Sex, hope, and rock and roll

by Michael Bérubé on May 16, 2011

Somewhere between the end of my spring semester at Penn State on April 29 and the beginning of my month-long guest-teaching gig at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa (founded over a decade before that Johnny-come-lately Cornell in upstate New York) on May 2, I found some time to speak at this totally awesome conference on the work of Ellen Willis.  Just glad to be on the bill, you know.  Anyway, here’s a slightly expanded version of what I said that morning.  Why slightly expanded?  Because I’m including 15 percent more of Ellen Willis’s prose, which makes my remarks 15 percent better.  That is why.

Ellen Willis took freedom seriously: “I believe that the struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence, is not just an individual matter.  The social system that organizes our lives, and as far as possible channels our desire, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort” (No  More Nice Girls 266).  And she was deadly serious about pleasure, too: “does it sound like a dirty word to you?  No wonder, given how relentlessly it’s been attacked not only by puritanical conservatives but by liberals who uncritically accept the Reaganite equation of pleasure with greed and callousness….  Yet life without pleasure—without spontaneity and playfulness, sexuality and sensuality, esthetic experience, surprise, excitement, ecstasy—is a kind of death” (NMNG 272). It’s probably too much (or too cliché?) to say that her life was saved by rock and roll, but I do think she found in the music the rhythm of a social revolution she could dance to—and I think her willingness to think about freedom and pleasure rigorously served her well throughout her intellectual career.

That’s easy enough to see when you look at her writings on the drug wars of the 1980s, which Willis was right to see not just as an extension of state power and the carceral society in which we are all required to piss on demand, not only as a war on some classes of people who use drugs, but also as a frontal assault on the very idea that an illegal drug could have a beneficial effect on one’s being in the world.  (By the mid-80s it was damn near impossible to say such a thing in public, so, of course, she went ahead and said it, more than once.)  And it’s easy to see in Willis’s scathing critiques of antiporn feminism and so-called pro-life leftism, as well.  But I see it suffusing every aspect of her work at every stage of her career, even in her writings on race, on The Satanic Verses, on “class first” leftism, and on the world after 9/11.  It wasn’t just that she had one of the most accurate bullshit detectors known to modern science, as her essay on Woodstock demonstrates:

You have to give the producers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair this much credit: they are pulling off a great public-relations coup.  They have apparently succeeded in creating the impression that the crisis in Bethel was a capricious natural disaster rather than a product of human incompetence, that the huge turnout was completely unexpected (and, in fact, could not have been foreseen by reasonable men), and that they have lost more than a million dollars in the process of being good guys who did everything possible to transform an incipient fiasco into a groovy weekend.  Incredibly, instead of hiding from the wrath of disappointed ticket-buyers and creditors they are bragging that the festival was a landmark in the development of youth culture and have announced that they plan to hold it again next year.  But before history is completely re-written, a few facts, semi-facts, and strong inferences are in order….

It was a bit creepy that there was such a total lack of resentment at the Fair’s mismanagement, especially among those who had paid from seven to eighteen dollars.  People either made excuses for Woodstock Ventures (“They couldn’t help it, man; it was just too big for them”) or thought of the festival as a noble social experiment to which crass concepts like responsible planning were irrelevant.  For the most part, they took for granted not only the discomforts but the tremendous efforts made by the state, the local communities, and unpaid volunteers to distribute cheap or free food and establish minimum standards of health and safety.  No one seemed to comprehend what the tasks of mobilizing and transporting emergency food, water, and medical personnel, clearing the roads, and removing garbage meant in terms of labor and money.  Ecstatic heads even proclaimed that the festival proved the viability of a new culture in which no one worked and everything was free.  And in the aftermath anyone who has dared to complain has been put down as a crank.

Publication date: September 6, 1969.  Buy Out of the Vinyl Deeps and read the whole damn thing.

And it wasn’t just that Willis had an addiction, as she once wrote, to being right (so that explains why she was right so often!).  It’s also that she always knew that freedom is not a matter of not paying taxes, not a bourgeois illusion, not an optional side dish on the political menu, and certainly not just another word for nothing left to lose.

Sometimes I like to wonder what kind of alternate universe we would be living in if Ellen Willis’s arguments had carried the day in cultural politics.  They certainly didn’t prevent the re-writing of history with Woodstock, and I see that pattern repeating itself over the ensuing three decades of her work.  I don’t mean to say that her ideas had no influence; but I do think that her battles against antiporn feminism and varieties of left cultural conservatism were Sisyphusian.  Here’s the opening of Don’t Think, Smile!, responding to the Gitlin-Tomasky-Rorty left of the 1990s:

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a wide assortment of liberals and leftists called for unity around a campaign for economic justice.  Since then, as the country has moved steadily rightward, I have heard this call repeated countless times, along with many hopeful announcements of projects designed to put it into practice.  Each time the right wins an egregious victory (as in the congressional elections of 1994), dozens of lefty commentators rush into print with some version of this proposal as if it were a daring new idea….  You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little.  Why has it had no effect whatsoever?  Are people stupid, or what? (ix)

Sure enough, the same damn argument got trotted out again in 2004, in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and though Willis’s response to Frank was brilliant, I have to imagine she wrote it with a sense of profound exasperation.  But in “Escape from Freedom,” she not only repeated her critique of economic majoritarianism; she restated her conviction that for some figures on the left—the most egregious offender is Christopher Lasch, but I find similar motifs cropping up in the work of George Scialabba and Robert McChesney—the critique of capitalism comes wrapped in a nostalgia for an old order:

another left rationale for rejecting cultural politics is rooted in the historical connection of cultural movements to the marketplace.  The rise of capitalism, which undermined the authority of the patriarchal family and church, put widespread cultural revolt in the realm of possibility.  Wage labor allowed women and young people to find a means of support outside the home.  Urbanization allowed people the freedom of social anonymity.  The shift from production- to consumption-oriented capitalism and the spread of mass media encouraged cultural permissiveness, since the primary technique of marketing as well as the most salient attraction of mass art is their appeal to the desire for individual autonomy and specifically to erotic fantasy.

Left cultural conservatives have argued that feminism and cultural radicalism, in weakening traditional institutions like the family, have merely contributed to the market’s hegemony over all spheres of life…. [T]his mindset puts a progressive political gloss on what is really a form of puritanism, offended by the fleshpots of the market, not just the profits.  What it ignores, or denies—as Marx never did—is the paradoxical nature of capitalism.  In destroying the old patriarchal order, in making all that was solid melt into air, in fomenting constant dynamism and change, capital made space for the revolutionary ideas that would challenge its own authority.  In letting loose the genie of desire in the service of profit, consumer culture unleashes forces that can’t reliably be controlled.  (17-18)

As I noted in The Left At War, this lines up rather nicely with Stuart Hall’s work:

Consumer capitalism works by working the markets; but it cannot entirely determine what alternative uses people are able to make of the diversity of choices and the real advances in mass production which it also always brings.  If “people’s capitalism” did not liberate the people, it nevertheless “loosed” many individuals into a life somewhat less constrained, less puritanically regulated, less strictly imposed than it had been three or four decades before.  Of course the market has not remained buoyant and expansive in this manner.  But the contradictory capacity, for a time, of the system to pioneer expansion, to drive and develop new products and maximize new choices, while at the same time creaming off its profit margins, was seriously underestimated.  Thus the left has never understood the capacity of the market to become identified in the minds of the mass of ordinary people, not as fair and decent and socially responsible (that it never was), but as an expansive popular system.  (Hard Road to Renewal 215)

As Willis put it a bit more viscerally in the introduction to Beginning to See the Light (1981),

By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products; it had a way of spilling over into rebellion against the constricting conditions of our lives.  The history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock-and-roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements.

Had these arguments won the degree of assent they deserved on the left, we would conceivably have been spared three decades of progressives pitting cultural politics against “real” politics—just as if Willis’s arguments about sexuality had determined the course of feminism in the 70s and 80s, the movement would have been spared a disastrous detour from the defense of reproductive freedom to the campaign against smut, and the English-speaking world would have been spared one decade of anti-antiporn backlash in which “liberal” thinkers and publications actually took Camille Paglia seriously.

But Ellen Willis’s work was never a simple matter of taking sides.  Even in her critique of the antiporn wing, she did not flinch from turning a critical eye to the sex-positive wing, as when she asked of Pat Califia, “does the need to act out fantasies of debasing oneself or someone else really require no further elaboration?  Does it have nothing to do with buried emotions of rage or self-hatred?  Nothing to do with living in a hierarchical society where one is ‘superior’ to some people and ‘inferior’ to others, where men rule and women serve?”  (NMNG 11) Likewise, in her fearless 1982 essay, “Sisters Under the Skin?  Confronting Race and Sex,” she did not hesitate to temper her admiration for bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman with an insistence that hooks had gotten a great deal wrong about the feminist trajectories of the previous 15 years; and she concluded by more or less predicting what the worst forms of “identity politics” would look like over the next 15 years.  Taking her distance from the notion that it is somehow useful to enumerate a hierarchy of oppressions, Willis wrote,

this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead provokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt.  Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their antifeminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege.  White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about asserting feminist grievances.  As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them from the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that racial and sexual equality are separate, competing causes.  The ultimate results are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men….  Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic.  Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than someone else’s.  Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering  and powerlessness.  But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change.  (NMNG 115-16).

I have the very strong feeling that Willis would take a similarly dim view of people who think they are advancing the cause of justice and equality by festooning the comment sections of feminist blogs with demands that everyone own their privilege.

And in the matter of Salman Rushdie, Willis took pains to point out that “the argument that people have a right to have their religious beliefs ‘respected,’ i.e., not challenged in any way … is claimed only for the absolutists, who are presumed to be incapable of tolerating, let alone respecting, heretical views.  The champions of authoritarian, patriarchal religions offend my most cherished beliefs every time they open their mouths, yet I don’t hear anyone agonizing about my hurt feelings” (NMNG 231).  At the same time, though, she did not summarily dismiss Rushdie’s critics on the left: “there’s some substance to the claim that the fervor in support of Rushdie contains an element of Western chauvinism, raising the specter of a monolithic mass of Oriental barbarians beleaguering us enlightened folks.  But the remedy is not to apologize for Rushdie’s book, or qualify the protests.  It’s to keep emphasizing that the struggle against our own brand of fundamentalism is far from won—ask any American librarian, science teacher, or abortion clinic head—and that the virulence of Khomeini’s atttack on Rushdie reflects, among other things, conflict between fundamentalists and modernists within the Moslem world” (NMNG 233).  The resonance of this argument for the world after 9/11 should be obvious—for the events of that day did not convince Ellen to moderate her critique of religious fundamentalism abroad or at home, just as she was not persuaded to stop caring about the status of women living in fundamentalist societies simply because Laura Bush spoke of it.

I want to close, though, with another passage from the 80s that continues to make claims on our attention today.  It’s from the essay “Exile on Main Street: What the Pollard Case Means to Jews,” and in it Willis pursues a difficult argument all down the line:

[F]ear has induced most Israelis to support a government that equates survival with military power and no territorial concessions; and this government’s policies, along with the right-wing chauvinist ideology that rationalizes them, are undermining Israel’s reason for being—to alleviate the oppression of Jews.

Zionism as a philosophy, even in its leftist versions, doesn’t appeal to me.  I’ve never envisioned sovereignty over a piece of land as a solution to anti-Semitism, a negation of the Diaspora, a necessary focus of Jewish identity and culture, or the basis for building a socialist utopia.  I see nationalism of all sorts, including national liberation movements, as problematic—an understatement when applied to the Middle East.  Yet I support the existence of Israel because Zionism is, among other things, a strategy forced on Jews by a particular historical situation.  What it comes down to is that Israel has given Jews something whose lack cost millions of lives: a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

These days, however, the Israeli government seems to believe that, far from the state’s existing to insure the survival of Jews, Jews exist to insure the survival of the state.  Its resentment of Jews who choose to live elsewhere took a grotesque form when, around the time the Pollard case was approaching its denouement, Yitzhak Shamir demanded that the U.S. deny Soviet Jews special refugee status, thereby forcing them to go to Israel.  Though Soviet Jews can get exit visas only by claiming they want to join relatives in Israel, most emigrants have chosen to come here.  In the interests of a “strong Israel,” Shamir wants to change that, and freedom for Jews be damned.  Apparently, unsatisfied with maintaining Israeli rule over unwilling Palestinians, he’s after a captive population of Jews as well.  Let my people go, indeed!  (NMNG 215-16)

It is stunning, I think, that the woman who wrote those words 24 years ago could have been dismissed, on one wing of the left, as having “an unfortunate Zionist streak.”  But so it goes.  Ellen Willis was simply so much smarter and so much braver than most of her critics.  What would the world be like today if her work were central to it?  I know it would be a better, more pleasurable place—and I think the left would have a richer and more challenging rhetoric of freedom.

