayer-subsidized Wal-Mart drives out local pharmacies, drugstores, clothiers, and hardware stores. Grievances based on the menacing impact of corporate power were set aside by millions of Americans in favor of cultural issues crafted by the Bush team and the Right for skillful exploitation in the campaign.
Despite the blatant supremacy of corporate interests over workers' in virtually every Bush policy, the Bush team skillfully manipulated symbols to express utterly insincere "concern" for working families. At times, Bush has been spectacularly klutzy in trying to proclaim his empathy for the workers of America: "I know how hard it is to put food on your family." But Bush's handlers have been very consistent and adroit in recasting a spoiled, preppy son of privilege into a plain-folks Crawford, Texas rancher.
For example, the National Association of Manufacturers and House Speaker Dennis Hastert set up a media event to press for Bush's tax cuts favoring the rich. A NAM invitation to participants demanded that corporate executives taking part should masquerade as workers: "the Speaker's office was very clear in saying that thy do not need people in suits. If people want to participate - AND WE DO NEED BODIES - they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER TYPES, etc."
KERRY THE ENABLER
KERRY THE ENABLER
But the Republican cross-dressing was able to prevail only because of Kerry's role as an enabler of the GOP. After the primary season, the Democrats' muddled, muted message lacked any anti-elitist, populist sizzle to counter the impassioned spirits of the Republicans' "anger points." The Democrats' tepid call for greater economic security and a more measured response to terrorism and the war in Iraq utterly failed to create a spark with many whites who have so much to lose from Bush's enrich-the-rich policies at home and unilateral aggression abroad.
For example, the US lost an estimated 406,000 jobs in 2004 alone to Mexico, India and China, according to a recent study by Cornell and University of Maryland scholars. Nearly one-third of all the jobs lost during the first three years of Bush's reign were casualties of outsourcing, estimated Mark Zandi, chief economist for the Economy.com consulting group. But even this was not sufficient to defeat an administration whose treasury secretary and chief economic advisor soothingly crooned "Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade" and a "good thing."
OBVIOUS TARGET: ECONOMIC POLARIZATION
OBVIOUS TARGET: ECONOMIC POLARIZATION
This endorsement of exporting US jobs and driving down American wages occurred even as a jetstream of income spurts upward. This gushing redistribution of wealth has created the most dramatic, visible economic polarization in American history since the Gilded Age:
- In 2000, the 2.8 million people who made up the top 1% of the US population received more total after-tax income - $950 billion , or 15.5% - than did the 110 million people who made up the bottom 40 percent, whose aggregate income was $895 billion or just 14.4%. In 1979, in contrast, the top one percent received less than half as much total income as the bottom 40 percent, according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
- The current economic "recovery" has only exacerbated these trends, as Andrew Sum of the Northeastern University Labor Studies Center found in a recent study. Sum concluded: "This is the first time we've ever had a case where two years into a recovery, corporate profits got a larger share of the growth of national income than labor did. Normally labor gets about 65 percent and corporate profits about 15 to 18 percent. This time profits got 41 percent and labor [meaning all forms of employee compensation, including wages, benefits, salaries and the percentage of payroll taxes paid by employers] got 38 percent."
- Equally telling is this July 20 Wall Street Journal headline: "So Far, Economic Recovery Tilts Toward Highest-Income Americans." The article noted that "upper-income families reaped the largest gains from the tax cuts President Bush championed" and drove a surge of consumer spending a year ago that helped to rev up the recovery." This "two-track" recovery was manifested in double digit US sales for "luxury brands like BMW, Cadillac, and Lexus," while "Sales of lower-tier brands such as Dodge, Pontiac, and Mercury either declined or grew in the low single digits." The tightening economic noose is also felt in the form of lack of insurance coverage (up 5.2 million in Bush's first term, to 45 million uninsured Americans) and sharply declining pension protection.
- In the midst of this severe middle-class squeeze, Bush's only response was to enact tax cuts that shamelessly favored the rich over the vast majority of Americans. While the Bush Administration enjoyed some success in the media by attaching a deceptive "average" value to the tax cut, the median tax cut amounted to just $217. Meanwhile, the tax cut was worth $93,000 for millionaires, as Frances Fox Piven points out in her recent book, The War At Home.
