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What’s the Matter with Liberals?


For more than thirty-five years, American politics has followed a populist pattern as predictable as a Punch and Judy show and as conducive to enlightened statesmanship as the cycles of a noisy washing machine. The antagonists of this familiar melodrama are instantly recognizable: the average American, humble, long-suffering, working hard, and paying his taxes; and the liberal elite, the know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees and their friends in the judiciary.

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.

The 2004 presidential campaign provides a near-perfect demonstration of the persistent power of backlash—as well as another disheartening example of liberalism’s continuing inability to confront it in an effective manner. So perfect, in fact, that it deserves to be studied by political enthusiasts for decades to come, in the manner that West Point cadets study remarkable infantry exploits and MBAs study branding campaigns that conjured up billions out of nothing but a catchy jingle.

With his aristocratic manner and his much-remarked personal fortune, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, made an almost perfect villain for the backlash pantomime. Indeed, he had been one of its targets since his earliest days in politics. In the 1972 proto-backlash manifesto, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, Michael Novak interpreted that year’s TV showdown between Kerry and his fellow naval officer John O’Neill as a skirmish in this then-novel form of inverted class war. While the two men seemed to be debating issues related to the Vietnam War, and while Kerry was on the left and thus, theoretically at least, an ally of working people, Novak believed he saw the brutal social truth beneath it all:

Comparison was immediately drawn between Kerry’s Yale pedigree, good looks, smooth speech, powerful connections, and the limited resources, plainness of manner, ordinariness of O’Neill. Class resentment was tangible.1

Class resentment was more than just “tangible” in 1972 when Kerry ran for Congress in the area around the crumbling Massachusetts industrial cities of Lowell and Lawrence: the Democrat was snob-baited for days on page one of the local newspaper, mocked for his Yale education, his celebrity supporters, and, of course, his money. An advertisement placed by his Republican opponent asked:

What do Otto Preminger of Hollywood and Louis Biron of Lowell have in common? This year they’re influencing a congressional race. Otto Preminger contributed $1,000 to John Forbes Kerry. Louis Biron gave $15 to Paul Cronin.2

From the dying Massachusetts mill towns of 1972 to the dying Ohio steel towns of 2004, the backlash response to John Kerry would remain remarkably consistent. To judge by the candidate’s actions, though, it was as if none of it had ever happened. Kerry had been hounded his entire career for being a snooty, distant aristocrat, but like so many of his Democratic colleagues, he seemed to take little notice.

For the 2004 campaign, Kerry moved to the center, following the well-worn path of the corporate Democrats before him, downplaying any “liberal” economic positions that might cost him among the funders and affirming his support for the Iraq invasion even after the official justifications for that exercise had been utterly discredited. Kerry’s pallid strategy offered little to motivate the party’s traditional liberal and working-class base, but revulsion against Bush was assumed to be reason enough to get out and vote. And besides, such an approach was supposed to protect the Democrat from the inevitable charges of insufficient toughness.

A newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House. Republicans, meanwhile, were playing another game entirely. The hallmark of a “backlash conservative” is that he or she approaches politics not as a defender of the existing order or as a genteel aristocrat but as an average working person offended by the arrogance of the (liberal) upper class. The sensibility was perfectly caught during the campaign by onetime Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who explained it to The New York Times like this: “Joe Six-Pack doesn’t understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn’t have a say in it.”3 These are powerful words, the sort of phrase that could once have been a slogan of the fighting, egalitarian left. Today, though, it was conservatives who claimed to be fighting for the little guy, assailing the powerful, and shrieking in outrage at the direction in which the world is irresistibly sliding.

The only centrism to be seen on the Republican side was the parade of GOP moderates across the stage of Madison Square Garden, an exercise clearly intended more to pacify and reassure the press than to win over actual voters. When the cameras were off, it was a completely different affair: what Karl Rove called a “mobilization election” in which victory would go to the party that best rallied its faithful. What this meant in practice was backlash all the way: an appeal to class resentment and cultural dread that was unprecedented in its breadth; ingenious state-level ballot initiatives on “values” questions that would energize voters; massive church-based get-out-the-vote efforts; and paranoid suggestions from all sides inviting voters to believe the worst about those tyrannical liberal snobs.

Senator Sam Brownback’s activities at the Republican convention offer us a glimpse of this strategy in microcosm. In his speech before the assembled delegates and the eyes of the world, the godly Kansan came off as a thoughtful, caring Republican who wanted only to heal the sick and halt religious persecution overseas; when he spoke at a private meeting of evangelical Christians, however, he took on the tone of affronted middle-American victimhood, complaining to a roomful of Christian conservatives that “the press beats up on you like there’s something wrong with faith, family and freedom” and exhorting them to “win this culture war.”4 For the conservative rank and file, this election was to be the culture-war Armageddon, and they were battling for the Lord.

Residents of West Virginia and Arkansas received mailings from the Republican National Committee warning that liberals would ban the Bible if they got the chance. In numerous other states, voters were energized by ballot initiatives proposing constitutional amendments reacting to the illusory threat of gay marriage, an institution that was already illegal almost everywhere, but that conservative activists nonetheless decried as a mortal, immediate menace to civilization itself. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever and, proclaiming that “everything we hold dear is on the line” because of the threat of gay marriage, addressed gargantuan political rallies of evangelical Christians around the country.

