Peter Beinart sees the rejection of Sarah Palin as the death knell of ratbag right-wing ideology as the Republicans’ key to success in US politics. I hope he’s right, and I’m going to propose a dialectical explanation for the demise of the Karl Rove Era.
I was struck at the time by Palin’s repeated use of the term working class in the debate; if that was any indication, she must have used it quite often in the rest of her campaign. How exactly did a Republican become the representative of the working class, and how is it possible for her to adopt a venerable item from the left-wing rhetorical lexicon with such confidence?
In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank showed that the strategy of the conservative movement has been to harness class anger, and then deflect it away from the obvious targets — big business and the legislators who do its bidding — and redirect it toward imaginary oppressors in the form of meddling, condescending, liberal elites. Joe Bageant told a similar story in Deer Hunting with Jesus.
The key to the strategy’s success has been to foment the discontent of the proletariet without framing its grievances in terms of class at all. In fact, the very concept of class is portrayed as emanating from the liberals’ degenerate perspective. As Geoffrey Nunberg put it in Talking Right:
The language of conservatives has always been aimed at blurring or extenuating the harsher facts of economic class or at excluding the subject from political discussion entirely. Since the Days of the New Deal, in fact, Republicans have realised that they can get political mileage simply by accusing the other side of raising the issue of class. Whenever Democrats criticise Republican programs that benefit the wealthy, they can count on being charged with engaging in ‘class warfare.’
This is such a powerful tactic that it was possible to import it into Australia, where American political memes generally have no guarantee of taking hold. Thus, Mark Latham’s proposal to terminate the Howard Government’s outrageous school funding scheme was depicted by the LIberal Party spin machine as class warfare, and the media, including many ABC journalists, adopted this charactersation quite uncritically. Three years later, Kevin Rudd was unable to revisit the issue in the election campaign, and even had to ‘discipline’ a candidate for suggesting that changes to the funding scheme were contemplated (the press dutifully described this as a ‘gaffe’ on Mike Kelly’s part).
‘Class envy’ is what motivates liberals to tax the hard-working and hand over the proceeds to the indolent in the form of public housing and welfare. Hence John McCain’s emphasis on Obama’s philosophy of ‘redistribution’, which is not only immoral, but, via its obvious link with socialism, unpatriotic to boot.
So, any use of the word class by itself, or any explicit invocation of the concept, has become taboo — an invitation to mocking rebuke. Even the right-wing intellectuals directing the phony class warfare don’t refer to it as class warfare until it becomes too crude to bear or until they themselves become targets.
That’s as long as the word is used by itself. But it turns out that the word class has continued to enjoy a parallel and innocuous role in political rhetoric as a part of the term ‘middle class’ . Everyone wants to see himself as middle class, and even if that were not the case, it’s the middle class, or Middle America, that both parties expend most of their resources on wooing, on the basis that the Republicans and Democrats respectively have the upper and lower class votes sewn up.
But Sarah Palin, or her aides, must have decided at some point that ‘middle class’ was too bland, too insipid, and too vague, so she opted for something more gritty, something that evoked more explicitly the hard-toiling, rugged frontiersmen that Ms Palin imagines her typical supporters to be.
Eureka! Working class!
But now the phrase has actually been uttered, the idea of the Republicans as the vanguard of the working class is so absurd that Rove’s illusion can’t be sustained any more. Paul Krugman pointed out a year ago that class struggle isn’t a liberal delusion, and now Palin has called the the working class by its true name, broken the spell, and woken it up. Having remembered that it’s an economic class, it won’t be open any more to the suggestion that its interests are best served by the Republicans.
So the contradiction between the reality and the ideology couldn’t be sustained, and the result has been revolution.