{ 107 comments }

1

bob mcmanus 05.17.11 at 1:40 am

…capital made space for the revolutionary ideas that would challenge its own authority.

I can see the entire edifice starting to topple from here.

Ok, so the view from academia and NYC townhouses is that the millions and millions of permanently unemployed and socially marginalized should be grateful that they aren’t sex slaves…yet. Or what? Grateful that more privileged blacks and women can get tenure at Harvard?

My problem is that I do understand you people, and I do not want to celebrate your ascension to the top ranks of the hegemony. Sorry, that’s the party you’re having with your socially liberated billionaire donors. I don’t think I’m invited

2

bob mcmanus 05.17.11 at 1:55 am

The implication of the middle of this piece, right around that idiot Stuart Hall, is that the last thirty years, the election of Cameron, the reason our black President is making unnecessary deals with the likes of John Boehner to slash the welfare state…

…is that the economic left fought insufficiently hard against racism and sexism.

Screw you, Berube.

3

JP Stormcrow 05.17.11 at 2:11 am

The implication of the middle of this piece …
…is that the economic left fought insufficiently hard against racism and sexism.

This be close reading.

4

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 2:13 am

Before her death, Ellen Willis was indeed fond of looking down from her townhouse on people like Bob McManus, just before sending one of her service staff off to CitiBank to cash her latest check from George Soros. While I am happy, for obvious reasons, to take her place in the top ranks of the hegemony, I am dismayed to learn that McManus is onto us. I’m sorry, Bob, but you are far too dangerous to our plans now.

5

Anon 05.17.11 at 3:26 am

Thankyou for this, it has a lot of relevance to me at the moment.

I’m struggling to create a student activist network. It’s hard, in great measure because of a lot of issues you mention in this post.

Anyway, you’ve given me a bit of hope.

6

rea 05.17.11 at 3:28 am

I guess the McMani of the world think that if we’d just put aside this sex-drugs-&-rock ‘n roll foolishness, and get serious, we could solve the problems of economic inequality in no time. Whereas an old hippy like me knows the cultural stuff is crucial: we’re not going to change the world unless we first change what’s in everybody’s heads, man.

7

William Timberman 05.17.11 at 3:32 am

Between the anima and the animus, falls the shadow. I remember having debates like this with Mike Davis, he of City of Quartz, back in the day (the Sixties, not the Eighties.) No need now to spell out which side he took, not with all those books on the shelf behind him, but over the years I must say that I’ve come round to see his position a lot more favorably than I did then.

It’s true. The better angels of our nature are much freer to spread their wings when everyone has food on the table, and no one has guns pointed at him. If I thought consumer capitalism had a chance in hell of providing us all with such happy circumstances — even in the long run — I think I’d still be as much the hippy now that I was then. Unfortunately, however….

8

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 3:48 am

Just for the record, Willis was, and Hall is, a democratic socialist. I suppose I should have said that up top.

9

StevenAttewell 05.17.11 at 3:56 am

To argue the other side from a less contentious space,

It’s not like the cultural route got us a lot politically either. We can certainly point to a whole bunch of Democratic legislators who fight for gay rights, the right to choose, maybe even toning down the war on drugs, etc. but who vote the corporatist line, especially when it comes to local industries. And it is a problem that we lost the white working class vote in 2008 by 18 points – not a fatal problem as it was during the 1980s because the working class is becoming steadily less white, but a problem at least because these voters need economic help as well.

And I don’t think Willis is being fair to the economic left either:

“You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever?”

A big part of the reason why economic majoritarianism didn’t catch on was that a lot of the “Watergate babies” who were down with the ERA, busing, gay rights, and the environment didn’t give a damn about Humphrey-Hawkins, thought that the unions deserved to get beat on the labor law reform bill in 1978 because unions had been racist in the 60s and mean to McGovern in 1972, and ultimately were o.k with Volckerism because they weren’t steelworkers.

10

StevenAttewell 05.17.11 at 4:02 am

Also, what about the Naomi Klein, et al. argument that the cultural route can end with cooptation – “the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements” can be routed in getting people to go see Sex and the City 2 or stoner movies, and stand up to men/whitey/join the movement by buying the appropriate T-shirt instead of actually doing things?

11

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 4:09 am

a lot of the “Watergate babies” who were down with the ERA, busing, gay rights, and the environment didn’t give a damn about Humphrey-Hawkins, thought that the unions deserved to get beat on the labor law reform bill in 1978 because unions had been racist in the 60s and mean to McGovern in 1972, and ultimately were o.k with Volckerism because they weren’t steelworkers.

Fair enough. Though I should probably suggest that Willis pretty much nailed that crew, well ahead of time, in her account of the Woodstock attendees who didn’t understand “the tremendous efforts made by the state, the local communities, and unpaid volunteers to distribute cheap or free food and establish minimum standards of health and safety” or “what the tasks of mobilizing and transporting emergency food, water, and medical personnel, clearing the roads, and removing garbage meant in terms of labor and money.” That Woodstock essay isn’t only about how the organizers screwed up and left ticketholders mad. It’s also about some of the delusions of the counterculture w/r/t labor. Being the daughter of a member of the NYPD gave Willis a low tolerance level for that aspect of the New Left.

12

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 4:19 am

Also, what about the Naomi Klein, et al. argument that the cultural route can end with cooptation – “the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements” can be routed in getting people to go see Sex and the City 2 or stoner movies, and stand up to men/whitey/join the movement by buying the appropriate T-shirt instead of actually doing things?

But of course it can. Fucking outside marriage and getting high can also give you The Ice Storm. There aren’t any guarantees as to what kind of activity will evade Teh Man forever, and people who think there are tend to be the kind of alt-rock fans who get all bent out of shape once 500 or more people know about their favorite band.

From two pages later in that essay: “Of course, rebellion is not the same thing as revolution. It’s not only that capitalists are experts at palming off fake rope [harking back to her earlier citation of Lenin’s line about capitalists selling you the rope to hang them with]–as the development of the rock establishment attests–but that revolt does not necessarily imply radicalism, as a long line of rock-and-rollers, from the apolitical Little Richard to the antipolitical Ramones, attests. Which is only to say that neither mass art nor any other kind is a substitute for politics. Art may express and encourage our subversive impulses, but it can’t analyze or organize them. Subversion begins to be radical only when we ask what we really want or think we should have, who or what is obstructing us, and what to do about it.”

Speaking of the turns cultural history could have taken if Willis ruled the world: this would have spared us both the celebration of faux-subversion in cultural studies and the backlash against the same.

13

StevenAttewell 05.17.11 at 5:27 am

Ok, I’m convinced. Vivat Willis Rex!

14

Peter Hollo 05.17.11 at 5:52 am

I came for the awesomeness of Bérubé on Ellen Willis, stayed for JPS’s link to the stunning Wolfson post & even more stunning comments thread, and applaud Monsieur Bérubé’s marvellous comment-bombing of the latter thread for our pleasure.

15

Tom 05.17.11 at 6:10 am

What does Willis mean about Israeli territorial concessions. If she wrote that passage in the 80s Israel had already conceded the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace.

16

JulesLt 05.17.11 at 6:38 am

The other advantage of the hierarchy of oppression is that it’s a nice way of making sure that the most ‘worthy’ group is – by definition – the most powerless to enact change.

I get annoyed at the constant focus on ‘the glass ceiling’ (because most people, full stop, do not join the board, or aspire to) but not as much as the lack of real progress (because it reflects the inequality of opportunity earlier in life).

17

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 3:25 pm

Vivat Willis Rex!

Now we’re talking. Though I might as well say that I don’t agree with every word Willis ever wrote. Shocking but true! I don’t have that kind of relation to anyone — no, not Stuart Hall either.

What does Willis mean about Israeli territorial concessions. If she wrote that passage in the 80s Israel had already conceded the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace.

True. Surely she is talking about those other territories, the ones commonly referred to in some circles as “occupied.” But she could have been more precise.

I came for the awesomeness of Bérubé on Ellen Willis, stayed for JPS’s link to the stunning Wolfson post & even more stunning comments thread, and applaud Monsieur Bérubé’s marvellous comment-bombing of the latter thread for our pleasure.

Merci beaucoup! As I told JP, that comment thread is so triple-lulz awesome with extra long-lasting rotfl sauce that I just couldn’t help myself. But I am ashamed to admit that I had never seen it until I clicked that link.

(I think Wolfson is misreading the poem in places, myself, but that’s just entre nous.)

18

Dave 05.17.11 at 3:38 pm

So, the left won the culture war, then lost the economic war, then gave away all the gains from the culture war, and this proves we must win the culture war.

I like pleasure as much as the next guy, but can’t we redistribute wealth without politicizing our extramarital fucking?

19

Patrick 05.17.11 at 3:56 pm

If you leave shit out, you leave shit out. Fighting against suffering cannot and should not be divorced (No pun intended, but in the words of James Joyce, “let it stand.”) from fighting for pleasure. If we start with the question, “How can we make them part of the same fight?” maybe we’ll actually get somewhere.

At least I think that’s where Willis was tending. I don’t know, because I’m about to rectify some ignorance here. (Which always feels really good.)

Thanks, Michael. I just turned in my grades and I was kind of casting around for something to read for fun.

20

geo 05.17.11 at 5:07 pm

The paradoxical nature of capitalism and the emancipatory potential of desire are one thing. (Well, two things.) Willis had much of interest to say about them, though she was never patient enough (or, alas, simply didn’t live long enough) to give the philosophy of limits, as expounded by Lasch, Berry, McKibben, and others, the serious consideration it deserved. We’ll just have to try to finish the job ourselves, without piously pretending she got very far with it.

Another thing altogether is the paragraph Michael celebrates above:

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a wide assortment of liberals and leftists called for unity around a campaign for economic justice. Since then, as the country has moved steadily rightward, I have heard this call repeated countless times, along with many hopeful announcements of projects designed to put it into practice. Each time the right wins an egregious victory (as in the congressional elections of 1994), dozens of lefty commentators rush into print with some version of this proposal as if it were a daring new idea…. You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever? Are people stupid, or what? (ix)

This is just dumb, as I tried to say as gently as possible in my review of Don’t Think, Smile (which is a chapter of What Are Intellectuals Good For?) and a little more forcefully in previous debates here on CT. “Unity around a campaign for economic justice” does not preclude, either in theory or in practice, support for liberation, pleasure, or individual autonomy, much less civil rights. To repeat “countless times” — in as large a variety of ways as needed to get tracti0n among those who need to hear them — the arguments for economic justice, and to continue proposing — with as many refinements as are necessary to get it right –“projects designed to put it into practice” is exactly what at least some leftists should do, even if it takes a lot longer than than eighteen years. Other leftists should do whatever they damn please, as long as they don’t argue for economic injustice. No reason to put anybody outside the tent; and no occasion for it, either, since most “economic justice” believe in cultural liberation and most “cultural liberation” leftists believe in economic justice.

As for Are people stupid, or what?, this is one of the few stupid things Willis ever said. No, people aren’t stupid, but they are mistaken, at least when it comes to voting for Republicans because they hate hippies. Frank and his fellow Bafflerites devoted themselves through the 80s and 90s to explaining painstakingly, in a vast corpus of brilliant and detailed commentary, what makes people do this. Their explanation was as respectful of complexity, irony, and the dialectic — and certainly as well-grounded in actual acquaintance with American reality, both cultural and economic — as anything that has ever appeared in Social Text.

I’d like to think that Willis, who never stopped thinking, would have outgrown her reflexive and superficial dismissal of Lasch et al’s critique of the culture of consumption as “nostalgia” and “puritanism.” She wrote me a grateful and gracious response to my review of Don’t Think, Smile, but we never got any further. I was too much in awe of her to pursue the discussion. Damn.

21

Michael Bérubé 05.17.11 at 8:33 pm

Hi George! Good to see you — it’s been far too long since we last did this. So let’s do it again!

This is just dumb, as I tried to say as gently as possible in my review of Don’t Think, Smile (which is a chapter of What Are Intellectuals Good For?) and a little more forcefully in previous debates here on CT. “Unity around a campaign for economic justice” does not preclude, either in theory or in practice, support for liberation, pleasure, or individual autonomy, much less civil rights.