Even the College Republicans got into the act, blanketing the land with letters exhorting recipients to send in $1,000 and a flag pin so that the President would know that “there are millions who are giving him the shield of God to protect him in the difficult days ahead.” Meanwhile, an outfit called the American Veterans in Domestic Defense (AVIDD)5 acquired the Ten Commandments monument that had been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building the previous fall and hauled it around the country so that this holy relic, this physical reminder of the tyranny of liberalism, could strike fear into the hearts of the godless and stoke the flames of anger among the righteous and the persecuted.

In addition to these culture-war novelties, voters were also treated to a return engagement of the oldest backlash set-piece of them all: the treason of the rich kids during the Vietnam War.6 Calling themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Kerry’s former comrades-in-arms stepped forward to declare that the candidate was a liar who did not deserve the medals he had won in combat and that his later activities as an antiwar leader amounted to a betrayal of the men he served with in Southeast Asia. It didn’t matter that the accusations angrily advanced by the “Swifties” (as they are fondly known on the right) crumbled under the slightest scrutiny, just as it didn’t matter that the principal members of the Bush administration had actively avoided service in Vietnam while Kerry had volunteered for it, and just as it didn’t matter that the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had botched the nation’s current military effort and even sent insufficiently armored soldiers into action. The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment’s notice.7

Much has been made in the months since the election of the national security issue and the role of fear in the Republican triumph, with some using the point to demand even more hawkish Democratic candidates in the future and others to underscore the Bush administration’s scurrility in whipping up unreasonable public alarm since September 11. It is important to remember when discussing these issues, however, that much of their power arises from the same backlash cultural template that undergirds the rest of contemporary conservatism—indeed, that shooting war and culture war are of a piece in the conservative mind. What makes national security such a winner for Republicans is that is dramatizes the same negative qualities of liberalism that we see in the so-called “values” issues, only much more forcefully. War casts in sharp relief the inauthenticity of the liberals, the insincerity of their patriotism, and their intellectual distance (always trying to “understand” the terrorists’ motives) from the raw emotions felt by ordinary Americans—each quality an expression of the deracinated upper-classness that is thought to be the defining characteristic of liberalism.

  1. 1

    As for O’Neill’s “limited resources,” it is now known that O’Neill was in fact recruited by the Nixon administration to battle the articulate antiwar leader Kerry. Even at that early date, when the backlash seemed to have all the hot-button spontaneity of a real working-class revolt, it was substantially scripted and funded by the most powerful people in the land.

  2. 2

    Quoted in a Boston Globe retrospective of Kerry’s career, “First Campaign Ends in Defeat,” by Brian C. Mooney, June 18, 2003.

  3. 3

    It is important to remember that Bauer is the son of a janitor and that the organization he heads today bears the distinctly proletarian name Campaign for Working Families. See “Democrats in Red States: Just Regular Guys,” The New York Times, August 22, 2004.

  4. 4

    Brownback addressed the convention during prime time on August 31; the gathering of Christian conservatives was called the Faith, Family and Freedom Rally, and for a supposedly media-free event, it generated a great deal of media coverage. See David Kirkpatrick, “A Senator’s Call to ‘Win This Culture War,’” The New York Times, September 1, 2004, and Julia Duin, “GOP Keeps Faith, But Not in Prime Time,” Washington Times, September 1, 2004. At that same gathering, Republicans premièred a movie called George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, later distributed to churches around the nation, which, in the words of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, characterizes the President as “God’s essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth.” See Frank Rich, “Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush,” The New York Times, October 3, 2004.

  5. 5

    On its Web site, AVIDD describes its mission by declaring that “American Veterans have defended America against its foreign enemies. We now have a number of domestic enemies loose in our beloved country.” The organization also helpfully offers a list to clarify matters for the puzzled, naming as “Domestic Enemies” the judicial system, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, the NEA, the ACLU, the “Biased Liberal, Socialist News Media,” and the “Conspiracy of an Immoral Film Industry.” See www.avidd.org/template.php?page=enemies.

  6. 6

    The supposed affluence of the Sixties antiwar movement is nearly always mentioned in conservative complaints about that era. For example, the anti-Kerry booklet published by the American Conservative Union points out that, “like many children of affluent parents, John Kerry joined the so-called New Left in its relentless attack on America.” See Who Is John Kerry?, p. 51.

  7. 7

    Class resentment simmered just below the surface of the SwiftVets’ charges. The TV commercials aired by the group took pains to underscore the averageness of the men’s occupations, and a Washington Post story on the group, after pointing out that the Swifties’ real beef with Kerry was his involvement in the antiwar movement, notes that “while Kerry went on to make a prominent political career, they got jobs as teachers, accountants, surveyors and oil field workers. When he ran for president, partly on the strength of his war record, their resentment exploded.” See Michael Dobbs, “Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete,” August 22, 2004, p. 1.

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