Taking back America

Anatol Lieven

  • What’s the Matter with America?: The Resistible Rise of the American Right by Thomas Frank
    Secker, 306 pp, £12.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 436 20539 4

There is no great mystery about the Republican victory in the US election. It was the product of what used to be one of the most familiar and powerful combinations in the modern history of Europe: the marriage of nationalism and conservative religion. The combination is unfamiliar to most Western Europeans today; but it was all too familiar to their ancestors, and remains so in many parts of the world. The problem is that Western Europeans think of these countries as backward. If we are shocked at what happened in the US it is because the US is in so many respects the most modern, the fastest changing society on earth. How can it also in some ways be so archaic?

The question of course assumes that the European experience of modernisation is the standard one, and that all others are aberrations. It also stems directly or indirectly from our commitment to Max Weber and his belief in the inevitable disenchantment of the world as a result of capitalist modernisation. Over the past generation, formerly conservative countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece have all been profoundly transformed, and in all of them there has been a decline of religious faith and practice, and of the modes of thought and behaviour associated with religion.

This is not a universal pattern, however. America is a huge exception, but so is India. There, economic dynamism, and ‘modern’, or partially ‘modern’, attitudes to sex and caste are often combined, among the newly educated Hindu middle class, with deep religious faith, and this faith is often associated with Hindu nationalist politics. Indian businessmen have contributed something like $350 million to support the rebuilding of the temple of Ram on the site of a demolished mosque in the town of Ayodhya. Israel is another instance of a highly developed state where conservative religion has grown in recent years in close association with radical nationalism. It’s an alarming thought, but a plausible one, that it is Western Europe that may in future be seen as having been the exception.

The danger posed by conservative religion, today as in the past, stems from the frequent association of its adherents with social groups that also consider themselves under threat from modernity and whose views often find expression in one variety or another of national chauvinism – hence, in the last century, their contribution to the rise of Fascism. Something like this is evidently at work in the US. It doesn’t, we know, characterise the whole country: very large numbers of Americans are bitterly opposed to the Christian Right and to its association with chauvinist nationalism. Fifty-one per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 59 per cent, represents less than one third of the total electorate. It’s important to remember, however, that in order to do as well as they did, the Democrats had to choose a candidate with what ought to have been impeccable patriotic credentials as a war hero, and with no real record at all of social, economic or cultural radicalism. And they still lost.

Christian conservatism is not a dominant force in the US as a whole, but the combination of conservative religion and nationalism is dominant across most of white, small-town, rural and often even suburban America. The county-by-county breakdown of the election results shows the Republicans winning even in upstate New York and throughout the interior of California, Oregon and Washington. With the exception of the big cities, the only areas to remain solidly Democrat are most of New England, the black-majority counties of the South, the Latino-majority areas near the Mexican border and the old Scandinavian, progressive regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. According to the Christian Coalition, the leading grass-roots political organisation of the American Christian Right, 29 senators out of 100 and 125 House members out of 435 – that is, more than a quarter of the members of both houses of the US Congress – voted 100 per cent of the time in accordance with the Christian Coalition’s principles in 2001 (the last year for which figures are available). These figures will be even higher in the new Congress.

In its present form, the conservative backlash in the US is the product of a set of historic defeats experienced by the traditional white middle class and working class in the 1960s and early 1970s. First, civil rights legislation overturned the old, enforced racial order, traumatising the white South but also creating deep anxieties among working-class whites in the Northern cities. Next was Vietnam, the first serious military defeat in American history (though in ways reminiscent of the German response to defeat in the First World War, it has been turned in conservative public perception into a victory ruined by liberal treason, cowardice and weakness). Radical protest against the Vietnam War deeply offended the patriotic consensus. Third, the sexual revolution and the legalising of abortion were seen as attacks on the old moral and morally defined social order; and the expression of these new attitudes on television meant that, for conservatives, the public face of American culture had become radically alien. Even that wasn’t the end of it. The banning of prayer in schools seemed to mark the expulsion of religious morality from the American state; the renewal of mass immigration, suspended between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s, brought the white middle and working class face to face with a new set of ethnic challenges and rivals; and the oil shock of 1973 marked the end of the long postwar boom. Since then, under the impact of globalisation, large sections of the working classes and lower middle classes have experienced thirty years of stagnation or decline in real family incomes, despite the entry of huge numbers of women into the workforce. The slump of the 1930s was more shocking, but that depression lasted only ten years.