Of course, I’m very well aware that you’ve made that argument; I reviewed your wonderful book twice, here and in Dissent. Problem is, on this count you’re wrong, even though I wish you weren’t. When Richard Rorty wrote, in Achieving Our Country, that “Leftists in the academy have allowed cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have colluded with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate” (14), he very unfortunately suggested — as did Gitlin, Tomasky, and (oh yes I forgot) Russell Jacoby before him — that unity around a campaign for economic justice does preclude support for liberation, pleasure, and individual autonomy. I say this more in sorrow than in anger, because you know how I love me some Richard Rorty. But Willis was right to say that these guys habitually construed “real politics” and “cultural politics” as a zero-sum game, rather than as mutually constitutive and reinforcing.

No, people aren’t stupid, but they are mistaken, at least when it comes to voting for Republicans because they hate hippies. Frank and his fellow Bafflerites devoted themselves through the 80s and 90s to explaining painstakingly, in a vast corpus of brilliant and detailed commentary, what makes people do this.

As I’ve said before, Frank is quite good at accounting for how the GOP substitutes “cultural elite” for “economic elite” in its rants against elites, and very good at describing how the moderate Kansas GOP of Dole and Kassebaum became the wingnut GOP of Brownback, Roberts, Moran et al. But when he gets around to claiming that people vote Republican because they’re distracted by the cultural issues (like abortion and gay marriage) instead of realizing how they’re being screwed economically, he’s actually the worst example of what Willis is talking about. When he writes,

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. (6)

–he’s pretty thoroughly refusing to take abortion, etc. seriously — and he thinks the right is, as well. He really is arguing that they dangle bright shiny abortion objects at the rubes, and then vote for tax cuts. I know this because he says so on the very next page: “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes” (7).

I fail to understand how anyone, after the 2010 election, can continue to believe that the abortion debate is mere shadow-boxing. And I remain at a loss to understand why someone like Willis placed so much emphasis on reproductive rights as the key to the autonomy of women, and male leftists, eh, not so much.

To Dave:

I like pleasure as much as the next guy, but can’t we redistribute wealth without politicizing our extramarital fucking?

Sure. But remember, some of that fucking outside of marriage is premarital fucking, about which Willis was chiefly concerned in the 1960s and which for some reason is Still Relevant Today — at least when it comes to women. If however you live in an area that is 100 percent free of slut-shaming, purity balls, and organized attempts to prevent young women from obtaining access to contraception, good on you.

22

bianca steele 05.17.11 at 8:50 pm

Urbanization allowed people the freedom of social anonymity.

I’m not clear on how much this is meant to be celebrated on the left? There are a few free spirits (generally older), but it’s more associated with people like Camille Paglia today than with the left, though maybe I’ve been hanging out around the wrong people.

23

Dave 05.17.11 at 9:02 pm

Ha. Cheers, Michael.

24

chris 05.17.11 at 9:20 pm

I fail to understand how anyone, after the 2010 election, can continue to believe that the abortion debate is mere shadow-boxing. And I remain at a loss to understand why someone like Willis placed so much emphasis on reproductive rights as the key to the autonomy of women, and male leftists, eh, not so much.

I could almost believe the first of these sentences was sincere, but the second has *got* to be the renowned Bérubé deadpan (the reason why women take abortion more personally is pretty damn obvious), which calls the first into question as well.

And yet the abortion debate *isn’t* just shadow-boxing; although the federal bills are obviously going nowhere, there’s quite a lot of state-level action on abortion and conservatives are clearly still waiting for a chance to further undermine _Roe_.

Maybe Frank is just out of date — writing about when DeLay was at the wheel, and things got done as the paymasters ordered in an orderly fashion, but now lunatics like Bachmann are running the asylum. (When was the passage you quote written? And has anyone asked Frank more recently if he thinks it still holds up to describe the Boehner House, or the post-Tea-Party GOP in general?)

25

bob mcmanus 05.17.11 at 9:28 pm

20:They have won, Geo.

They have what they wanted: women corporate lawyers coming out of Harvard in droves, heading for the boardrooms; a black banker’s President, while most blacks are in prison or the unemployment lines; and gays proud and open, spotting for Predators destroying Afghan villagers. Educated elites are getting theirs, getting men to make their coffee at Starbucks so no male lefty will ever ask them again. I don’t think you can even call this co-option as much as storming the castle, and then kicking the ladder back down on the peasants as they try on the lord’s and lady’s silks.

Lenin or Trotsky or whoever was probably right, and if Emma needed to dance so bad, she needed to go hang out on the French Riviera where she belonged all along.

Your mistake is believing the cultural left ever gave a damn about economic justice.

26

bob mcmanus 05.17.11 at 9:37 pm

I don’t know enough Marxism to give them their name, let’s just call them “opportunists”, and it was a mistake to ever pay them any attention.

The doctor’s daughter with four Ivy degrees who can’t get tenure because of sexism or can’t get an abortion or gets wolf-whistled is not a problem for socialists. She is a bourgeois problem. Christ, how did we get sucked into working for her. She won’t work for us.

But like I’ve said, she has won now, and will get her tax cuts on the backs of the working class and the poor.

27

bianca steele 05.17.11 at 9:44 pm

What is the cultural left? Back when I was spending more time in the library, I liked to look up essay collections by various professors whose thoughts about subjects I liked, and often came across what they’d written in the 1960s. Often they complained that the New Left had misread them, that they never were political, their ideas had nothing to do with leftism. Maybe they were right. Which doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a cultural left, of course.

28

William Timberman 05.17.11 at 9:45 pm

bob @ 25

Well, maybe it comes of getting a nearly free education when such a thing was possible, or remembering who my parents were — very lower-middle class survivors of the Great Depression — but I’ve always cared about economic justice. Turning myself into a cultural leftist was kind of a sideline, part aspiration and part pleasure principle — the sort of thing that happens to you when wind up with more degrees than you have dollars.

No regrets, though. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Socrates and claim that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but there is a certain satisfaction in knowing what’s being planned for you by people who have little interest in your fate, still more in being able to speak their language as well or better than they do. The phrase working-class intellectual may be an oxymoron these days, but there was a day…a day which may yet come again. Stranger things have happened, and very recently, too….

29

Josh 05.17.11 at 9:52 pm

Bianca, that’s worrisome, that you don’t see Willisesque pleasure advocates on the left. As she pointed out in “Their Libertarianism—and Ours,” we don’t want to leave that position in the hands of the Libertarians. On the ‘nets, I see the pro-pleasure side represented at Pandagon, at Angry Black Woman and elsewhere in the Lefty science fiction community, among sex-positive types such as Susie Bright, and in a chunk of the queer activist world. But there’s a real risk, as ever, that the values represented by statements such as “Urbanization allowed people the freedom of social anonymity” will be touted most loudly by Reason magazine and Thaddeus Russell, leaving an image of a Left dominated by prudery, ascetic discipline, and “nostalgia for an old order.”

30

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.17.11 at 9:52 pm

Sorry if I’m outta line, but when someone claims to be an ardent humanist, and then, in the same paragraph, advocates a Jews-only safe-haven (not to mention, established through ethnic cleansing), why is it stunning to hear them characterized as having “an unfortunate Zionist streak”?

31

geo 05.17.11 at 10:01 pm

That quote from Rorty is fair game. If it fitted well with his — and Gitlin, Jacoby, Tomasky et al’s — general practice, it would prove your point, or at any rate would prove something. But Rorty, even more than other economic egalitarians, always made a great point of sexual and racial equality whenever the opportunity so much as peeped out from a corner. But though the quote seems to be saying — well, is saying, I must admit — is that cultural politics is not real politics, what his whole life and work, and even that book, said is that sexual and racial equality are just as important as economic equality, BUT that American leftists, and particularly American academic leftists, had gotten the balance wrong in their own practice. He complained that they (ie, you and your comrades, Michael) didn’t take economic equality as seriously as he would have liked, just as Willis complained that Rorty and his comrades didn’t take sexual and racial equality as seriously as she would have liked. You made the point in the OP that Willis was a democratic socialist. Is it necessary to point out that Rorty was likewise, and every bit as much, a cultural radical? I don’t see a difference of principle here, only a difference about strategy, which you and Willis have mistakenly elevated into a difference of principle.

About Frank: I continue to think that you’re simply misunderstanding the words on the page, including the very words you quote. When you write above that “when [Frank] gets around to claiming that people vote Republican because they’re distracted by the cultural issues (like abortion and gay marriage) instead of realizing how they’re being screwed economically, he’s actually the worst example of what Willis is talking about,” you leave out the crucial part of his argument. What people are distracted by is not “the cultural issues” but by phony Republican claims about the cultural issues: i.e., that 1) they (the Republicans) will try sincerely to legislate traditional values; 2) the depredations of commercial culture and the erosion of neighborhood and family life can be attributed to liberal elitism rather than to corporate personnel and marketing strategies; and 3) (this often by insinuation) the same liberal elitism that has allegedly had so destructive an effect on community and tradition will surely destroy the American economy, if liberals are empowered. It is not that Kansans are wrong to care about abortion etc. But Kansans are wrong to think that voting Republican will help them culturally, and also wrong not to notice or care that voting Republican will flatten them economically.

Frank and his comrades do not take abortion, gay rights, or avant-garde culture any less seriously than you or Willis. When you characterize this

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.

as meaning this

he’s pretty thoroughly refusing to take abortion, etc. seriously—and he thinks the right is, as well. He really is arguing that they dangle bright shiny abortion objects at the rubes, and then vote for tax cuts. I know this because he says so on the very next page: “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes”

I’m at a loss. Of course he’s arguing that Republicans dangle bright shiny abortion objects at the rubes (your word, after all — I would have said “voters”) and then vote for tax cuts, for the good and sufficient reason that that is exactly what they do. But to conclude from this that Frank is “pretty thoroughly refusing to take abortion etc seriously” is a simple non sequitur. To have pointed out, in an election in the early or mid-20th century South, that segregationist candidates didn’t give a damn about the “dignity of white men,” which they were vigorously undercutting with anti-unionism, regressive taxes, legislative corruption, etc, is not to “refuse to take racial equality seriously.”

To repeat what I repeatedly tiresomely often in previous debates, What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is not asking why in the world Kansans take abortion, gay rights, the provocations of commercial culture, the erosion of neighborhoods and community life, etc. seriously. It’s asking (and demonstrating) how (and not least, why) Republicans manage to convince them that voting for Republicans will solve these problems, when the result of voting for Republicans is demonstrably nothing of the sort. That’s a different question.

32

Amanda Marcotte 05.17.11 at 10:04 pm

I reject the division between economic and social issues. If I’m forced by law to bear children against my will, the first and most immediate effect will be economic, for instance. Indeed, most women seeking abortion cite affordability as an issue, and limiting your childbirth is a key factor in helping people climb out of poverty. As long as we continue to treat social issues as Ladies Auxiliary stuff, we will continue to get worse as a country.

Plus, the right campaigns on it. If we don’t call bullshit on their arguments, they’ll just continue to kick us in the pants.

33

bianca steele 05.17.11 at 10:14 pm

I really like what I’ve read of Thomas Frank, but sometimes his writing doesn’t seem clear, and though it’s hard to put my finger on it sometimes it feels like there is a really big clue that he isn’t aware of the existence of. It’s obvious he’s thought really hard about what he says, and I’m not sure why that should necessarily go hand in hand with missing things.

34

AcademicLurker 05.17.11 at 10:32 pm

I reject the division between economic and social issues.

This position comes up a lot. But it doesn’t address the fact that the last ~30 years have seen impressive gains in the arena of social issues and – not only a total absence of gains – but massive losses on economic issues. If there really was no division between them, why would one be moving forward and the other backwards?

I think it’s legitimate to ask why this discrepancy exists, without the question being met immediately with You just want to throw women and minorities under a bus!Eleventy!!!

No one is arguing that some in-principle incompatibility between advancing social and economic justice exists, but people are wondering why in practice the recent fortunes of the two are so massively different.

35

ScentOfViolets 05.17.11 at 10:47 pm

Sorry, but if this woman says things like:

Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than someone else’s.

and:

“You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever?”

She’s nothing more than a more archaic version of Camille Paglia. A terminally clueless person who is more fond of appearing to say clever things than in actually being intelligent.

In short, an idiot. I saw way too many of her type of useless back in the day and I guess it shows.

36

ScentOfViolets 05.17.11 at 10:51 pm

This position comes up a lot. But it doesn’t address the fact that the last ~30 years have seen impressive gains in the arena of social issues and – not only a total absence of gains – but massive losses on economic issues. If there really was no division between them, why would one be moving forward and the other backwards?

