Kansas, Conviction, and the Future of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
In my observation many Americans hold contradictory views that
prevent them from adopting complete, internally coherent worldviews.
Prof. George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant,
notes that large numbers of people operate both by progressive "nurturant"
and authoritarian "strict father" models. Thus, Jesse
Jackson marched with striking meatpackers through a Milwaukee blue-collar
suburb where many homes were festooned with both giant Jackson posters
and their customary Confederate flags. Similarly, during a 1988
rally to stop a Chrysler plant closing costing 5,500 jobs, Jackson
was greeted as a savior in the Kenosha, Wisconsin community facing
devastation. Yet, the flustered mayor delivered a stunningly bizarre
introduction, praising Jackson by using a racial epithet: "Yes,
we are fortunate to have Rev. Jackson in our time of need and we
welcome Jesse Jackson as a spearchucker for justice."
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
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
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
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist. He can
be reached at email@example.com.