Despite this backdrop to the campaign, Kerry failed to demonstrate his fundamental empathy with the victims of this polarization and to pin the label of economic elitism on Bush and Cheney. The Texas oilers' extensive ties to Enron and Halliburton made them poster boys for crony capitalism. Yet the Kerry campaign have deepened a disturbing trend in which the Democrats have suffered a massive gap - of 23 points or more - among whites with less than a college education, according to Democratic pollster and author Ruy Tuxiera. While it is widely recognized that Bush trounced Kerry on the question of fighting terrorism, it is stunning to learn that 55% of white working-class voters trusted Bush to handle the economy, while only 39% trusted Kerry, as Tuxeira reported.
Exemplifying Kerry's weakness on the economy was his wandering course on the issue of corporate globalization, where he zig-zagged as if he were riding his windsurfing board. Awareness of global exploitation is so acute that support for NAFTA-style trade agreements has dropped from 57% to 28% from 1999 to 2004 among high-income (above $100,000 Americans, according to recent polling data by Univesity of Maryland researchers. Moreover, resentment about corporate dis-investment in US jobs is also very strong among lower-income whites who also hold conservative cultural views. Apart from the punditocracy (eg., the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof absurdly equated Kerry's timid critique of globalization with the vicious lies of the Swift Boat Veterans), the glories of "free trade" inspire little admiration from most Americans.
Yet this potent, cross-cutting appeal of challenging corporate globalization was used only temporarily and then withdrawn by the Kerry campaign. Over the past decade, the Democratic Party's leadership has been unwilling to tap the full power of the public repudiation of ever-accelerating corporate globalization. Drawn toward big corporate donors in the same way a flower is drawn phototropically toward the sun, the Democrats have increasingly bent their program toward wealthy donors and suburban swing voters theoretically reachable on social issues. Meanwhile, the Democrats have neglected the projection of convincing economic appeal, thereby allowing its roots among working families to wither and dry up.
In recent decades, under pressure of an increasingly corrupt campaign-finance system, the Democrats have distanced themselves from the core economic interests of workers and the poor in order to rake in contributions from some of the same corporate interests funding the Republicans. Perhaps the single most decisive breach of faith with working families occurred when Bill Clinton and Al Gore waged their titanic, no-holds-barred effort in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Clinton even denounced what he called the "muscle-bound" tactics of labor, while working closely with the unprecedented corporate lobbying campaign for NAFTA. Top-level Dems imagine that the deep alienation between working people and the Democrats was a minor, temporary tiff that has been long forgotten. "[Congress'] NAFTA vote had about a two-week half-life," said Clinton's chief trade negotiator, Mickey Kantor, years after NAFTA was sucking U.S. jobs south of the border. "Even today trade has very little political impact in the country."
But Kantor's panoramic view from his plush law office is very different than the one visible on the mean streets of de-industrialized cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Racine, Gary, Chicago, and dozens of others. Working-class leaders have experienced how their constituents' perception of the Democrats was changed by the leadership's abandonment of its core followers on the question of corporate globalization. "I'll never be able to walk into the plant again and ask people to vote for the Democrats again," one disgusted UAW local president told me after Clinton rammed through NAFTA with the aid of a vast corporate coalition and the almost-universal approval of major media. According to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA is responsible for the shift of some 879,000 US jobs to Mexico. Moreover, it has also deepened the alienation of untold numbers of working class people who once staunchly identified the Democrats as their party, the party of the powerless.
BENEDICT ARNOLD DEMOCRATS DUMP POTENT THEME
BENEDICT ARNOLD DEMOCRATS DUMP POTENT THEME
With this context in place, enter John Kerry. Although John Kerry voted for NAFTA's passage, his primary campaign correctly sensed that the public had turned against such trade deals by 2004. While John Edwards and others articulated fuller critiques of corporate globalization, Kerry came up with the most memorable phrase, denouncing "Benedict Arnold CEOs." The term provided a grittier populist edge to his otherwise patrician image as a stiff-jawed Boston Brahmin, and was thus helpful in securing the nomination.