Those two observations are true . . . but what makes you think that it was any sort of “activism” that was chiefly responsible for the first one?

37

AcademicLurker 05.17.11 at 11:32 pm

No one is arguing that some in-principle incompatibility between advancing social and economic justice exists

By “no one” I really mean “no one on this thread”.

My response @34 might have been overly snappish, and I’m aware that “Cmon, class is what it’s really all about” has been used to denigrate the importance of issues that chiefly impact women/gays/poc/anyone not a white guy. But…

Given the realities of the US in 2011, it would be nice to see economic issues start getting a bit more attention. Especially since non-white men don’t inhabit some alternate economy. Unless they’re investment bankers they’re screwed as well.

While I hate to argue with a dangeral type like Prof. Berube, I get sense from this post that the cultural wing of the left still sees itself as some kind of beleaguered minor faction of the left having sand kicked in its face by mean orthodox Marxists. You won for crying out loud.

38

rosmar 05.18.11 at 4:07 am

No, the “cultural wing of the left” hasn’t won. And won’t win as long as people can say with a straight face that there are “impressive gains on social issues” when economic disparities, along with lots of other important aspects of life, are so predictable, still, based on “cultural” positions like race, gender, and sexuality.

I’m with those who argue that they are inseparable, and that attempts to separate them undermine all of us.

And I love Robin D.G. Kelley’s article on this subject: http://ww3.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue22/kelley22.htm

39

Mitchell Freedman 05.18.11 at 4:13 am

I thought you’d at least mention that Ellen Willis voted for Nader in 2000, which I know you think is a very bad thing to have done (I voted for Nader in CA, and I think I would have voted for him in Florida, but I might have thought otherwise…):

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/feature/2000/11/06/willis/index.html

Ellen did not think GWB II was going to be a hard right ideologue, and I didn’t either. Still, I think if Ellen were alive today, she’d be wondering, should we vote third party again against the deeply disappointing Obama?

Also, I must chime in here and say I don’t know where I fit in with the dichotomy Michael has stated. I tend to see myself as far more in the muddle on cultural issues, and rank with hypocrisies, but my primary beliefs center around New Deal economic values and the values of the late Michael Harrington. I think the workers who vote on the cultural issues are not dumb, and I don’t think Thomas Frank thought that either. I won’t speak for Frank because I tried reading What’s the Matter With Kansas and gave up after awhile since it was very dense in its prose–kind of like Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, I might add.

Therefore, I’ll say the economic/cultural issue my way: From my experience in canvassing white worker neighborhoods and living in Republican strongholds that are middle class and definitely white, I find that workers who are religious and culturally conservative say to themselves, “I’d vote for the social lib if I thought it would do me some good economically. Since it won’t–” see Clintons, Gore, Obama, et al–“I might as well vote for the guy who at least wants to kick the crap out of the illegal who (he/she believes) took my (meaning his/her) job and stops them homosexuals from teaching my kid to love them in school.” It ain’t pretty, and it ain’t good. But I do think if we had a hard hitting populist who was telegenic, and self-funded in this time of money dominance, I think such a person would catch on quite decently to well.

My wife, though, says the person I describe would be shot and definitely killed. That’s too cynical for me, but she was named for a certain First Lady of the early 1960s…and I don’t mean her name is LadyBird…

Final thought: Let’s let up a bit on Chris Lasch. He was a nice fella, and he moved forward the discussion. He and Daniel Bell were on to something vital to perspective and understanding in showing how a consumerist sensibility makes one more easily influenced by Ayn Rand nostrums about “freedom” in the economic sphere….

40

ScentOfViolets 05.18.11 at 12:57 pm

I find that workers who are religious and culturally conservative say to themselves, “I’d vote for the social lib if I thought it would do me some good economically. Since it won’t—” see Clintons, Gore, Obama, et al—”I might as well vote for the guy who at least wants to kick the crap out of the illegal who (he/she believes) took my (meaning his/her) job and stops them homosexuals from teaching my kid to love them in school.”

That is exactly my experience as well.

41

AcademicLurker 05.18.11 at 1:24 pm

@38
when economic disparities, along with lots of other important aspects of life, are so predictable, still, based on “cultural” positions like race, gender, and sexuality.

Depends on what you mean. In the city where I live, entire low income neighborhoods were wiped out by predatory lending. This was largely accomplished in the early-mid 2000’s before a “housing crisis” was on the mainstream’s radar and (surprise coincidence!) the neighborhoods in question were all predominantly African American.

It’s almost as though a left that was interested in racial justice would have done well to have payed attention to boring stuff like the deregulation of lending practices back when there was a chance to do something about it. If that’s what you mean by cultural and economic issues being “inseparable” then sign me up.

Too often though, I’ve seen that particular mantra used as an excuse to ignore the economic stuff altogether.

I think it was a tragic lost opportunity for the left when the anti-globalization/Naomi Klein wing was basically wiped out in the aftermath of 9/11 and the resulting multiple wars & etc. There was some inevitable goofiness associated with the anti-GTO demonstrations, but there was also a tremendous interest in getting information out about how all this stuff worked – a realization that the dull technical details about how money & goods & credit move around really really matter and that progressives need to come to grips with those details or lose out in a big way.

42

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.18.11 at 1:25 pm

43

chris 05.18.11 at 1:27 pm

I find that workers who are religious and culturally conservative say to themselves, “I’d vote for the social lib if I thought it would do me some good economically. Since it won’t—” see Clintons, Gore, Obama, et al—”I might as well vote for the guy who at least wants to kick the crap out of the illegal who (he/she believes) took my (meaning his/her) job and stops them homosexuals from teaching my kid to love them in school.”

First, obviously you mean *white male heterosexual* workers. Otherwise, Ledbetter Act, real enforcement of civil rights laws, etc. The stagnation of the *white male* wage partly reflects the fact that white male workers are now just another worker, rather than a superior grade of worker compared to all the others. This isn’t the whole story and I think Reaganomics stinks too, but if you look at economics exclusively from a white male perspective you’re missing the real progress made by workers who are not white males.

Anyway… I’m tempted to say that if they can’t be bothered to distinguish between “doesn’t do me much good economically” and “does me lots of harm economically”, they kind of deserve what they get, but we don’t deserve to get it along with them.

P.S. Clinton a social liberal? WTF? The man was a redneck, for crying out loud. You couldn’t come up with a better example of ignoring social issues and focusing on populist economics and trying to connect with working class white men if you tried for a generation. It worked well enough to get him elected, but not well enough to let him make much progress on economic issues like health care.

44

Alex 05.18.11 at 1:51 pm

I think the problem here is that the statement “I think we put too much effort into cultural issues vs economic issues in the 1970s and 1980s” is possibly interesting as history, but it’s not necessarily interesting or useful as policy advice. There is no reason to think that the two are exchangeable – that giving up on culture necessarily means doing better on economics. I think this trips a lot of people up.

I would also suspect that if you give any ground in actual policy on the cultural stuff, the Right will just swallow it, burp, and yell for more. There is no reason to think that fewer abortions necessarily buys any more union cards. What would the mechanism of action be? Also, Ellen Willis’s crack about economic majoritarianism reminds me a bit of Chesterton on Christian ethics – the trouble isn’t that it’s been tried and found wanting but that it’s been found difficult and not tried.

Anyway, the “I” and the “we” in the statement aren’t the same ones as they were then and neither are the issues.

45

Mitchell Freedman 05.18.11 at 1:59 pm

Um, Chris, Clinton was a social liberal. He was pro-choice, and moved the ball forward on homosexual rights while president. Aren’t those the two litmus test issues for what describes a social liberal?

As for populist, he certainly had that strain in that Perot year, but he quickly became in his own recognition an Eisenhower Republican more interested in protecting bond holders than workers. And I will never forgive him for the NAFTA, the WTO and the further undermining of the social safety net with his so called welfare “reform.” It got the 30% of women who could work back to work, but did nothing to help poor women and their children rise out of poverty or at least be protected as they were during their even worse times.

46

Uncle Kvetch 05.18.11 at 2:24 pm

Clinton was a social liberal.

Sort of.

He was pro-choice,

Yes — and my recollection is that he showed more backbone on that than on most issues (“cultural” or “economic”).

and moved the ball forward on homosexual rights while president.

He did nothing of the sort. He attempted to move the ball forward on gays in the military, but quickly capitulated and coughed up a “compromise” that was, in many ways, worse than the status quo. Then he signed DOMA on the grounds that the alternatives were even worse.

You can give him props for good intentions if you like (and even here I think you’d be on thin ice), but Clinton’s actual record on LGBT issues stank.

47

Michael Bérubé 05.18.11 at 3:27 pm

George @ 31: yes, we do keep talking past each other on Thomas Frank, and you and I constantly insist that the other is missing the plain import of the words on the page. But at least this time I have a better sense of why. When you say:

Of course he’s arguing that Republicans dangle bright shiny abortion objects at the rubes (your word, after all—I would have said “voters”) and then vote for tax cuts, for the good and sufficient reason that that is exactly what they do. But to conclude from this that Frank is “pretty thoroughly refusing to take abortion etc seriously” is a simple non sequitur. To have pointed out, in an election in the early or mid-20th century South, that segregationist candidates didn’t give a damn about the “dignity of white men,” which they were vigorously undercutting with anti-unionism, regressive taxes, legislative corruption, etc, is not to “refuse to take racial equality seriously.”

I say, as we say on the Internets, wow, just wow. You’re seriously going to argue that white supremacists weren’t really all about the white supremacy? That segregationists weren’t serious about Jim Crow and all the social apparatus of its enforcement, including lynching, and that their economic anti-egalitarianism gave the lie to their professions of faith in the superiority of white folk and the necessity of segregation? That clarifies matters considerably. I think you profoundly misunderstand those segregationist candidates.

To repeat what I repeatedly tiresomely often in previous debates, What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is not asking why in the world Kansans take abortion, gay rights, the provocations of commercial culture, the erosion of neighborhoods and community life, etc. seriously. It’s asking (and demonstrating) how (and not least, why) Republicans manage to convince them that voting for Republicans will solve these problems, when the result of voting for Republicans is demonstrably nothing of the sort.

No, voting for Republicans will give them precisely the restrictions and rollbacks on abortion that they desire. See, e.g., the previous six months of American history.

Or take the next couple of paragraphs of Don’t Think, Smile!, just after the sentence you call “stupid”:

The culprit the majoritarians seem to have settled on is cultural politics. The cultural left, they argue, has given left politics as such a bad name because of its divisive obsession with race and sex, its arcane “elitist” battles over curriculum, its penchant for pointy-headed social theory, and its aversion to the socially and sexually conservative values most Americans uphold. As a result, the right has been able to distract American workers with the culture war, while pursuing class war with impunity. Some anticulturalists further claim that cultural radicalism is the politics of an economic elite that itself has a stake in diverting the public from the subject of class to, as Michael Lind put it, “inflammatory but marginal issues like abortion.”

(This, by the way, is why I imagine Willis reviewed Frank’s book with some weariness, having written it for him in 1999 and not receiving any royalties in 2004.)

It’s true that the cultural left, with its middle-class origins, has too often been guilty of class bias and incognizance of class issues…. I’d suggest a different explanation for the majoritarians’ failure: their conception of how movements work and their view of the left as a zero-sum game — we can do class or culture, but not both — are simply wrong. People’s working lives, their sexual and domestic lives, their moral values are intertwined. Capitalism is not only an economic system but a pervasive social and ideological force: in its present phase, it is promoting a culture of compulsive work, social Darwinism, contempt for “useless” artistic and intellectual pursuits, rejection of the very concept of public goods, and corporate “efficiency” as the model for every social activity from education to medicine…. [P]eople are not “distracted” by the moral and cultural issues that affect their daily existence as much as the size of their paychecks; they care passionately about those issues.

Mitchell @ 39: thanks for bringing up Willis’s vote for Nader. In one way, it may have been the least mystified vote for Nader in history: “he’s an asshole on abortion and issues of sexual politics generally.” And she was right about Lieberman, as well: “for years I’ve been voting for Democrats on the grounds that at least the party is not run by right-wing lunatics, but if you listen to Lieberman’s rhetoric, he’s a Christian rightist in Jewish drag” (as I’ve said many times, when Gore picked Lieberman, I vowed to vote for Gene McCarthy). But how disastrously wrong she was to say “On Supreme Court appointments, I doubt that Bush would be willing to expend the political capital necessary to get a reliably hard-right idealogue through what promises to be a closely divided Senate.” And the idea of voting for Nader “in the hope that the Green Party will get 5 percent of the vote” was simply incoherent, since the Green Party wasn’t going to go anywhere after 2000, and Nader’s relation to it was … shall we say, opportunistic at best.

