The Land of the Free

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.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Don
Don
2022 years ago

Mark,

Sorry to dump a new Thomas Frank post on top of this one. The comment you made to my last post made me think a post about Frank’s work might be iteresting.

By the time I’d finished I noticed that you’d beaten me to it.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

No probs, Don – great post. By the time we’re finished, this will be the Australian blog of choice for Thomas Frank aficionados!

akman
akman
2022 years ago

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to check out Frank’s brilliant essay on social security privatisation, The Trillion Dollar Hustle, published in Harper’s a year or two ago. I would never have believed neolib reform could be made so damn entertaining.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

For another view on Frank, you might like to consider this review as well. But it is not quite so positive, so take it according to taste.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks akman and Scott. The review in the NYT times is interesting for a number of reasons – not least because the author is a blogger!

Chafetz writes:

It’s not, of course, that he is unaware of cultural explanations of the political divide — but he tends to dismiss them as based upon ”the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology.”

And –

When he talks about ”the precise metrics of sociology,” Frank clearly doesn’t have dry statistical studies in mind — one searches his book in vain for anything other than, yes, anecdotes. What he really means by accepted social science methods is purely materialist analysis. Explanations that take cultural differences seriously are generally considered little more than ”propaganda.”

This was also something that concerned me about Frank’s work – although I would be the last to deny writers and commentators the scope for a broadbrush big picture analysis. However, in my post, I should have added I’m concerned with analyses purely based on a notion of “material interests”. I think this was implicit in my taking up the second of the two available class/based analyses – a neoWeberian one which accords a proper place to history and culture. It seems to me that the Marxist notion of “real interests” and its corollary “false consciousness” accords far too much weight to theory and far too little to lived experience. Nor do I think it results in a viable political strategy.

Frank concludes his op/ed piece in the NYT by calling for the Democrats to counter ‘cultural populism’ with ‘economic populism’. This again assumes that drawing attention to ‘real interests’ will trump cultural factors. That seems to me too simple, as well as ignoring the historical and contemporary constraints on such an argument being mounted from within the Democratic Party. I think what is actually needed is a strategy that promotes a broad tolerance in terms of values and highlights economic issues.

I’ll also have a dig around, if I get a chance this week, for some of the statistical analyses missing in Frank.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

The Democrats will not succeed electorally without dropping their instinctive rejection of cultural populism. That was Clinton’s great strength, his capacity to connect with small town America. Bush also has the common touch in many ways. Kate O’Beirne has a great analysis in a brief article in the Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A29550-2004Nov5.html (registration required)

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