All this has left large numbers of white Middle Americans profoundly alienated, and yearning for a ‘return’ to an idealised version of the country of their youth, or possibly by now their parents’ youth. And like alienated groups throughout modern history who don’t know what to do about their predicament or even understand how it came about, they have reacted in fantastical and extremist ways, not only politically but in their religion as well.

The intellectual and cultural roots of the conservative backlash in contemporary America antedate the foundation of the Republic, and even the landing of the first white settlers in North America. In some cases they go back to the revolt of English and Northern Irish radical Protestants against the Episcopalian and crypto-Catholic English establishment of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and to the particular mixture of fundamentalist Protestantism and ethnic and racial chauvinism that the Scots Irish took from Ulster to the North American colonies, and which still characterises Ulster Protestantism. At intervals throughout American history, this tradition has contributed to explosions of paranoid chauvinism, variously directed at French-inspired atheist revolutionaries, Catholic or Jewish immigrants, and Communists and their liberal allies. In one form or another, this ‘backlash’ has been a feature of American politics since the early years of the Republic, and class, region and culture have always been part of it. The backlash now serves the Republican Party, but for most of American history it served the Democrats.

From the 1820s, ‘Jacksonian democracy’ and ‘Jacksonian nationalism’, named after President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, united the (white) South and West, and some newly arrived immigrants, in hostility to the North-East. A strong strain of ‘producerist’ ideology was linked to a bitter hostility to ‘parasitical’ elements of society – concentrated in the North-East – which supposedly drained wealth away from those who actually produced it. These parasites included ‘finance capitalists’, snobbish ‘silk stockings’, hereditary rentier elites, overpaid intellectuals, ‘experts’, bureaucrats and lawyers, all of them with suspect foreign contacts, influences or antecedents. There was equal ‘Jacksonian’ hostility to the ‘parasitical’, shiftless, lazy, drunken (or addicted) urban proletariat, above all those of alien or immigrant origin. Anti-intellectualism has also always been at the heart of this strain of American life. Millenarian religion, still concentrated in the Southern and Midwestern Bible Belt, is suffused with anti-intellectualism and class hatred.

In the middle years of the 19th century, the alliance between the white South and the Midwest broke up over the slavery issue. White Kansas was at the heart of Western ‘free soil’ opposition to the westward expansion of slavery and the blacks who went with it, and even before the Civil War broke out, was engaged in ferocious skirmishes with armed supporters of slavery from neighbouring Missouri. In the 1870s, however, the Southern-Midwestern alliance was re-created and for some eighty years formed the backbone of the Democratic Party. In the 1960s this began to change, and the geographical alignment of the parties has now flipped, with the Republicans controlling the old Democratic strongholds of the white South and Midwest, and the Democrats holding the coasts.

The revival of conservative religious politics in its old Midwestern strongholds poses a terrible challenge for the Democratic Party. Until the 1960s it was not a problem because Democrats tended to be just as religious and morally just as conservative as Republicans. The great populist wave of the 1890s which led to the adoption of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential candidate was imbued with fundamentalist Protestantism. Bryan’s ‘leftism’ did not take precedence over his fundamentalist Christianity; nor in his own mind was there any tension between them. They were both part of his vision of a decent, godly society, in which decent, God-fearing and hardworking folks would enjoy equality of opportunity and status (though not state-enforced equality of income), without being cheated, trammelled, exploited and looked down on by the godless, parasitical commercial elites of the East. The Bryan who led the leftist crusade of the 1890s and the Bryan who attacked Darwin and defended Creationism in the ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925 were the same man – not two different ones, as seems to be suggested in much progressive literature.

The Democrats were always deeply divided between Midwestern and Southern rural and small-town Protestants, on the one hand, and Catholic descendants of immigrants in the big cities on the other. Bryan lost in 1896 in part because he alienated urban Catholic voters. In 1928, the first Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith, lost largely because white Southern Democrats would not vote for a Catholic. In both cases, the conflict was between hostile ethno-religious identities. On moral issues conservative Protestants and Catholics were at one.

Since the 1960s, the association of the Democrats with cultural liberalism has radically transformed this picture. The Democrats could do far more to appeal to middle-class and working-class whites in the Midwest by adopting more consistent and determined policies on health, welfare, immigration and job creation and protection. But that wouldn’t help them when it came to abortion and gay marriage. The passion spent on these issues is no doubt in part a displacement of wider social and economic anxieties. It is also the product of deliberate manipulation by the Republicans. But it can’t be wished away as an aberration or the product of ‘false consciousness’ any more than the vision of what constitutes a decent society with which it’s associated can be wished away. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s clear from European history, too, that religious belief has often been a more powerful force than economic self-interest, or even common sense.