Rich Yeselson once said that when he realized that even the great Ellen Willis could not convincingly defend her Nader vote after the election, he knew it could not be done. And you should read Yeselson on Lasch, too — very edifying and instructive.

48

mds 05.18.11 at 3:38 pm

I’m with those who argue that they are inseparable

Yup. Especially when the politicians that comprise the party of the nominal left have managed to give up a lot of ground on both. As Scott Lemieux never tires of pointing out, the Right’s war on abortion in this country is primarily a war on poor women’s ability to obtain an abortion. It is they who face the onerous restrictions, “waiting periods,” lack of clinics, etc, etc. It is they who bear the brunt of grandstanding by noxious little shits like Mitch Daniels when Planned Parenthood gets defunded of money for other health services. Rich women will retain access to these services, as they did pre-Roe. Likewise, a murderous ghoul like Dick Cheney can use homophobia as a club to win elections, with no concern that there will be significant adverse consequences for his own little Roy Cohn of a daughter.

All that said, I’ve complained about some of this imbalance myself. I don’t come at it from the oh-so-thoughtful centrist viewpoint that if only we gave way even more on abortion rights, stupid racist homophobic misogynists would suddenly stop voting for Michele Bachmann. It’s more along the lines of: could we please have some focus on the economic side of the coin, too? Walk and chew gum. E.g., Delighted as I am over DADT repeal, I really wish the price hadn’t been permanent* extension of all of the Bush tax cuts, which will continue to hamstring progessive economic goals. How did we get into a situation where it had to be one or the other?

Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa

Oh, hey, that’s only a ninety minute drive from my parents! If you should happen to drop by before Jesus raptures them, they’d be delighted to meet one of those far-left anti-Christian academics who are destroying America.**

*Sorry, of course they’re not permanent. They’re just now set to expire in a Presidential election year with a Republican House and a more tenuous semi-Democratic Senate majority, and a White House that has already given way on them once when faced with hostage-taking.

**That illustrates part of the problem, of course. They would never again vote for an economically liberal Democrat, regardless of that Democrat’s approach to social issues, because Fox News and the Talibornagain newsletters have convinced them that liberalism is bad for this country socially and economically. But there are others who would be more amenable to practical arguments out there.

49

bianca steele 05.18.11 at 3:58 pm

Willis via MB on Lieberman: he’s a Christian rightist in Jewish drag

This doesn’t make sense.

50

Alex 05.18.11 at 4:20 pm

I keep thinking of the phrase “the lump of freedom fallacy” in this context.

51

AcademicLurker 05.18.11 at 4:21 pm

I’ve complained about some of this imbalance myself. I don’t come at it from the oh-so-thoughtful centrist viewpoint that if only we gave way even more on abortion rights, stupid racist homophobic misogynists would suddenly stop voting for Michele Bachmann. It’s more along the lines of: could we please have some focus on the economic side of the coin, too? Walk and chew gum.

This.

Unfortunately, due to the history of clashes between the culture-centric and economy-centric wings of the left, when one says “Can we pay a little attention to the economic side of the coin? Walk and chew gum?”, what gets heard is “Stop wasting time on your stupid [abortion, DODT, gay marriage, & etc.] issue!”

I know the tendency to hear that didn’t come out of nowhere and is based on past experience, but it makes discussions of these issues exteremely difficult.

52

geo 05.18.11 at 4:33 pm

You’re seriously going to argue that white supremacists weren’t really all about the white supremacy? That segregationists weren’t serious about Jim Crow and all the social apparatus of its enforcement, including lynching, and that their economic anti-egalitarianism gave the lie to their professions of faith in the superiority of white folk and the necessity of segregation?

No, of course I’m not arguing that, any more than I’m arguing that Republicans are not serious about abortion. I’m arguing that segregationist candidates use the racial prejudices they share with their constituents as a way of deflecting attention from the numerous ways they will screw those constituents once elected, just as Republicans use the antipathy to abortion and gay rights that they share with their constituents as a way of deflecting attention from the numerous ways they will screw those constituents once elected. Anti-abortion/gay rights Republicans may indeed try to deliver on their promises once elected, but they usually can’t, at least at the national level, because they’re not a majority at the national level, and in any case, the courts won’t permit some of their proposed measures. What they will do without fail, however, are several things they have not promised to do: slash taxes on the rich, gut regulation, hobble union organizing, rend the safety net, etc. In fact, they have not had even to hint during the campaign that they would do these things, because they were talking the whole time about abortion, gay rights, pornography, drugs, consumer culture, the decline of neighborhood and community, and the unique responsibility of liberal elites for all these things. Just as segregationist candidates talk the whole time about the safety of white women and the dignity of white men. And of course, poor little white chillun’, who are going to have to endure underfunded schools, their parents’ economic insecurity, etc.

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geo 05.18.11 at 4:40 pm

Sorry, the last sentence of 52 was cut off. Should have read: “And of course, poor little white chillun’, who are going to have to endure underfunded schools, their parents’ economic insecurity, etc. if those segregationist candidates are elected, even though they won’t be forced to go to school with nigguh chillun’.”

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.18.11 at 4:50 pm

There is no reason to think that the two are exchangeable – that giving up on culture necessarily means doing better on economics. … There is no reason to think that fewer abortions necessarily buys any more union cards.

Yes, I believe there is a reason to think that. Because the culture wars are fragmenting the group with common economic interests. That’s the whole point of the culture wars.

What the hell is “gay marriage” anyway; what is the significance of it? What’s the significance of a government-sanctioned marriage of any kind? To share the medical insurance, to file a joint tax return? Address the real issues – go for single-payer health care, rational tax code, and forget the stupid marriage.

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AcademicLurker 05.18.11 at 4:52 pm

what gets heard is “Stop wasting time on your stupid [abortion, DODT, gay marriage, & etc.] issue!”

go for single-payer health care, rational tax code, and forget the stupid marriage.

Never mind…

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StevenAttewell 05.18.11 at 4:55 pm

I think mds’ walk and chew gum point is a good one, and certainly the argument that giving ground on cultural issues will help on economic ones is bunk.

However, I think to an extent this debate needs to be refocused slightly from just being about disputes within the activist/intellectual community that orbits around the Democratic Party to include an analysis of what goes on inside the Democratic Party. If we look at the Democratic Party 1974-now, one of the things we definitely see is the emergence of a faction of socially liberal but economically neoliberal Democrats – currently embodied in the New Democrats – but not the emergence of a socially conservative and economically liberal faction, leading the party as elected to slip rightwards on economic issues, but not on cultural issues. The social conservatives within the Democratic Party – the Blue Dogs – tend to be economic conservatives as well; the economic liberals/progressives are social liberals as well.

So the question becomes – how much of a problem should we see the Chuck Schumers and Chris Dodds within the Democratic Party as representing? Should there be an assumption that NOW or HRC (or intellectuals, activists, and bloggers as well) should not support people who are for women’s rights or gay rights but who are pro-corporate (likewise, should the AFL-CIO not support pro-union candidates who are anti-choice or anti-gay)?

In other words – what are the demands of solidarity at this moment?

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geo 05.18.11 at 5:14 pm

Willis on Nader (@47): “he’s an asshole on abortion and issues of sexual politics generally.”

Nader:

“Q: So you are for abortion rights? A: I don’t think government has the proper role in forcing a woman to have a child or forcing a woman not to have a child. And we’ve seen that around the world. This is something that should be privately decided with the family, woman, all the other private factors of it, but we should work toward preventing the necessity of abortion.”
Interview on ‘Meet the Press’ May 7, 2000

Further quotes on abortion and sexual freedom at: http://glassbooth.org/explore/index/ralph-nader/18/abortion-and-birth-control/16/.

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Amanda Marcotte 05.18.11 at 5:36 pm

Academic, I think you’re misreading the situation, at least if you look at economic losses as right wing gains. They made those gains by making economics about “cultural” issues. For instance, gender and race prejudices were the sum total for arguments about dismantling the social safety net.

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chris 05.18.11 at 6:03 pm

Can we pay a little attention to the economic side of the coin?

Few issues are more economic than health care. Pay discrimination falls squarely into both categories (one of the problems with trying to divide them). Immigration is mostly economic in substance, although some of the rhetoric around it is race-baiting. Bailouts, stimulus, and re-regulation of the financial industry are all 100% economic.

A large majority of liberal attention is *already on* the economic side of the coin. This has a lot to do with why calls for *even more* attention to the economic side of the coin are perceived as “forget the stupid marriage”.

I can think of precisely one bill in the 2009-10 Congress that was primarily cultural in focus (DADT repeal). The entire rest of the agenda was economic. When Democrats set the agenda, economic issues dominate the agenda to an overwhelming degree. There’s very little room to focus *more* on economic issues without focusing *solely* on them.

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Uncle Kvetch 05.18.11 at 6:04 pm

That illustrates part of the problem, of course. They would never again vote for an economically liberal Democrat, regardless of that Democrat’s approach to social issues, because Fox News and the Talibornagain newsletters have convinced them that liberalism is bad for this country socially and economically. But there are others who would be more amenable to practical arguments out there.

I agree wholeheartedly with mds here — up to that last sentence. I really have my doubts about these hypothetical culturally conservative voters who could be swayed by lefty economic populism, if it weren’t for the hot-button cultural issues. My sense* is that to US cultural conservatives, economic liberalism simply means “the government taking money away from decent, hard-working people and handing it over to the shiftless and lazy.” That’s not just “bad for this country socially and economically” — it’s immoral, every bit as much as letting women kill their babies or letting queers indoctrinate Our Children.

*I can’t speak for Kansas, but as a product of first-generation white-flighters growing up in the Philly suburbs in the 70s and 80s, with parents who were active in the anti-choice movement for years, I’m pretty familiar with the arguments.

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StevenAttewell 05.18.11 at 6:42 pm

Chris -
1. I think one thing that makes this debate a bit difficult is that by “focus on the economic,” people actually mean “discussing/passing progressive economic legislation.” We’ve seen less of that than we have seen economic legislation – the ACA was an extremely moderate bill that got made less progressive by Democratic Senators, cramdown and credit card reform were defeats, re-regulation was really watered down, the failure to do anything about bonuses and the bailouts in general. So in terms of progressive economic legislation, we pretty much had the stimulus, the 2009 budget, and half of the health care bill. We did pass DADT repeal, but DOMA, DREAM, ENDA, were also introduced and seriously debated.
2. There’s also the longer-term picture. A lot of conservative economic legislation got passed 1974-present, and quite a bit of it either under Democratic administrations or with significant Democratic support. Most progressive economic agenda items – jobs programs, labor law reform, single payer, public works, etc. – got shoved off the agenda, as I’ve discussed above, in part because of the growth of Democratic caucuses who are socially liberal but economically conservative.

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Alex 05.18.11 at 7:19 pm

+1 Attewell. Strangely enough, the Democrats who are floppy on “cultural” issues are also usually floppy on labour issues. Similarly, how many Democratic activists are there who are furious about abortion, immigration reform, racism, war with Iraq etc who aren’t also furious about poverty, the shitty economy etc? It’s almost as if there was a significant fraction of your party, concentrated in its Senate delegation, that is basically a bunch of wankers.

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mds 05.18.11 at 7:25 pm

I really have my doubts about these hypothetical culturally conservative voters who could be swayed by lefty economic populism, if it weren’t for the hot-button cultural issues.

Well, it depends on how lefty one is talking about. My father apparently voted for LBJ and Humphrey. Carter was certainly no lefty economic populist, but he was probably the less right-wing choice in 1976, and my vague recollection is that my father voted for him, while wishing that Muskie had been on the ballot. To this day, he brags that his coal-mining grandfather once met John L. Lewis. Yet increasing religosity and basic economic illiteracy have combined to turn him into a rock-solid vote for the most right-wing candidates. While I strongly suspect (and hope) that he’s something of an outlier, he’s probably not completely alone. And note that it’s driven by a combination of his own increasingly reactionary worldview and a diet of flagrant claptrap peddled by the theocratic wing of the Republican Party apparatus. It’s certainly not the fault of those who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. But it might be partially the fault of politicians who neglected to point out forcefully and repeatedly that government policy was returning to the grand old days of screwing the little guy, and even more the fault of those politicians who colluded in same. And how much were those socially liberal politicians actually fighting for anything? Seems more like they coasted on their nominal support for things like Roe, while somehow not finding a way to block or repeal the Hyde Amendment (passed in 1976).

