Tale of Two Books
The trouble with both, it seems to me, is that such an analysis can't be done unless you can step outside the intellectual framework of the discourse on the left. And neither writer seems to be able to do this. Indeed, both seem to share the irritating habit of assuming that the left is simply correct in all it sees and does, and the right, or the non-left, is simply insufficiently educated.
I'm sure these books are easier to take as gospel if you share the authors' presumption that capitalism is "borderline criminality" [Frank] or prefer to precede the word "values" with the qualifier "so-called." For the rest of us, trying hard to understand the left as it makes a show of understanding the right, it helps to adopt, at least for as long as it takes to read the books, the authors' beliefs, such as:
- Republican leadership is deliberately destructive of the lives and health of working class Americans and cares only about big business.
- The average Red State American has no idea what's good for him. The appropriate image for him is "lemming." Any American who makes less than $200,000 a year and votes Republican does so because he or she has been brainwashed.
- You resent the liberals and academics who know what's good for you only because of poison pen campaigns by conservatives. (In other words, it's just not true that you resent bossy meddlers; you only feel that way because you're a dupe and a fool. And you don't resent them even more for telling you you're a dupe and a fool, no matter what your heart says.)
Now you're fit to read this stuff.
The gist of Frank's book is this argument:
The conservative establishment has tricked Kansans, playing up the emotional touchstones of conservatism and perpetuating a sense of a vast liberal empire out to crush traditional values while barely ever discussing the Republicans' actual economic policies and what they mean to the working class. Thus the pro-life Kansas factory worker who listens to Rush Limbaugh will repeatedly vote for the party that is less likely to protect his safety, less likely to protect his job, and less likely to benefit him economically.
That people vote against their own economic interest is not a result of some evil modern brain-wave machine invented by Shrubbie McChimpler, KKKarl Rove, et al. In fact, the entire political history of America disproves over and over the Marxist historian's shibboleth that class awareness drives voters.
Workers in Pennsylvania textile factories in the 1850s ardently backed the Republican party even though all their economic interests diametrically opposed it. The matter for them was a simple one of the "moral value" of anti-slavery (a highly Christianized abolitionism), coupled with resentment of Southern "slave power" that held them in contempt and sought to dominate the social fabric of the nation.
The same sort of values, with different terms, led the hardscrabble farmers in the Piedmont counties of Georgia and South Carolina to back the party run by Southern aristocrats in the same years.
Frank and Lakoff make much of the "unnatural alliances" that underlay the modern Republican party. But, again, history teaches that such unnatural alliances are the basis of all two-party politics in America, especially in a party that wants to attain an electoral majority. For example, take the urban Irish laborers and the Southern aristocrats in the ante-bellum Democratic party, or FDR's Democratic Party, with its coalition that included unionized industrial workers and Southern segregationists.
Frank's being raised in Kansas only seems to have put an edge on the general leftist contempt for Red Staters: evangelicals are "aggressively pious" zealots who "bark and howl and rebuke the world for its sins." For much of the book, he seems to use his soapbox to wreak personal vengance on people who were mean to him when he was young and vulnerable. As one (sympathetic) reviewer puts it, "journalistic objectivity is definitely not a hallmark of Frank's writing style."
Although not terribly successful at explaining the cultural divide, the book manages to exemplify it perfectly in its condescension toward people who don't vote as Frank thinks they should. The political universe is black-and-white to Frank and the bad-guy conservatives are further divided between the fools and the knaves. The fools are the Kansans, the average folks who have been driven into right-wing politics by what they see as the tyranny of the blasphemous, "blue state" power mongers. The knaves are the opportunists, the professionals who see the great right-wing groundswell as a means toward realizing their own personal ambitions.
To answer the question, "whatever happened to middle-American progressivism?" Frank turns to Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes -- the usual suspects. While he has few kind words for the feckless, compromising leadership of the modern Democrats, he fails to see how uninformed America-bashing by Hollywood and academic voices on the left, as well as race-baiting clowns like Al Sharpton, utterly undermine the ability of Kansas to cast its lot with the party that tolerates and encourages such antics.
He would have done better to answer that question by considering what the left has done to alienate a swath of the nation that proudly called itself "progressive" in the days of William Jennings Bryant and Tom Watson. In fact, he might even start by having a look at his own prose style.
Lakoff's argument has been framed like this:
Republicans follow the strict father model, which assumes that the world is a dangerous place and always will continue to be because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can protect the family in a dangerous world, no matter the cost.
Democrats, on the other hand, see both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents' job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.
The Republican skill in manipulating the angry dad image, via homeland security concerns in the wake of 9-11, is supposed to explain why so many former independents like me have pulled the voting booth levers for GOP candidates lately.
Sigh. The idea here is that, to everyone, the government is a sort of parent, and the insight is seeing that people have two views of parents. Can't anyone on the left take a step back and see that a lot of people don't think of the government as any kind of parent. It's an unruly servant of the people, a creation of, and a function of, the civil society, the voters as a whole, the community. That would be the view of the old radicals, like Jefferson and Paine.
But to the new ones, we are 260 million children fretting about mommy and daddy issues. I can't help seeing in that thinking a relic of the '60s generation which defined itself by ambivalence to authority figures and ultimately to their own parents. Those '50s parents created the suburban homes that turned out the spoiled children who hurled themselves to crush and overthrow the old religious and political hierarchies symbolized by their parents.
Earth Day = Good Mommy. Military Industrial Compex = Bad Daddy. Am I the only one who can't wait for this generation to get out of the way? We're not all children of the '60s. Yet the generation that raised open-mindedness to the level of a cult seems to fail again and again to open their own minds wide enough to comprehend people who don't see the world in the same large terms they do.
Lakoff also argues that the Republican Party's recent success in part springs from the GOP's ability to control the language of key issues. But Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, seems to overrate the power of words. "Pro-choice" seems to me as appealing a label as "pro-life." I don't recall anyone making a decision on abortion issues by anguishing over whether he wants to be called "pro-life" or "pro-choice." Lakoff also recommended countering the conservative rallying cry of "Strong Defense" with a call for a "Stronger America." In fact, Kerry did just that in the last election, and it didn't really work.
OK, now try it again. Try to talk to me about why we disagree, without insulting me. I'll wait.