In this respect, the ‘separation of church and state’ enshrined in the US Constitution has always been something of a distraction. It meant only that no single church, whether the British-backed Episcopalianism or the previously state-backed Presbyterianism of Massachusetts, could become America’s official religion. It was not intended at the time, and is not believed by much of American society today, to indicate a separation between the state and religion as such. Moreover, this religion was, and unconsciously to a degree still is, assumed to be Protestant, or at least Protestantoid. There may be an amazing number of different churches in the heartland, but the reality is surprisingly homogeneous.

Obviously it isn’t only white evangelical Protestants who vote Republican. A great many Catholics – possibly a majority – voted for Bush this year out of some mixture of conservative religion and nationalism; among them, even more surprisingly, a large minority of Latinos. Less unexpected was the fact that some 25 per cent of Jewish American voters went for Bush out of appreciation both for his conservative moral stance and his support for Israel. This is a homogeneous bloc when compared with Democrat support, which is not so much a bloc as a congeries of interlocking clashes and dilemmas. The Democrats have somehow to reconcile the views and interests of the remnants of the unionised white working classes with those of blacks, of Latinos, of more progressive women and of a variety of cultural liberals. This isn’t like herding cats: it is like trying to herd cats, dogs and foxes all at once. Some of these groups don’t just loathe each other culturally: they also have radically clashing economic interests.

Thomas Frank’s important and fascinating book on the Republican base in the Midwestern heartland anticipates and tries to answer the riddle posed by the election: why did so many poor white Americans vote for a Republican Party which has become more and more blatantly devoted to favouring the rich at the expense of the poor; and why did these workers’ anxiety about their declining income and status take the form not of economic protest, but of cultural outrage and chauvinist nationalism? It is an extraordinary paradox and Frank sums it up well:

Here, after all, is a rebellion against ‘the establishment’ that has wound up abolishing the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labour unions and liberal workplace-safety programmes; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education . . . With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire 20th century.

He describes very well both the backlash itself and the bewilderment it has caused in liberal and left-wing and, indeed, moderate Republican circles. The bewilderment was such that for a long time these people seemed unable to see what was going on among the classes on whose support the Democratic Party had once been able to depend. After all, Kansas – Frank’s book is called What’s the Matter with Kansas? in the US – was once a heartland of American radicalism. That Kansan classic The Wizard of Oz is a Populist allegory, with Dorothy a Kansan Everywoman coming by stages to see through the wicked frauds of Eastern money power (Kansas was among the first US states to give women an equal vote, in 1912).

Frank cites a man from a small town in Pennsylvania who tries to explain to a reporter that he and his neighbours voted for George Bush in 2000 because they were ‘tired of moral decay’, ‘tired of everything being wonderful on Wall Street and terrible on Main Street’. ‘Let me repeat that,’ Frank writes incredulously: ‘They’re voting Republican in order to get even with Wall Street.’ He goes on to quote an article in the Wall Street Journal about ‘a place where “hatred trumps bread”, where a manipulative ruling class has for decades exploited an impoverished people while simultaneously fostering in them a culture of victimisation that steers this people’s fury back persistently toward a shadowy, cosmopolitan Other’. The Journal is talking about the Arab world: Frank is talking about working-class Kansas.

He paints a grim picture of decay and urban blight across both the farmlands and the old industrial areas of Kansas. The new industries there, with their legions of immigrant workers, would have seemed familiar to Upton Sinclair and the crusading progressives at the start of the last century: bad working conditions, rigorous discouragement of trade unions, and a lack of social infrastructure in neighbouring towns – in part because the tax breaks needed to attract corporations to such towns put paid to any ability they might have had to raise additional revenue.

Overall the economy of Kansas (and of the US) has grown over recent decades, so that the potential leaders of movements of radical protest are continually being tempted away by opportunities in the new economy. For the young, educated and energetic, these opportunities are real. But anyone who has not been able to clamber aboard the new economy, or to move to newly booming areas of the US, has seen the American Dream fade before his or her eyes. With the dream has gone the traditional ‘moral economy’, in which a (white) man who worked hard and didn’t drink, take drugs or engage in other anti-social behaviour could not only provide a good life and an increasing income for his family, but also pass on greatly expanded opportunities to his children.

In the past, the US went out to shape the world, while being itself protected from the world – by the oceans, and in a different sense by the immense strength of its economy. Hence the unique combination of power and innocence vis à vis the rest of humanity. Since 9/11, however, the American heartland has seen itself, with reason, as at real risk of attack for the first time since the disappearance of the French-backed Indian menace in 1763. The Soviet nuclear threat was obviously terrifying, and had a deeply disturbing effect on US politics; but no attack ever occurred. Not one American was killed by Communism on American soil.