There’s very little room to focus more on economic issues without focusing solely on them.

Actually, there’s an enormous amount of room to focus more on liberal approaches to economic issues, because Democratic politicians haven’t done very much of that. We’re talking here about putative tensions between economic liberalism and cultural liberalism here, not legislation that passes muster with Ben Nelson. And again, there never has to be such a thing as “solely.”

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ScentOfViolets 05.18.11 at 8:12 pm

Yes, I believe there is a reason to think that. Because the culture wars are fragmenting the group with common economic interests. That’s the whole point of the culture wars.

Exactly right. It’s also nice to see that the so-called culture wars fragment the “left” as well as the right.

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ScentOfViolets 05.18.11 at 8:17 pm

Yup. Especially when the politicians that comprise the party of the nominal left have managed to give up a lot of ground on both. As Scott Lemieux never tires of pointing out, the Right’s war on abortion in this country is primarily a war on poor women’s ability to obtain an abortion. It is they who face the onerous restrictions, “waiting periods,” lack of clinics, etc, etc.

Right. I seriously doubt that elites really care about about the legality of abortion one way or the other. Why should they? Their own will always be able to undergo the procedure, should they elect to.

So for elites the abortion thing is to them an essentially worthless token in and of itself, but it can be exchanged for valuable prizes, say tax cuts. It’s not a nice reality, but the best thing to do in this case is simply to never redeem it.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.18.11 at 8:48 pm

Yes. Why not ignore the Right’s war on abortion in this country, and instead concentrate on making the women (and men) prosperous in this country? If that happens, then perhaps the Right’s war on abortion in this country becomes irrelevant; every woman in Alabama can take a day off and fly to Maryland, if she needs to.

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rosmar 05.18.11 at 9:12 pm

” Because the culture wars are fragmenting the group with common economic interests. “

No they aren’t. Before the “culture wars” working people were already fragmented along racial and gender lines (as well as, depending on the region and time period, religion, ethnicity, etc.). The “culture wars” were a direct response to that fragmentation. They didn’t cause it.

And, as others have noted above, most White people hear economic programs as already racialized and gendered. A study not too long ago (Valentino et al.) found that just mentioning government spending was enough to prime many White people to think about Black people getting government handouts.

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ScentOfViolets 05.18.11 at 9:29 pm

I really have my doubts about these hypothetical culturally conservative voters who could be swayed by lefty economic populism, if it weren’t for the hot-button cultural issues.

Well, it depends on how lefty one is talking about. My father apparently voted for LBJ and Humphrey. Carter was certainly no lefty economic populist, but he was probably the less right-wing choice in 1976, and my vague recollection is that my father voted for him, while wishing that Muskie had been on the ballot. To this day, he brags that his coal-mining grandfather once met John L. Lewis. Yet increasing religosity and basic economic illiteracy have combined to turn him into a rock-solid vote for the most right-wing candidates. While I strongly suspect (and hope) that he’s something of an outlier, he’s probably not completely alone.

Heh. These people are my family, like my dad who moved us first to Oregon and then back to Missouri so he could join the CSA (The Covenant, the Arm and the Sword of the Lord.) Or my mother whose entire education was via Catholic schools, or most of my relatives who live in Perryville, MO, whose chief export is Catholic priests from the seminary, St. Mary’s and whose chief local event is the Seminary Picnic held every year in the first week of August. Without fail, every year the Shriner’s cook and serve the fried chicken. Iow, a conservative milieu, culturally speaking.

Now trust me, I know these people. They are as a group convinced that government is crooked, that it’s being run for and by the big guys, the elites, the corporations, what have you. They know they were scammed on Bush’s tax cuts, that they’re getting screwed by the insurance companies, the medical complex, the financial sector, etc. Unemployment is high and prospects look bleak, not just for the older laid-off people, but for their children and grand-children just entering the job market.

Would they vote for candidates who could credibly promise change from the status quo (and remember, there’s a significant chunk of older and influential residents who remember Roosevelt as young adults)? You’re darn right they would. They’d even vote for “liberal” candidate who’d work to make access to abortions easier as long as they thought s/he could improve their economic lot in life, and as long as the focus was on economic issues first, cultural issues second.

The problem is, there aren’t any candidates who in their eyes can promise credible change. Change on stuff like abortion, yes. Change on stuff like tougher laws against drug offenders, yes. Change on stuff like explicitly declaring marriage to be by definition a union between two people of the opposite sex, yes.

So that’s who they’ll vote for. End of story. No need to make it more complicated than that.

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chris 05.18.11 at 9:36 pm

Most progressive economic agenda items – jobs programs, labor law reform, single payer, public works, etc. – got shoved off the agenda, as I’ve discussed above, in part because of the growth of Democratic caucuses who are socially liberal but economically conservative.

At the same time, the Republican Party is socially conservative and economically conservative, and when you put them together you have “the electorate” or “the people”. Running on economic populism is a great way to lose elections except in ultra-blue states/districts, which is why there aren’t more economic populists in Congress and almost none in the White House. (The fact that economic populism pisses off people with lots of money and you need lots of money to run a campaign has a lot to do with this, but there’s also just not that much support *in the voting booth* for economic populist *candidates*.) And when you do get a few in office, they can’t implement their agenda without watering it down because they are few.

Ben Nelson, who only counts as a Democrat when people are setting unrealistically high expectations for Democratic achievement via the careless use of phrases like “filibuster-proof”, represents *Nebraska*. There are not a lot of social *or* economic liberals in Nebraska, which is why Nelson, sensibly given his position, is neither. I disagree with him about a lot of things, but he is sometimes preferable to another Coburn, Inhofe, DeMint, etc., which is the realistic alternative in the senators-from-Nebraska category. Nelson, like Nebraska, is an outlier, but a similar phenomenon explains most of the not-so-Democratic Democrats.

If we actually had a multi-party system in which the Democrats explicitly were a liberal party and a moderate party, then maybe more people would understand why the liberal agenda doesn’t often prevail — because they’d *visibly* be a junior coalition partner, instead of being one behind the scenes in what is nominally a single party.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.18.11 at 9:36 pm

I believe that liberal identity politics is largely responsible for the fragmentation. But I don’t have time to go through it again.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.18.11 at 9:37 pm

(that was in response to rosmar, 67)

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ScentOfViolets 05.18.11 at 9:44 pm

Yes. Why not ignore the Right’s war on abortion in this country, and instead concentrate on making the women (and men) prosperous in this country? If that happens, then perhaps the Right’s war on abortion in this country becomes irrelevant; every woman in Alabama can take a day off and fly to Maryland, if she needs to.

A significant part of the bad frame is that the “left” insists on owning populist economic issues. That’s a very bad tactical mistake. In conversations I’ve had with some of these people (who also fancy themselves “politically aware”), any talk of economic populism – say government efforts to put people to work on infrastructure upgrades – immediately raises in their minds the suspicion that I must think that gay marriage is okay (or actually, and more depressingly, that mixed marriages are okay). Huh? What has one got to do with the other? That’s easy: my talk of a new New Deal and a new WPA means that I’m almost certainly a “liberal”, which of course means that I support gay marriage and that I believe in coddling criminals, terrorists, and welfare cheats.

Well, no, I don’t think of myself as being particularly liberal (though I’ll cop to not being particularly outraged by mixed marriages). But such talk leads these people to make that short-circuit disconnect. Yes, you can claim that this is the result of a decades-long media campaign lavishly funded by all the usual suspects. I’d even agree to some extent. But those who style themselves “leftists”, and who like to talk about economic populism as some sort of “liberal” policy prescriptive or campaign plank aren’t doing themselves any favors either. Quite the contrary.

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bianca steele 05.18.11 at 9:45 pm

It seems like there’s more than one issue that needs to be hashed out, as Steven Attewell notes @ 56, so maybe those of us who aren’t Democratic Party activists should bow out. (And why aren’t we Democratic Party activists, you might ask? Why am I not one? If you’re interested in the issues you should get involved. But I guess that’s just complaining about the evenings.) Not like, as SoV and chris are doing, focusing on what Republicans want so maybe they’ll instead identify as left.

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AcademicLurker 05.18.11 at 10:07 pm

@56In other words – what are the demands of solidarity at this moment?

I guess that’s what I was trying to get at @41. Suggesting that things like regulation in lending & etc. should have received more serious attention and analysis from the left isn’t saying “Put down your icky identity politics and focus on real issues”: lending regulation (to pick one example) is identity politics. Unless massive transfers of home ownership from African American families to corporations and the accompanying elimination of entire historically black neighborhoods somehow doesn’t count as a specifically African American issue.

Which I suppose puts me in the “cultural and economic issues are inseparable” camp, but coming from a very different direction than the commenters above.

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StevenAttewell 05.19.11 at 5:07 am

Ok, I think we’re getting somewhere:
1. As per Bianca’s suggestion, I am both a State Party Delegate, and a member of a Party Central Committee. Incidentally, joining the party machinery is something that anyone who has an interest in politics should do – if only to learn how this stuff works from the inside, in ways that I imagine might shock, inspire, or disgust people.
2. chris – except that tons of polling shows that “the people” and “the electorate” are in fact quite friendly to progressive economic policies. There’s a reason why presidential candidates turn anti-free-trade on the Mid-Atlantic/Midwestern hustings; they’re not stupid. As for Nelson – Nebraska is much less conservative than you might think, especially Nebraska Democrats (there’s a reason his polls have taken a big hit in recent years) – my issue is that he should be subject to party discipline, and if that means we have a working majority of 51 versus an non-working majority of 60, that’s a step forward.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.19.11 at 6:56 am

lending regulation (to pick one example) is identity politics. Unless massive transfers of home ownership from African American families to corporations and the accompanying elimination of entire historically black neighborhoods somehow doesn’t count as a specifically African American issue.

See, that’s what I’m talking about. Suppose 50 million people suffer from the current lending practices, and only 15 million of them are African Americans. With 50 million people you have a fighting chance to build some sort of mini-movement and force a reform, but you just sent a clear signal to 35 million of them: sorry, you don’t belong, go away.

Forget African Americans; think of human beings.

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Norwegian Guy 05.19.11 at 2:26 pm

While there is no reason a party cannot be both liberal on social and leftist on economic issues, there is a limited number of issues that a party can “own” in an election campaign. When leftist parties then choose to focus on issues that appeal mostly to the educated middle classes, like more liberal immigration policies or environmentalism, their electorate and membership shifts accordingly. Since the major centre-left parties have also turned from social democracy to neoliberalism during the same period, their traditional working class base hears open borders, threats to industrial employment, and cuts in the welfare state. It’s not terribly surprising that many then started supporting right-wing populist parties instead. So, while less then half a century ago the left in most countries was dominated by the working class, the educated middle class have now more or less taken over.

What leftist politicians that want to be elected should do is to run on the populist, economic stuff that appeals to the voters. If they then go on and actually deliver on the bread-and-butter issues, there will be room for social liberalism as well. If not, working class voters will turn to parties that are both socially conservative and promise to protect and improve the welfare state, like the Front National, the True Finns, the BNP etc. Of course, as has been mentioned upthread, such candidates are a the moment rare in the US, perhaps because of the two-party system, which is again a consequence of the electoral system.

Ellen Willis was probably right in the 60’s and 70’s, but the times have changed, and the culture war has on many fronts been almost won. For a contemporary description of the Western left, Michael Lind is closer to the mark:

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/11/02/center_left_parties_lind/index.html?source=rss

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Landru 05.19.11 at 4:20 pm

” this would have spared us both the celebration of faux-subversion in cultural studies and the backlash against the same.”

But, what about the backlash against the backlash?

Michael, Thomas Frank’s site’s page for his book “One Market Under God”

http://www.tcfrank.com/books/one-market-under-god/

lists you as having reviewed it, but the current link to said review doesn’t lead anywhere. Is it publicly available? and, for those of us who are interweb-lazy, can you show where? Thanks.

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Nona 05.19.11 at 4:38 pm

I’m a little late to this party, but just wanted to say re #4: Hahaha! It’s almost too perfect that Mom literally used to joke about getting her “townhouse” after inventing a fake blow-up fire hydrant used for saving ones parking space in NYC.

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Michael Bérubé 05.19.11 at 4:46 pm

Landru, I reviewed it for The Common Review, volume 1, issue 1, 2001 — no longer available on the Interwebs. But the review can also be found in my 2006 book Rhetorical Occasions.