The "Benedict Arnold CEOs" term masterfully combined a punchy, attention-commanding populism with the clear argument that corporations shifting jobs overseas - and their White House advocates - were betraying the nation, This scored an especially clever and potent point against Bush's chief financial sponsors while the US is engaged in war. However, this, the noteworthy phrase of an otherwise theme-challenged and colorless campaign, was quietly taken out and shot at dawn after Kerry secured the nomination,. The firing squad was composed of Wall Street heavyweights like former Clinton-era heavyweights Robert Rubin and Roger Altman, whose own corporations-first economic views qualified them as Benedict Arnold Democrats.
This brain trust decided that the "Benedict Arnold CEO" language, perhaps striking too close to their mansions, was "overheated rhetoric," a Kerry aide informed the New York Times (6/25/04). Altman was even more forceful in explaining the decision to Arianna Huffington: "This was very unfortunate language. We've buried it." (Common Dreams, 11/4/04). Indeed they did. And with it, they buried much of Kerry's ability to convince working Americans that he was serious about producing major improvements in their lives.
Throughout much of the campaign, the tenacity of Kerry's commitment to economic justice seemed less than convincing to many voters. Eventually, he adopted positions opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement and Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and called for a "review" of NAFTA. But along the way, he issued an unusual and searing blast at Howard Dean for a "retreat from the global economy" and advocating an "approach mean(ing) that we couldn't sell a single car anywhere in the developing world." (New York Times, 9/23/03).
Moreover, when he called for reviewing rather than repealing NAFTA, the point was not lost on grumbling blue-collar audiences in states like Wisconsin, as a local paper reported. Instead of using the tax deadline of April 15 to highlight growing economic inequality and the use of tax havens by Corporate America, Kerry chose that very day to declare "[I'm] no redistribution Democrat." While undoubtedly comforting to the Democrats' big donors, it signaled that Kerry was not committed to delivering substantial improvements in working Americans' lives. Kerry was equally equivocal, if not craven, toward corporate interests, on critical issues like health care and "tort reform" efforts to weaken the courts as a force for corporate accountability.
The consequence of Kerry's mixed messages on economic issues was expressed in a focus group conducted by pollster Peter Hart in Ohio, where undecided voters outlined views on jobs, education and health care that were far closer to Kerry's positions than Bush's. As reported on NPR's "On Point" program by Jack Beatty, when Hart pointed this out, the group's members generally shrugged off Kerry's positions as merely cynical, meaningless election-year rhetoric. Although his positions were closely aligned to these undecided voters, Kerry simply did not appear to be fully attuned to the economic concerns of working America nor deeply committed to fighting for their interests when push came to shove.
KANSAS AND THE BACKLASH VS. LIBERAL MIRAGE
KANSAS AND THE BACKLASH VS. LIBERAL MIRAGE
In retrospect, it almost seems as if Kerry and his advisors read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? but then consciously decided to adopt all the themes and imagery that Frank had so fiercely warned Democrats against. Frank's book provides a thoughtful and remarkably prescient analysis of why so many poor and working-class white Americans voted against their most urgent and obvious class interests.
According to Kansas native Frank, politics in both his home state and the entire US have been overtaken by a right-wing threshing machine, relentlessly surging backwards and mowing down hard-won economic and social gains that took decades to plant, nurture and harvest for working people. The glaring inequities pressing in on the everyday lives of working families and small businesspeople in Kansas (and elsewhere) magically vanish in the worldview popularized by the Religious Right. By calling on working people to rise up against the illusory power of the secular, all-powerful "liberal elite," the Republicans have managed to turn populism inside out. As Frank sees it, "For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting."
The economically-excluded have been enlisted in a "a crusade in which one's material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances that all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged." Kansas is an examplar of this displaced class rage. A century after Kansas was a hotbed of anti-corporate populism (populist leader Mary Lease once declared, "You farmers ought to raise less corn and more hell!") plenty of corporate giants are now striding fearlessly across its prairies with little danger of igniting a populist rebellion. Agribusiness gulping up huge federal grants while family farms wither away; Wal-Mart drains economic and social vitality from small-towns; utility CEOs are engorging themselves at public expense through electric deregulation schemes akin to Enron; and Boeing executives are outsourcing work from Wichita to low-wage sites like China.
