Chris Sheil at Backpages, Don Arthur here at Troppo and myself in an earlier post have all been picking up on the work of Thomas Frank in an attempt to understand what happened in the US election. The more I reflect on this, the more I realise that what we’ve all done – in different ways – is used Frank’s writing to make sense of American culture and politics using a class analysis. I’m interested in this post in trying to interweave these three related threads.
Normally I’d be in 100% agreement about the necessity of a class analysis but I’m not – on reflection – sure Frank is the right peg to hang one on. My reading of his work is that his analysis is somewhat static and ahistorical – though in other ways very astute. The question he poses really comes down to – why do some American voters who have an economic interest in voting Democrat vote Republican and thus unintentionally reproduce and reinforce the conditions of their own economic subordination?
Now in classical social theory, one could launch two lines of flight here. The first would be some variant of Marxist theory which counterposes a notion of “real” interests to a notion of ideology (or hegemony). The second would be a broadly Weberian approach which would look at status as well as class (and thus also at some other intervening variables if you like – race being pre-eminent in the American context). Don’s had a go at this sort of take – and I think incidentally provided us with a fascinating analysis of US cultural politics, but in my view, as I’ve said in comments, misses the political point a little by conflating the “culture wars” over high culture/education etc with the current religious/values theme.
What it comes down to, I think, is whether an analysis which sees the main political divide in American politics as breaking around social class (or whether one wants it to be so) works for the “Land of the Free”…
It seems to me that when we look at American politics, and Max Weber’s writing on his American visit in 1905 is of interest here – as is De Tocqueville – that what we miss if we try to run a class analysis is the importance of status in both (dare I use this word) an aspirational sense and the salience of regional culture and race as points of division which occlude class interests and politics.
On the first point, the absence of a social democratic/Labor party and the Jeffersonian ideology which downplays the importance of the wage relation (which are interlinked) are key factors preventing the emergence of any strong or enduring sense of class solidarity. Jefferson believed that the key point that distinguished American from continental European society was the increased independence of servants as against masters – “labour flight” in a sense was always an option. If one’s master was oppressive, one could “Go West”. Hence, while Jefferson didn’t expect everyone to live his ideal life of rural self-sufficiency, his notion of freedom was bound up with its possibility. The “Free Soil” movement which led to the foundation of the Republican Party was in a direct line of descent from this Jeffersonian idea – as were the Democratic Party’s ideals.
On the second, only the CIO in its heyday in the 1930s and the Populists in the 19th century successfully managed to bridge the divide of race. At an electoral level, Bobby Kennedy in his primary campaign in 1968 was perhaps the last Democratic politician to successfully bridge – and unite – the interests of African-American and White working Americans. An RFK presidency remains a tantalising unfulfilled possibility – one can’t help feeling if he had become President in 69 instead of Nixon the world would be a very different place today.
An ideological pattern very much akin to that which obtained in South Africa (“poor whites” cannot lose what status they have) is at play, and this intertwines with the first – given the particular importance and reading of the notion of freedom in American culture. (The historian Eric Foner’s book The Story of American Freedom is excellent on this.)
A trip to the video store to rent John Sayles’ brilliant and moving film Matewan will make this point better than I can. Sayles’ movie tells the story of the obstacles that mining companies – and unionists – in West Virginia put in the way of unionisation through dividing Black and White workers.
The contemporary context of de-industrialisation in states like Ohio has to be seen outside the paradigms of globalisation and free trade and in terms of the secular trend for American manufacturing to shift South and West to “right to work” states (Clinton did not distinguish himself by supporting a ballot initiative on this in Arkansas). This has the effect of leaving a residual working class in rustbelt states with a deep concern with maintaining status and at the same time reinforcing the status motivators against unionisation in the states to which capital relocates jobs.
Contra John Quiggin as well, the Democratic strategy of building class solidarity on the basis of what remains of the US Labor movement has been tried – in 2004 by Dick Gephardt – and failed even more dismally (as it was bound to do given the structural factors I’ve identified) than in previous outings.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the Australian Labor Party – given what remains a very distinctly different culture and historical context – has a much easier task ahead of it in building or rebuilding a class basis for political identification than the American Democratic Party. I’m not at all sanguine about the prospects of any progressive strategy in the States – because the default position appears to be a reversion to contesting elections on the Republicans’ preferred ground of “values” – which further reinforces the sort of secular trends to which I’ve been pointing. What the Democrats need to do instead is to reinvent the notion of freedom for a contemporary America. It’s here that I would agree with Frank’s call for a new economic populism – but a populism which truly promotes the freedom to live one’s own values.