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mds 05.19.11 at 5:10 pm

Oh, good grief, Bérubé, do you want to be able to retire to a space castle, or not?

my 2006 book Rhetorical Occasions, available from fine bookstores.

or alternatively,

my 2006 book Rhetorical Occasions, which shows that I am actually a spooky, ghostly, disembodied head. So if you don’t want me haunting you, send money now.

You’re welcome.

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rosmar 05.19.11 at 5:43 pm

Poor people, including poor White people, are still less likely to vote for conservatives than rich people are.

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.11 at 8:25 pm

(And why aren’t we Democratic Party activists, you might ask? Why am I not one? If you’re interested in the issues you should get involved. But I guess that’s just complaining about the evenings.) Not like, as SoV and chris are doing, focusing on what Republicans want so maybe they’ll instead identify as left.

Speaking just for myself, I’m not really an activist. I’m a fiftyish white guy who has a limited number of topics to talk about with the relatives, and politics just happens to be one (sports and cars/mechanics are the other biggies). I’ve manned a polling booth twice but since I’m an independent, basically I’m just an observer who is allowed hand out the blue folders with the ballot inside to prospective voters. I’ve also did the yard sign/door-to-door thing for two local candidates in the past, but only because my daughter’s mother made me :-) Iow, pretty average :-)

And speaking as one “typical” citizen-voter, all I can say is that we little people have a certain amount of influence at the local level, rather less at the city/county level, very little at the state level, and our influence at the national level is so near to zero as to be nonexistent for all practical purposes. And things have been trending almost monotonically worse since 1980 (which also happens to be the year of my first “real” vote, make of that what you will). The takeaway here is that for the median voter, aged about 37, they’ve never known any other type of situation should they even be aware of it. In fact, the more realistic percentage is something on the order of 70% of the populate who have never known anything but some sort of gradual decline in democratic decision-making institutions accompanied by increases in financial inequities.

This to my mind is not exactly a “leftist” issue ;-) It’s a populist one. But even though I have short hair, have been known to coach girls’ softball, attend church on a semi-regular basis (some would say semi-annual is more like it), have a professional job involving a discipline with a lot of hard numbers and facts and so on and so forth – the supposed sine qua non of the your taken-to-be-average center-right American – guess what? If I say anything that smacks of raising taxes, rationalizing healthcare, etc., well, immediately I’m not just a “liberal”, I probably sport a peace medallion and smoke clove cigarettes to boot. At least, that’s the way some people tell it ;-) In short, if I make any sort of populist statement, be it ever so backed by the facts, I’m immediately accused of being one of those dreaded “cultural liberals”. I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that a lot of people posting here have been at the receiving end of this sort of treatment as well.

There’s a reason why people on the right make these sorts of accusations against otherwise completely ordinary people, and a pretty obvious one at that: it’s to cow them into dropping the subject. That’s pretty strong stuff for a lot of people, strong enough to actually get them to, yes, drop the subject.

And thus the other reason they do it – it works. Don’t tell me that making populist economic issues into leftist cultural one ones is not an effective strategy for these guys.

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.11 at 8:37 pm

Running on economic populism is a great way to lose elections except in ultra-blue states/districts, which is why there aren’t more economic populists in Congress and almost none in the White House.

If by losing elections you mean they get eliminated as a consideration early one (think of the Dean Scream) you probably have a point. But polling on a range of issues, on everything from raising taxes on the wealthy to wanting a public option for health care, shows that most Americans are what for lack of a better term should be called center-left. And in fact, that’s the reason why large numbers of these people voted to put Obama in the White House: they thought they were voting for an “economic populist”. Didn’t happen of course, but it does explain why a lot of people are so down on the man, and why his defenders feel obliged to defend him by saying that if you listened to him closely he really wasn’t all that populist, and hey, it’s your fault for not paying attention closely enough if you thought otherwise ;-)

(The fact that economic populism pisses off people with lots of money and you need lots of money to run a campaign has a lot to do with this, but there’s also just not that much support in the voting booth for economic populist candidates.) And when you do get a few in office, they can’t implement their agenda without watering it down because they are few.

So you’ve actually figured out the real reason why these guys don’t seem get elected very often, and why once elected, they’re not terribly effective at implementing their agenda. But then you throw it all away by saying “but there’s also just not that much support in the voting booth for economic populist candidates.” I’m mighty curious as to what sort of data you have, what sort of cites and sources you can bring to bear that actually supports this claim.

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.11 at 8:46 pm

chris – except that tons of polling shows that “the people” and “the electorate” are in fact quite friendly to progressive economic policies. There’s a reason why presidential candidates turn anti-free-trade on the Mid-Atlantic/Midwestern hustings; they’re not stupid.

Exactly so. It’s also the reason why you hear so much anti-immigration rhetoric from these pols. It’s not so much prejudice as enlightened (populist!) selfishness of the “their taking all our jobs” sort.

As for Nelson – Nebraska is much less conservative than you might think, especially Nebraska Democrats (there’s a reason his polls have taken a big hit in recent years) – my issue is that he should be subject to party discipline, and if that means we have a working majority of 51 versus an non-working majority of 60, that’s a step forward.

Again, exactly so. Jane Hamsher & company over at Firedoglake have been really big on this one. Love that woman – she’s got the scientific method/making predictions thing down pat. If only more of those Monday morning quarterbacks – you know which bloggers and Sabbath gasbags they are – would follow her lead and start offering analysis before the fact and not after. And then were held accountable for a cumulative record of poor analysis. Sigh. A guy can dream :-(

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Michael Bérubé 05.19.11 at 9:22 pm

I’m a little late to this party, but just wanted to say re #4: Hahaha! It’s almost too perfect that Mom literally used to joke about getting her “townhouse” after inventing a fake blow-up fire hydrant used for saving ones parking space in NYC.

Good to see you here, Nona! And congratulations on a great conference — it looks (to gather from the many wonderful reviews) like Out of the Vinyl Deeps is really taking off. Rock critics everywhere, and Ellen Willis fans everywhere, thank you.

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Michael Bérubé 05.19.11 at 10:31 pm

And finally, George @ 52:

. I’m arguing that segregationist candidates use the racial prejudices they share with their constituents as a way of deflecting attention from the numerous ways they will screw those constituents once elected, just as Republicans use the antipathy to abortion and gay rights that they share with their constituents as a way of deflecting attention from the numerous ways they will screw those constituents once elected.

But that’s what I heard you saying the first time — namely, that segregation and abortion are epiphenomena, even for segregationists and anti-abortion politicians. They’re real, yes, and people care about them — but ultimately, for elected officials who run on them, they’re just a means to the larger end of screwing their constituents. I think that’s mistaken, because I think these issues have what one might call a “relative autonomy” from the economic.

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geo 05.19.11 at 11:30 pm

Not sure we’re making progress, Michael. Let me quote my summary of Frank’s position from a previous thread:

“1) The Kansans, like leftists and liberals, are getting massively knackered by the Republicans’ economic program. 2) The Kansans, unlike liberals and leftists, vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, and in fact provide their margin of victory. Why? 3) Because the Republicans have induced the Kansans not to notice that the Republicans have knackered them and plan to continue. How? 4) By continually talking about something else: ie, by blaming liberals and leftists for most of what offends the Kansans morally and culturally, and promising – hypocritically — to redress their grievances. Why “hypocritically”? 5) Because the pornography, violence, consumerism, community destruction, etc. that so aggrieve the Kansans are largely the products not of cultural radicals but of large and powerful industries that the Republicans have no intention whatever of confronting.

“What does Frank think non-Republicans should do? Point out 1-5, repeatedly. He does not think we should pretend to agree with the Kansans about the depravity of popular culture. He does not think we should ignore their anguish about the depravity they perceive. He does not think we should give up making or studying popular culture, or trying to live free and equal lives, until economic equality is in the bag. He just thinks we should try to convince the Kansans that, whatever our moral and aesthetic differences, we can and should make common cause against being knackered.”

I still don’t see how this amounts to “refusing to take culture seriously” or implying that culture is “epiphenomenal.” But perhaps you and I should bag it for now, or Crooked Timber readers will decide that we’re epiphenomenal and refuse to take us seriously.

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Jonathan Mayhew 05.20.11 at 12:20 am

I see a conflict here not between culture and economics, but between two cultures. One rooted in the 60s and the beats in the previous decade and the other in the New York Intellectuals, a more ascetic European tradition.

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StevenAttewell 05.20.11 at 1:06 am

I don’t know about that, Jonathan – I think it’s more about two theories of culture. I like rock and roll too, I just don’t think it’s much of a threat to capitalism or the social order.

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john 05.20.11 at 4:38 am

Thomas Frank does not want to make common cause with knackered Kansans. If he did, he wouldn’t be such a condescending fool. Because, as Katha Pollitt has pointed out for decades (well, for over a decade, anyway), the argument that the Republicans don’t make good on their anti-abortion rhetoric is . . . flat-out wrong. What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank? Why doesn’t he understand it? Why does he argue against the facts?

The title “What’s the Matter with Kansas” plays into an ancient tradition of portraying rural people as stupid. (By ancient, I mean going back to Ancient Greece, at least.) This tradition is ancient because it works — it sells. To people in cities. And, in America, the mass of the book-buying public is urban/suburban. Portraying rural people as stupid is not a strategy for making common cause with them. It’s a strategy for selling books to urbanites/suburbanites. So — Frank’s got a catchy title.

When you look at the facts, you find that Thomas Frank is the stupid one. The Republicans have successfully been rolling back abortion rights for decades — decades! And he derides Kansans for voting for politicians who say they will roll back abortion rights, and condescends to them for valuing anything above economic well-being. It’s mind-boggling.

The relationship between cultural and economic liberation/equality/party-in-the-streets is complex and convoluted. You can’t say they have nothing to do with each other: unemployment among African Americans is vastly higher than unemployment among whites. Educational access for minorities; environmental racism; the economic consequences to mothers of forced births (as someone pointed out) — economic oppression can go hand in hand with cultural oppression.

And: while rights for gays have continued to improve (thanks to capitalism: that sitcom that was on for years, the name of which is escaping me — it had Harry Connick Jr. playing a handsome straight doctor — has been a key component in the cultural shift, it seems to me), abortion rights/access has been in decline for many years in many places. So, to whoever it was that said that we’ve won on culture but lost in economics: No, it’s not that simple.

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Michael Bérubé 05.20.11 at 5:17 am

In one way we are not making progress, George, but that’s OK. Because in another way we’re just disagreeing, and getting clearer about what we’re disagreeing about. For example:

4) By continually talking about something else: ie, by blaming liberals and leftists for most of what offends the Kansans morally and culturally, and promising – hypocritically—to redress their grievances. Why “hypocritically”? 5) Because the pornography, violence, consumerism, community destruction, etc. that so aggrieve the Kansans are largely the products not of cultural radicals but of large and powerful industries that the Republicans have no intention whatever of confronting.

About (4), I don’t agree that those Republicans are failing to address what offends Kansans morally and culturally. When they try to restrict abortion rights or define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, I think they really mean it. It’s not a game in which they dangle the bright shiny objects to distract the voters. So there’s no hypocrisy involved. Which leads me to (5), and Bob McChesney’s claim (which Frank repeats uncritically) that corporations are to blame for “vulgar” culture. Yes, corporate media produce vulgar culture. It is on the teevee every night, and in the tabloids every day. But not everything the Kansans consider vulgar culture was produced by corporations: corporations were not responsible for Piss Christ or Robert Mapplethorpe or Annie Sprinkle or David Wojnarowicz or….

So insofar as Frank (and McChesney, and you) see vulgar culture simply as the expression of corporate interests, yeah, you’re not granting it relative autonomy from the economic, and (in my lexicon) not taking it seriously on its own. And (as I said in my critique of Kansas) you’re not acknowledging the difference between what culturally conservative voters regard as “vulgar” and what you regard as “vulgar.”

You’re right that we should bag it, though. I do understand why you disagree with me, and I think you understand why I disagree with you. The important thing that everyone can agree on is that Bob McManus is a total corporate sellout.

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Martin Bento 05.20.11 at 5:56 am

Quoting something that (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) Frank wrote before the 2010 election and wondering how anyone could say such a thing after the 2010 election is not exactly fair rhetoric. The situation has changed, and the Republican grassroots are empowered in a way they were not before, largely because the establishment, under Bush, failed too visibly.

Some cultural issues are chits on which the economic elite can go either way, including delivering for the rubes when they must, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are basically playing the rubes. Some issues they cannot deliver on. The uber complaint behind cultural conservatism is a desire for a return to a somewhat but not entirely mythical past commonly known as the 1950’s, aka everything was fine till the hippies showed up. Regardless of the merits of a 1950’s family structure, it cannot exist now, for the majority of the population, for economic reasons that the elite is largely responsible for and is not interested in letting reverse, even to the extent that that may be possible.

