November 09, 2004

American populism

In the previous post I mentioned that Michael Thompson characterised conservative populism of Middle America as a backlash against social liberalism. But he failed to describe the nature of that backlash.

What does help us here this post by Don Arthur over at Troppo Armadillo on Thomas Frank. Frank has his roots in 19th century American populism, understands daily life in small town America, and is sensitive to the effects the downsizing, outsourcing, casualisation, and layoffs on lower-income workers during an economic boom.

Frank also understands conservative populism in terms of a backlash to middle class liberalism. Consider this quote:

"Welcome to the Great Backlash. a style of conservatism that is anything but complacent. Whereas earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues - summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art - which it then marries to probusiness economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements - not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars - that are the movement's greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don't deliver and their "New Economy" collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers' fantasies of "globalization" and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A."

Cultural anger is marshalled to achieve free market economic ends. That is explosive.

It is a populism (the people against the elite) that talk's Christ but walks corporate, and whose basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern - Values Matter Most. Contradiction lies in its very heart. Frank describes it thus:

" Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital-gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization efforts. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

He sums this up by saying that conservative populism is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.

If we put the thesis that conservative populism is a working-class movement to one side (tradesman with investments are not working class) then Frank has put his finger on populism.

On Frank's account populism constructs the political in the following way:

"In the backlash imagination, America is in a state of quasi-civil war pitting the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans against the bookish, deracinated, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it. When the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1992 announced to a national TV audience that "We are America" and "those other people are not," he was merely giving new and more blunt expression to a decades-old formula. Newt Gingrich's famous description of Democrats as "the enemy of normal Americans" was just one more winning iteration of this well-worn theme."

Hence we have the two Americas," the symbolic division of the country, embodied in electorial results of the presidential election of 2000: the vast stretches of inland "red" Republican space where people voted for George W. Bush, and those tiny little "blue" coastal areas, where people lived in big cities and voted for Al Gore.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at November 9, 2004 12:45 PM | TrackBack
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