What's (Really) the Matter with Liberals?

In 1979, the United States Senate was 61% Democrat and was run by Majority Wizard (Oops! I mean Majority “Leader”) Robert C. Byrd. The House of Representatives was an unbelievable 67% Democrat and led by the memorable bipartisan Tip O’Neill. Jimmy Carter sat in the White House; he probably did more than that, but we know he sat in the White House. And the Supreme Court remained an activist institution.

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan — employing only a grandfatherly grin and magic hair cream — tricked the good-hearted but gullible people of America into electing him President. This did not bother Liberals, however, since they expect the simple-minded common folk to get fooled from time to time. Strangely though, even after governing openly as a Conservative, Mr. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 in a historic landslide, then re-elected to a third term in 1988 under the name “George H. W. Bush.” Other than Bill Clinton getting into office with an inspiring 43% of the vote in a three-way race in 1992 (then winning his 49% “mandate” while running essentially unopposed in 1996), Democrats have suffered mounting defeat at the polls for the last 25 years, both nationally and in the States.

Today, Republicans — led by conservative thinkers, energized by conservative grass roots organizations and backed-up by a fledgling conservative media — control the White House for the fifth time in seven terms, control the Senate with a 55% majority, control the House of Representatives with a 53% majority, and stand within one seat of reining-in the Supreme Court. At this point, some liberals think they might see a trend.

Among these is Thomas Frank, author of the bestselling What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives won the Heart of America. In the new afterword to the paperback edition of his book, appearing as an essay in the May 12 issue of The New York Review of Books, Mr. Frank asks further: What’s the Matter with Liberals?

It’s a question we’ve all asked.

However, I do not think Mr. Frank answered the question correctly in his essay, and so I would like to offer my thoughts for consideration.

To Mr. Frank, the only thing wrong with liberals is that they have not yet learned to deal with the issue of manufactured “backlash” against their cultural policies. Briefly, Mr. Frank believes that, since the economic interests of the working class are unarguably best served by Liberals, working class support for Republican candidates can be explained only by??¢â???¬ ¦ Republican trickery! This trickery takes the form of “the culture war,” through which Republicans manipulate the gullible workers and peasants into rebelling against their only real economic hope — Democrats. Then, after each election, Republicans retreat to the Country Club, where they tell “You might be a Redneck??¢â???¬ ¦” jokes about their supporters, conspire to tax baby milk, and draft legislation “for the greater glory of Wal-Mart.” The good-natured but politically na???? ¯ve liberals, meanwhile, are helpless to stop the Machiavellian machinations of the seamless Republican political juggernaut.

At this point, I had to stop reading Mr. Frank’s piece while I lay on the floor gasping between fits of laughter. The idea that Republicans are the masters of the black arts of politics, while the Democrats are babes-in-the-woods is just ridiculous. The Democrats ran a Presidential campaign in 2004 that was nothing but technique and nearly devoid of substance. Bush’s strategy was a singular message: “You can trust me to see the War through.”

The Democrats ran a somewhat more layered campaign that consisted of claims that the War was already lost, the economy was secretly in shambles, the Republicans had a secret plan to bring back the draft, the Republicans had a secret plan to suppress minority votes, the Republicans had a secret plan to enrich Dick Cheney, George Bush had — through a secret plan– avoided his full National Guard obligation, and the Republicans had a very secret plan to steal the election, which is why the Democrats had to deploy an Army of lawyers to every swing state to sue Kerry into the White House, should Bush win by just a hair. The Democrats also placed an initiative on the ballot in the pro-Bush state of Colorado to split its electoral votes (thus giving Kerry a substantial technical edge in a close election); and they are still finding bags of ballots for Christine Gregoire in Washington State.

Might I humbly suggest that the problem is not that the Democrats lack political skills, but that they have become entirely dependent on these skills? Perhaps a message concerning something real they wanted to do (rather than the secret plans of Republicans) was the critical missing ingredient?

Be that as it may (not be), Mr. Frank continues, citing specific examples of how the manufactured “backlash” technique was unfairly employed in 2004 to make liberals look like effete out-of-touch elitists. Most unfair was the fact that “voters were energized by ballot initiatives proposing constitutional amendments reacting to the illusory threat of gay marriage.” Being in Massachusetts, I’m not sure how the “threat” of gay marriage is illusory. But if it is, then perhaps Liberals should avoid creating other such illusions before the next election. It was a decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court that precipitated the whole thing, after all. If you don’t make it up, we won’t use it against you.

Also unfair, he claims, was Republican’s use of “the oldest set-piece of them all: the treason of the rich kids during the Vietnam War.” Wow — too true. The Swift Boat Veterans should have never brought up Vietnam unprovoked like that, after John Kerry simply “reported for duty” at a navy blue Democratic Convention that featured more gauze-filtered shots of clingy sailors than a Village People documentary. Again, if you don’t make it up, we won’t use it against you.

Then there was the way in which Republicans unfairly portrayed the CBS news scandal in which “official” documents impugning President Bush’s military service were found to be outright forgeries. According to Mr. Frank, the story was simply an “honest mistake” by CBS, not any sort of hatchet job deservedly triggering backlash against liberal media bias. These documents were not even “forgeries”, but simply “documents whose provenance could not be verified.” Who knew that an attempt to change the President of the United States through fraud could sound so much like finding a piece of unstamped Majolica ware on eBay? On this matter, too, might I suggest that, if you don’t make it up, we won’t use it against you?