The Right has seemingly perfected a political perpetual-motion machine, argues Frank. Gnawing economic anxieties find political expression only in outrage against liberalism's alleged cultural offenses, which in turn are never fully addressed by the hard-line conservatives once elected to office. The Republican-Right coalition runs campaigns on what Frank calls "culturally powerful but content-free issues." Yet the Republican vote is interpreted as a mandate for earth-shaking economic policies that threaten the very ground under moderate and low-income voters' feet. Frank nails the Republican formula precisely: "Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. "
Despite polling data showing majority support for progressive economic policies such as universal health care, American politics have been re-worked, in the conventional wisdom, into a split between an all-powerful, snobbish urban liberal elite and a humble, pious, and hard-working suburban and rural set of "producers," thereby shifting the public debate from the nation's economic and social polarization. Frank thoroughly and wittily demolishes the shoddy and superficial analysis of pundits like David Brooks, arguing: "The red-state/blue-state divide ... helped conservatives perform one of their dearest rhetorical maneuvers, which we will call the latte libel: the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences, and that these tastes and preference reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism."
Republican strategists have few illusions about the subordination of social conservatism to the all-important project of enhancing the wealth and power of those at the top. The latest instance is Bush's announcement that he now has no intentions of pushing for a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage, which has infuriated some leading religious right-wingers such as the so-called Arlington Group led by James Dobson of Focus on the Family. In effect, Bush was signaling that the familiar package of "anger-point" campaign issues were useful in electing Republican candidates, but were destined to be packed away until the next election season. (Bush has since reversed himself, but his economic agenda of Social Security demolition and tax-cutting for the rich has unmistakably pushed the social agenda to the back burner.)
Still, much of public discourse is dominated by social issues instead of the central fact of American life that impacts every issue from family income and the possibility of college to health care: the polarization of wealth and income. Instead of focusing their fury upward on the corporate decisionmakers who have so profoundly shrunken the quality of their lives, working-class and poor Kansans have sprayed their resentment across an array of cultural targets, the poor, and the "liberal elite" that purportedly dominates public policy and cultural life. As former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips put it, "... the joke, of course, is that the liberals haven't been in power in 30 years. It's as if conservatives are seeing a ghost from the sixties and seventies." (Harper's, Aug. 2004.)
How have Americans been persuaded to align themselves with their economic overseers and ignore their own most fundamental needs for decent jobs, health care, and an effective voice in society? "By all rights," observes Frank, "the charm of Republicanism should have worn off for this part of the conservative coalition long ago ... All they have to show for their Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk - and of course, a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years."
But most of the media has been oblivious to this paradox of culture-based campaigns and corporate-driven governance. Major pundits have constructed a parallel universe where culturally virtuous, humble and earnest red-staters also uncritically embrace the free-market fundamentalism with the same enthusiasm as their religious fundamentalism driving opposition to abortion, pornography, and other manifestations of social "liberalism."
DEMOCRATS CREATE VACUUM
DEMOCRATS CREATE VACUUM
Yet at the ballot box, the absolution of Corporate America for economic disparity and a crass, vulgar culture continued on Nov. 2, even among many of its most acute victims. This support for Bush among working-class and poor whites must be seen, first of all, as the product of a vacuum created by the abdication of the Democratic Party as the party of tenacious, committed fighters for the victims of injustice.
As Frank argues, "Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day." By pulling back on its commitments to working people, the Democrats have allowed the Republicans to substitute an anti-elitist cultural message for an anti-elite economic appeal. "It's that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues likes guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns," says Frank.
SHIFTING THE ELITE BULLSEYE
SHIFTING THE ELITE BULLSEYE
As America grows more economically polarized, the ability to pin the "elite" bullseye on political opponents has become correspondingly more important. The late Republican strategist Lee Atwater recognized the importance of keeping one's political movement identified with "the people" and counterposed against forces that, once successfully branded as an "elite," are then forever mortally wounded.
"Simply put, there is constantly a war going on between the two parties for the populist vote," Atwater said. "The populist vote is always the swing vote. It's been the swing vote in every election..." He added astutely: "Traditionally, the Republican Party has been elitist, but one of the things that has happened is that the Democratic Party has become a party of [rival] elites." Indeed.