The US was also spared the economic disasters that war and revolution inflicted on so many other countries. In the 20th century, except during the Depression, US economic sufferings were mild compared with those of most of the world. On the contrary, it was the US which went out to overturn and transform other countries’ economies. This economic history has been of critical importance for the political stability of the US and the character of American nationalism: generally rational and moderate politics at home, relative restraint and benevolence abroad. If, in this new century, secure working-class jobs continue to get more scarce as a result of economic change and globalisation, deprivation and anxiety about social status and security will be seriously aggravated by the lack of adequate state-funded safety-nets.

If Middle America continues to crumble, one of the essential pillars of American political stability and moderation will have gone; and dreams of destroying America’s enemies abroad, ‘taking back’ America at home and restoring the old moral, cultural and social order might well become more powerful and more disturbing. Three factors are critical. First, Frank’s conservative-voting Kansans, like most American workers, define themselves not as working-class but as middle-class. Second, religious belief and practice of a ‘Protestantoid’ kind is at the heart of their conception both of their own identity and of the good society. Third, as Frank writes (echoing the conservative historian Walter Russell Mead), the combination of religious, middle-class and nationalist values has created among these people a view of themselves as something like a Volk – the ‘real’ or ‘true’ American people, as Republican campaign rhetoric in the heartland has continually stressed.

Frank deals with all these issues vividly and with great insight, but like much of the left he can’t rid himself of the traditional materialist belief that economic interests determine political behaviour, and that if they don’t, they should. Class consciousness in the narrow sense is, in this view, the only ‘true’ form of political identity and if this isn’t how the classes concerned see themselves it must be because they have somehow been duped or diverted into a state of ‘false consciousness’. ‘By dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans,’ he writes, the Democrats ‘have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns’. This isn’t always a useful way of looking at the world. The reason is simple: once you delegitimise the concerns of targeted groups you no longer have to treat those concerns seriously and the way is open for their appropriation by the right and nationalist groups as well as by the left.

By contrast, if one takes what in the 19th century would have been called the ‘respectable working poor’ of the contemporary white American heartland at their own valuation as ‘middle-class’, then some of the mystery about their behaviour disappears. After all, in Europe the lower middle classes have always tended to vote in response to their concerns about status, culture, religion and identity at least as much as in response to their economic interests. Above all, they have been terrified of losing their tenuous middle-class status and sinking into the proletariat: a prospect which is even more nightmarish for whites in the US, where the proletariat is consciously or unconsciously defined by most whites along racial lines, as predominantly black or Latino.

Critically, Frank touches only briefly on the subject of immigration. Open immigration is at the heart of American capitalism’s entire strategy. It is the reason, or a great part of the reason, the US economy has grown so much more than Europe’s in recent years, but it is also the reason the growth is so socially skewed. Frank, like other liberals, can’t bring himself to call for a return to the very restricted immigration of 1924-65. Yet, without this, it is difficult to see how the wages, living standards and social welfare of the existing American working classes can really be protected.

As Frank notes, the strangest absence from the conservative programme is of an economic agenda. After all, almost every radical conservative and radical nationalist movement in Europe’s past made at least a bow in the direction of anti-capitalism, and advanced some programme, however minimal, aimed at redistributing income and limiting capitalism’s excesses. On the American right, the absolute hegemony of free market ideology seems to make this impossible. Frank notes incredulously that the American conservatives have not managed this even in the area of most concern to them, that of mass culture. Conservative politicians get elected on the strength of often quite justified attacks on the immorality and vulgarity of American television, and then rigorously vote against any attempt to regulate television companies.

Frank calls on the Democrats to respond by abandoning Clinton’s ‘triangulation’: his attempt to attract Republican support by adopting a moderate Republican economic programme. Frank calls this a ‘criminally stupid strategy’ for wooing the elites and the corporations. Instead, he says, the Democrats should adopt once again a radical programme of social welfare designed to appeal to the masses: a New Deal for the 21st century. At present, he says, ‘we are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.’ Frank also calls for the Democrats to distance themselves from the more foolish and offensive elements of the US liberal cultural elite, with their instinctive hostility to the military and their adolescent sneering at the religious symbols and fundamental values of Middle America. This all makes excellent sense, but Frank may underestimate both the depth of the division between religious and secular identities in the US and the degree to which free market economics has captured the national consciousness. To break this hold would require a revolutionary convulsion in American capitalism: not the slow slide in middle-class incomes of the past thirty years, but something more like the Crash which produced the New Deal.