But my favorite example of unfair backlash baiting is what Mr. Frank refers to as “the Christmas Panic of 2004.” In his words:

    “The provocation was the decision by a handful of towns and school districts (as usual, every node of the right-wing publicity apparatus relied on the same three or four examples) to keep Nativity scenes off the lawns of city halls and overtly religious songs out of public school pageants.” “The response was a huge collective exercise in persecution mania, with radio hosts joining newspaper columnists and evangelical leaders in depicting themselves as unassuming common people crushed under the boot heel of arrogant liberalism, of ‘cultural fascists,’ of ‘leftist jihadis hunting down Jesus,’ of ‘liberal, anti-Christmas Nazis,’ of those who believe ‘God is the enemy’.”

I like this example for a few reasons. First, it occurred a month after the election — which doesn’t fit well with the theory that Republicans bring cultural issues up for elections then drop them soon after, does it? Second, not one politician was involved in this “panic,” again calling into question his theory that the so-called “culture war” is a disingenuous political maneuver. And third, two of the examples Frank cites to illustrate his point are from an article I wrote for Human Events Online in December 2004 — thus immortalizing me as “footnote 19” in his tome.

It’s not just narcissistic self-indulgence that makes me like that. It’s also the fact that the article he cited is not even about Christmas. I think that makes it a tad hard to claim that this particular “node of the right-wing publicity apparatus relied on the same three or four examples” as everyone else. How is it possible to quote from an article and yet not have actually read it? Composition by Google? The article focused on academic efforts to abandon the “A.D.” vs. “B.C.” method of dating history simply because it makes reference to Christ. Christmas was mentioned only once in the article, in commenting upon the similarity of the dating silliness to other such petty attacks on religious symbols (including Holidays) that have been perpetrated by the left ever since Marx declared religion to be the opiate of the masses.

So in short, I don’t think Mr. Frank exactly hit his mark, despite his excellent choice of reference material. But I do believe the answer to his question is contained within his essay. What’s the Matter with Liberals? Let’s look at the terrific liberal “issues” that Mr. Frank believes the Democrats should emphasize to win back the wayward proletariat:

1) Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is mentioned three separate times in an article on political strategy. Mr. Frank, seek therapy now. Wal-Mart is a store that sells cheap stuff. It is not the anti-Christ. (Although perhaps it should claim to be, thereby endearing itself to the left.) Wal-Mart is a facial-tick-inducing obsession with some folks. Does Mr. Frank believe that the path to the White House leads through Wal-Mart because he is of a class that cannot understand how anyone could buy pants there? Or because, as a detached campaigner for the “lower” classes, he believes that Wal-Mart is the central focus of red-state life — the company store of old squeezing the little man out of his trailer park home with inadequate health insurance and scary falling prices?

2) Increasing the minimum wage. Campaigning on raising the minimum wage is a great strategy for winning the votes of both Beavis and Butthead. How many people do you think earn minimum wage? Just how little do the “little people” look from where Mr. Frank is? Nobody cares about the minimum wage. It’s a joke. If you can create new wealth with a law, why not make the minimum wage $1,000,000 an hour? Why not pass a law giving us all free ice cream, too? The law doesn’t work, and cannot work. People are paid what the market can bear, or they are not paid at all –and a lot of people get that.

3) More class warfare for coalminers. West Virginia being transformed into a red state is discussed at length in the essay. That’s because Mr. Frank saw the change occurring with his own eyes — when he visited the place with a French socialist named “Serge” to see if they could figure out why West Virginians inexplicably view Liberals as out of touch with middle America. (HINT: LOOK IN THE PASSENGER SEAT, MON AMI!) Losing West Virginia was a watershed event to Mr. Frank because “This is a place where the largest private-sector employer is Wal-Mart and where decades of bloody fights between workers and mine owners gave rise to a particularly stubborn form of class consciousness.”

And there you have it: what’s really the matter with liberals. They still think their working-class foster children are the grubby little miners from Matewan, running in fear from the company enforcers and struggling to feed the young-uns more than just possum and turnip greens. They believe the minimum wage is an “issue”. They still think the New Deal is new — and a deal. They are campaigning for McGovern in 2005. They live in the past — a delusion that comes easily to well-insulated intellectuals casting themselves as heroes in a story in which the common folk need their help. Liberalism has become a Marxist Romanticism. Liberals’ ideas and attitudes, like their perceptions, are firmly rooted somewhere between The Grapes of Wrath and Billy Jack. This puts them at something of a disadvantage when campaigning here in the present. Plus, they fret over Wal-Mart and ride with Serge*.

What’s the matter with liberals, Mr. Frank? Just look in the mirror.

(You can buy one cheap at Wal-Mart.)

* Serge’s article on the road trip, “What’s the Matter with West Virginia?”, really is a “must read” for fans of the grammatical style of the Babar series of children’s books. Example: “We see a lot of ‘We support our troops’ signs. We meet a brother and sister in the state capital, Charleston, who will vote Republican for ‘religious reasons’; yet the brother is a schoolteacher and he has no health insurance.” Babar queries Cornelius as to the etiology of such a reactionary proletariat. They have a picnic.

But, much to Monsieur Serge Halimi’s credit, he understands liberalism’s woes better than his American traveling companion. The Frank assessed frankly, unlike Mr. Frank, that ordinary people despise self-styled liberal intellectuals, in part, because “the smugness of those in the know is even more insufferable than the insolence of the rich.” Oui, oui, Serge. To this I would add only that thinking one is in the know, and actually being there, are two very different things.


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