Thursday, January 06, 2005

Two new reviews of "Kansas"

In a basically flattering review, New Left Review discusses Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas and comes to conclusions similar to my own:
For all his spirited retorts to hucksters like David Brooks, Frank flinches from acknowledging the core of cold truth in their legends and demagogic stereotypes. In the recent Presidential election, the Democrats picked the wealthiest individual since George Washington ever to run for the White House as their candidate, outgunned the Republicans 59 to 41 per cent among donors with assets over $10 million, outspent Bush in every swing state of the Union, and hit an all-time financial record for a senatorial campaign: $17 million in a failed attempt to get Daschle back on the Hill. Moreover, there is little that is new in this: since the nineties virtually all of the richest electoral districts in the country have been Democratic bastions, Clinton's cash-mountain easily topped Dole's in 1996, and the Democrats have regularly received larger individual donations than Republicans, whose strength has been among smaller donors. In this situation, workers who vote Republican may be less deluded than Frank seems to believe. Putting it in sociological language, since there is so little to choose 'instrumentally' between the two parties, each of them dedicated to capital unbound, why not at least get the satisfaction of voting 'expressively' for the one which seems to speak for their values, if not their interests?
In other words, that fact that Clinton remade the Democratic Party into"the other party of big business" makes it perfectly reasonable for working class populists to vote Republican. These populists want to vote against some elite group. The Republicans give them the option of voting against intellectual and cultural elites; whereas the Democrats, having eschewed any systematic critique of the depredations of the filthy rich, don't take a stand against any elites whatsoever.

Then there's also this piece in BE Press, in which Brian Glenn contextualizes Frank's description of the rightwing neopopulist backlash as part of what historians refer to as the Fourth Great Awakening.

The term "Great Awakenings" refers to an upsweep of evangelical protestant fervor, which has periodically befallen the United States; the first happened in the middle of the eighteenth century; the second ran from the 1840s through the 1870s; the third at the end of the nineteenth century, and the fourth began in the 1970s and is (we can only hope) currently at its apogee.

Glenn points out that at the core of each Great Awakening has been "a question of equality," with each Great Awakening leading "to a more egalitarian society as members of the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum found in their religious beliefs a justification for their demanding a more equal footing with the elite they saw above them." But whereas earlier Great Awakenings focused their egalitarian impulses on things like racial hierarchies (the abolitionist movement was part of the Second Great Awakening) or economic hierarchies (as with William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech), the current Great Awakening is focused on tearing down intellectual and cultural hierarchies. (Glenn argues that this is because the poverty of the poor in America is no longer abject, freeing them to focus on their "spiritual poverty.")

Years ago, Tom Lehrer pointed out that taking the American egalitarian ideal to its logical conclusion meant prohibiting discrimination not only on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability. Lehrer's bon mot yields a deep insight the nature of the "egalitarianism" propounded by the neopopulist right today. Its profound anti-intellectualism and anti-scientism is in fact an egalitarianism of the intellect: expertise is just another opinion.

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