Specifically, the classic 1950’s family is an economically-secure, single wage-earner middle-class household. It was supported by a 92% top marginal tax rate, strong unions, and a very high level of government control of the financial system. Without those things, there is no clear way that you can get Ozzie and Harriet, whether you want them or not. In a sense, things like abortion are substitutes for this. If knocked-up girls have to become mothers, and guys have to become fathers, and everyone marries young and stays married, well, that’s what made the 1950’s family work. It’s not really, of course. You need the economics, and that’s where the left response should be. Not because we necessarily want to return to that family, but because if the other side is internally contradictory, that’s the first thing you want to establish: then you create a space for whatever you want to advocate. To get people to stop seeing the cultural changes as the cause of their economic grievances, you have to articulate the economic alternative. Every “grassroots” conservative I talk to is shocked to hear that marginal tax rates were higher in the 1950’s, and they usually require me to prove it. They would be equally shocked, of course, to hear that divorce rates were higher then, or homosexuality more accepted, but those things aren’t true.

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Alex 05.20.11 at 9:29 am

Specifically, the classic 1950’s family is an economically-secure, single wage-earner middle-class household. It was supported by a 92% top marginal tax rate, strong unions, and a very high level of government control of the financial system. Without those things, there is no clear way that you can get Ozzie and Harriet, whether you want them or not.

This. I’d point out that if you want Jack and Bill S. typing like crazy in a haze of bennies, that was also a product of the welfare state (the GI Bill in Kerouac’s case).

The whole Frank critique would make more sense if the US Democrats had been reliably offering, and when elected delivering, an economically majoritarian program. I would suggest – in fact, I don’t need to suggest, I’ve got the facts – that in practice US workers are better off with as many Dems as possible on the Hill. Wages grew in real terms under Clinton and fell under Bush W.

But they could have done better, and it is very hard to convince people that you really did act in their best interests if you didn’t tell them you were doing it. Even harder if you denied you were doing it at the time. This is one of the relatively few points of transatlantic continuity here. As a matter of brute statistical fact, workers did better with Labour/the PS/the SPD/the Democrats than they did with the Tories/Republicans/Gaullists/CDU, but these parties spent huge amounts of political effort denying that this was so or that if it was so, that it was deliberate.

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Alex 05.20.11 at 9:33 am

But not everything the Kansans consider vulgar culture was produced by corporations: corporations were not responsible for Piss Christ or Robert Mapplethorpe or Annie Sprinkle or David Wojnarowicz or….

The Kansan in this model must be either a bit of a highbrow, or else one of those characters who is constantly in search of something to be offended by. So they’re either a conservative intellectual (conservative intellectual writes book about how everyone is really a bit like him!) or a psychological authoritarian, and therefore they’re probably just a Republican.

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Alex 05.20.11 at 9:40 am

I am hogging the thread, but there is something else missing from Kansas-ism – which is a policy recommendation you can operationalise. What is it that the Democrats could roll back from (enter cause here) that would win back the pony? If you look at the current state of the Right, it would be surprising if anything mollified them short of re-instituting slavery.

And this, at the bottom, is the problem with the whole thing. It assumes that the other side can be bargained with and that they will act in good faith and with a spirit of generosity rather than just pigging any concessions they get, hollering for more, and declaring that the very fact of bargaining demonstrates your weakness. It is fundamentally very close to the most tiresome Democrats-in-name-only. It is David Brooks with the serial numbers scraped off.

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mds 05.20.11 at 1:03 pm

Portraying rural people as stupid is not a strategy for making common cause with them. It’s a strategy for selling books to urbanites/suburbanites.

Though I sympathize with your overall critique, that “/” is doing a little bit of work there. Because a more accurate division is not rural vs. non-rural, but suburban vs. non-suburban. rosmar @ 82 correctly noted that the poor tend to vote the least against their own economic interests, and it’s not as if there are no rural poor. Michele Bachmann is not sitting in Congress thanks to rural Minnesota, but thanks to suburban / exurban Minneapolis-St. Paul; in Minnesota it’s still technically the “Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party,” after all. The most rabidly Republican counties in Wisconsin aren’t in the less densely populated north, but in Greater Milwaukee’s sprawl. So Frank probably isn’t helping if he allows us to infer that it’s primarily the fault of rural people, when urban and rural Americans really need to be uniting against the suburbanite culture that’s trying to destroy America the way they’ve tried to destroy the cities they live around.

And as for “stupid”: Spend a few minutes talking to a Bachmann supporter if you dare, and you will find that there is a fine line between proudly defiant ignorance and stupidity. But perhaps they’re stupid like a fox, since right now they are (largely) successfully finishing off decades of economic and cultural progress for their economic, religious, and ethnic inferiors, and many upper-middle-class white suburban Christian folk will actually make out pretty well … for a time.

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john 05.20.11 at 2:34 pm

Oh, generalization!

Frank’s book came out in 2004, during the Bush re-election campaign. At the time, there were a huge number of socially moderate-to-liberal suburbanites who ended up voting for Bush because of “national security” concerns. Books like Frank’s, and the hubbub they generated, helped sell Bush to them, with the argument that Bush’s pledges of social conservatism weren’t sincere and didn’t deliver. When the opposite was true: He delivered on the social conservative agenda (big time, very pre-2008; defunding of international contraception, wildly dishonest corporate theocrats on the Supreme Court, and on and on). The Kansans got what they voted for. The socially moderate-to-liberal “security” voters got sold a bill of goods. At the time, Frank’s argument struck me as Karl Rove’s fantasy of leftish useful idiocy — “stupid” as compared to the Kansans, on the reading of the facts that were at issue.

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Martin Bento 05.20.11 at 8:29 pm

OK, look at the defunding of condoms in international aid. Then look at the Bush tax cuts. Then look at the Iraq War, a war fought, as Lawrence Wilkerson, who was largely in the room, has acknowledged, for oil. Who did Bush deliver for “big time”? Big money or the local churchgoers?

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Martin Bento 05.20.11 at 8:51 pm

Put another way, had your suburban social moderates known Bush was going to cut off the condom money, would this have changed their vote? Of course not. This was always a minor, barely visible, issue in American politics, whatever its actual impact.

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Jenavir 05.20.11 at 9:17 pm

john @ 4:38 am: PRECISELY. AcademicLurker is simply wrong to talk about “impressive gains” on social issues in contrast to impressive losses on economic issues in the last 30 years.

On the contrary, there have been impressive setbacks on social issues which have directly resulted in the destruction of the social safety net. The demonization of single mothers in the 1980s as ‘welfare queens’ (racism AND sexism–identity politics, ohnoes!). The war on contraception and abortion, with devastating consequences for low-income women’s health care. The economic devastation of the black community because of racist drug and crime policies and an equally racist failure to provide opportunities for released ex-cons. All of these are economic consequences of people’s ‘mere’ cultural attitudes.

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hhoran 05.20.11 at 10:09 pm

Michael @92 Geo @88
You debate the sincerity of the GOP’s support for the stated goals of their socially conservative constituents—echoing the core Frank/Willis debate–are they really just “dangling bright shiny objects” to deceive voters, as Frank claims, or is it ridiculous and condescending to treat the voters as clueless rubes, as Willis claims?
I think the problem is conflating “social” objectives that have big economic components (immigration, the debt ceiling) with ones that don’t (abortion, gay marriage). With the latter you do see substantive government actions that respond to these voters wishes.
But the hypocrisy comes to center stage when organized financial interests are affected, as the Arizona immigration situation illustrates. Our local GOP is heavily funded by three major groups that depend on extremely lax immigration enforcement—agriculture, housing/construction, and the hospitality/tourism industries. A serious (and rigorously constitutional) effort to prevent people without full residency rights from getting access to public service would be child’s play, but it would also cripple those three industries. Thus the politicians pass laws deliberately designed to be overturned as unconstitutional. The huge grassroots demand for strict immigration enforcement (read: reduced labor market competition) is totally thwarted, while the grassroots activists continue to applaud the “tough-talking” politicians who have totally sold them out. One can find more examples whenever there’s real money at stake (housing, banking, credit cards, health care, etc)
Frank (and many Democrats) see this type of hypocrisy but fail to focus on the link between politicians and the narrow economic interests backing them. This is the only place where the chain between exurban conservatives and these politicians can be broken. Sometimes the failure is because of greater liberal sympathy with the corporate objectives than the conservative grassroots objections (NAFTA, immigration). Sometimes it is because liberals respond with mushy anti-capitalist or anti-upper class sentiments that the grassroots have no sympathy with, and couldn’t possibly lead to meaningful change (Willis challenges Frank on this point, but not as clearly as she could have). Most often, the failure is because of the willful failure to recognize that the politicians on our side are just as corruptly beholden to these types of financial interests as the politicians on the other side. You can’t break the link between grassroots conservatives and the hypocritical GOP politicians selling them down the river without breaking the link between grassroots liberals and the Democratic politicians who haven’t delivered anything that would offend their paymasters.
As Willis vaguely recognizes, the problem isn’t “capitalism” and anything that sounds like an attack on business in general is doomed to fail. “Business in General” isn’t corrupt—it is really just a handful of large companies in a handful of sectors who depend on governmental market-rigging for their survival. Any partisan effort that just focuses on the hypocrisy on the other side of the aisle just reinforces the tribal allegiances that keep the problems in place.

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geo 05.21.11 at 1:54 am

Paul Krugman’s blog today links to an Onion essay that offers an original and thought-provoking perspective on culture vs. economics: http://www.theonion.com/articles/fiscally-im-a-rightwing-nutjob-but-on-social-issue,20486/.

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john 05.21.11 at 6:26 am

Dear Martin Bento,

Yes, nobody’s disputing the idea that the Republicans are the party for the rich-getting-richer-quicker. And Bush & Cheney’s making common cause with anti-gay activists clearly was insincere. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t deliver the goods to a socially conservative constituency.

To reiterate the point I was trying to make about Frank helping to sell Bush to social moderates: Frank had it backwards. He had it upside down. He argued that the social conservatives got nothing for their votes, when, in fact, they made progress with every Republican electoral victory. Whereas, in contrast, the security voters got nothing but wars that were counterproductive to national security in exchange for their votes. But “What’s the Matter with Westchester?” wouldn’t have appealed to nearly as wide a reading public. Frank’s a shrewd marketer — give him that.

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Martin Bento 05.21.11 at 8:16 am

Wars and defense spending are what the national security constituency wants: not security, which would lessen the need for wars and spending. So they have gotten a tremendous amount from each Republican victory, and almost as much from Democratic ones. What the social conservatives have gotten may not be nothing, but it is nothing compared to what the rich have gotten.

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dictateursanguinaire 05.22.11 at 6:27 am

Let me ask the CT brain trust something: I’m a pretty confident feminist but does anyone else see disturbing parallels in the way that certain strands of feminism appear to wholeheartedly embrace the treating of sex as a commodity? Frankly, I think that this message of sexual liberation has been interpreted in a way that has provided cover for people to act in ways that are antisocial and unethical. Choosing your sexual partner based on your own wishes without society interfering is one thing. But frankly sexual liberation can and is used to justify some pretty unethical stuff. Once had a friend of mine claim that the woman in a Ray Carver story (can’t remember the name, it’s in the collection that has “Cathedral” but basic gist: she abandons her husband and children for a lover in another state without warning) was some sort of feminist hero for taking on the patriarchy. Yet somehow, that story takes on a completely different tone if you simply change the woman’s gender.

This point ought to be made more often. Wanna know one of the left’s biggest flaws? Not having an answer to those sorts of situations. I’m as postmodern as they come and I believe in nonjudgment to an extent. But most Americans, especially the Kansans (I’m a Missourian incidentally) or what people imagine as “the Kansans”, see something wrong with people acting like that. Left politics can easily be framed in a way that doesn’t eliminate the concepts of responsibility and ethics. Frankly, the liquidationist approach to personal relations (don’t like someone in your life or something in your life? get rid of them/it!) is something that should crawl back into the Ayn Rand cave, not flourish on the left.

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Martin Bento 05.22.11 at 7:38 am

dictateursanguinaire, wow, you’re opening up a whole new discussion there, one that probably merits its own thread, but I’m not one of those who has a say in that here. If people take you up on it here, I may join them, but this thread is already about halfway to death (the threads are automatically closed after about (or maybe precisely) ten days), so I’m not inclined to jump in right now.

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