How the Other Half Votes
A war against the "money power" is a class war; a war against intellectuals is a culture war. Frank's dissection of the contemporary culture war--of the indefatigable insistence of backlashers and the hucksters who claim to represent them that the government take action against abortion and the teaching of evolution, against gay marriage and gangsta rap, against pornography and Robert Mapplethorpe, but never against predatory corporations or on behalf of their victims--is superb, the best since Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling (1989). And his prose, as many have noted, descends from Mencken's:
The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat-packing. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.
Who or what is to blame? Is this purely a scam, or does it also show up a failure of our democracy? Clearly, the legions of the backlash are being duped. They have no reason to ally with the business party, where, as Frank says, their "cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends." But just as clearly, their anger deserves to have democratic expression, even effect. Cosmopolitan Nation readers may consider them benighted, even bigoted, but surely the poor sods should be able to wage culture war if they want to without screwing themselves (along with the rest of us) economically.
Our two-party system makes this difficult, though. If backlashers shed their free-market delusions and became economic populists, they would no longer be welcome in the Republican Party. But would they, as cultural conservatives, be welcome in the Democratic Party? And if they made themselves welcome, even became a majority, where would cultural liberals go? The fact is, a polity with more than one vital, contentious and persistent issue may not be well served by a two-party, winner-take-all electoral system. Liberals learned this recently (at any rate those liberals who did not stop with blaming Nader). Conservatives may learn it soon.
For all its ruinous consequences, the right-wing culture war can at least claim the merit of having called forth that peerless magazine The Baffler, the Baffler anthologies, Thomas Frank's previous books, and this book. What's the Matter With Kansas? should at last make Frank a national figure. That would go some way, perhaps, toward redeeming the intellectual honor of a country that has lionized David Brooks and tolerated Ann Coulter.