For all his insights, Frank seems to under-appreciate the complexity and contradictory nature of consciousness, particularly among poor and working-class white Americans. He is thus unable to fully appreciate some promising seeds that lay beneath the current deluge of snow. Elements of racism, religious intolerance, and hypocritical "self-reliance" often co-exist alongside respect for people of color they actually know, acceptance of cultural differences, and support for social programs so long as they are not explicitly branded "welfare." However, Frank's portrait of the public mood conveys it as having congealed firmly in a Christian Right mode even on economic issues, with little prospect of thawing.
This same kind of conflicted consciousness was underscored by our observation of a Pat Buchanan rally during the Wisconsin presidential primary in 1996. The event had a thoroughly Republican and Christian Right flavor. As Buchanan roasted one cultural target after another (supporters of abortion, the Hollywood elite, the UN, etc.) the applause meter rose to what I'd estimate to be about a 6 or 7. Buchanan's harder-edged version of a traditional Republican pitch had the audience in the palm of his hand. But then the next section of his speech could have been delivered by a left-wing populist Jackson or Jim Hightower - but unfortunately, not John Kerry. When Buchanan turned to the question of corporate globalization, he thundered against US corporations taking jobs away from American workers who had been loyal to their employers and sending the jobs to young Chinese and Mexican women. "It's a dog-eat-dog competition using people who have no choice but to accept 25 cents an hour in China or $1 an hour in Mexico, with no protections. There has got to be a living wage for everyone," declared Buchanan. The audience erupted in a full-throated roar and leapt to its feet, sending the applause meter to the maximum.
Clearly, the issue of corporate globalization is a powerful emotional lightning rod among the very people who are also touched by the appeals of the Christian Right. Corporate America's brand of globalization includes elements that inflame a broad swath of the electorate: the export of US jobs to low-wage dictatorships, the chartering of US firms in offshore tax havens, and the surrender of democratic governance to international bodies composed of corporate representatives. With the right message, this issue has the power to cut across many traditional political barriers and to heat up progressive economic themes far hotter than largely-contrived cultural "anger points."
In contrast, Kerry's amorphous, shape-shifting messages allowed the Bush hit squad to define his politics and to fatally brand him as a politician representing "elites." If there is one single trait that persuades American voters that a candidate is a manipulative, cynical "elitist," it is the unwillingness to take clear-cut, unambiguous positions on the matters of gravest concern. The lack of a moral compass is regarded as a telltale sign of elitists willing to adopt any position to manipulate the presumably sheep-like public. Ironically, Kerry's very caution and unwillingness to express his convictions straightforwardly contributed mightily to his "elite" image and loss of appeal among poor and blue-collar whites. American Prospect's Harold Meyerson astutely observed that "if elections are reduced to a cultural census, it's clear that for a while, the provincials will beat the cosmopolitans." One key task to reversing this frightening math is to recognize the prevalence of contradictory consciousness and to build upon widely-held values - hard work, democracy, economic justice - that are thoroughly undermined by corporate globalization. We must "connect the dots" of popular consciousness to sketch out a new, progressive direction.
While it is absolutely imperative to resist the temptation to jettison principled, hard-won victories on issues like reproductive rights, gay rights, and affirmative action, positions on such issues can most effectively be framed within broadly-shared values of "inclusion" and "equal opportunity" that distinguish the Democrats from Republicans. Further, the economic polarization and corporation globalization that have intensified cultural intolerance must become lightning-rod issues for the Democrats. The Democrats must establish an enduring, indelible identity as the party of economic justice for all so that its positions on social justice cannot be isolated and unfairly caricatured as concessions to "fringe groups."
Contrary to recent hints by Hillary Clinton on reproductive rights, any further concessions to the Right will only deepen the perception that the Democrats are elitist manipulators who effectively stand for nothing and cannot be relied upon in any struggle of consequence. Further, moving to the right only gives the Republicans freedom to adopt more extreme positions while still appearing within the spectrum of mainstream politics. This strategy of capitulating to the right - thereby alienating the party's own base and granting more legitimacy to Republican extremism - is hardly a brilliant masterstroke.
As shown by the current struggle over Bush's scheme to dismantle Social Security, when the Party speaks with moral clarity and acts with unity, it can ignite an overwhelming popular response. But this fight is only the first stage in reshaping the party into an entity that clearly fights injustice and empire with conviction and tenacity.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com