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What’s the Matter with Liberals?

The reason conservatives are always thought to be tough and liberals to be effete milquetoasts (two favorite epithets from the early days of the backlash) even when they aren’t is the same reason Americans believe the French to be a nation of sissies and the same reason the Dead End Kids found it both easy and satisfying to beat up the posh boy from the luxury apartment building: the cultural symbolism of class. If you relish chardonnay/lattes/ snowboarding, you will not fight. If you talk like a Texan, you are a two-fisted he-man who knows life’s hardships and are ready to scrap at a moment’s notice. This is the reason conservative authors and radio demagogues find it so easy to connect liberals and terrorists. It is the same reason, by extension, that old-time political nicknames like “the Fighting Liberal” make no sense to us anymore and that current foreign policy failures like North Korean nuclear proliferation do not bring lasting discredit on President Bush: in the face of such crises one is either a wimp or a hard guy, and we’ve already got a hard guy in there.

As the campaign dragged on, nearly every news story seemed to confirm the backlash fantasy. For example, when CBS News examined Dubya’s years in the National Guard and based its conclusions on documents whose provenance could not be verified, the age-old charge of liberal bias suddenly became the topic of the day. While the distortions of the Swifties had brought no discredit on Republican campaign efforts, the CBS program was immediately understood not as an honest mistake but as a politically motivated hatchet job, the final proof that the nation’s news organizations were out to get conservatives.

Then came what must rank as one of the most ill-conceived liberal electoral efforts of all time: in October the British Guardian newspaper launched a campaign to persuade one contested, blue-collar county in Ohio to vote against President Bush. The idea was to have Guardian readers in Britain write personal letters to voters in Ohio, whose names and addresses the newspaper had secured from registration rolls. Unsurprisingly, the Ohioans strongly resented being lectured to on the foolishness of their national leader by some random bunch of erudite Europeans. Indeed, the episode was so outrageous that there was almost no need for columnists and talk-radio hosts to sputter about the “pansy-ass, tea-sipping” liberal elitists who thought they knew best—the arrogance of the wretched thing spoke for itself.8 The county had gone for Gore in 2000, but this time, like the state, like the nation, it chose Bush. And why not? Biased newscasters, conceited foreigners: to hell with them all.

But the most powerful evocation of the backlash spirit always comes from personal testimony, a tale of how one man came to realize that liberals weren’t the friends of common folks but just the opposite. In the past it was figures like George Wallace and Norman Podhoretz and Ronald Reagan who declared that they hadn’t left the Democratic Party, the party had left them; in 2004 that traditional role fell to Zell Miller, Democratic senator from Georgia, whose thunderous indictment of his liberal colleagues from the podium of the Republican convention caused such excitement in conservative circles. Here was Miller to assure Republicans that everything they’d ever suspected was true: that the real problem with American politics was that the Democrats had swerved too far to the left; that those same Democrats were led by self-hating people who think “America is the problem, not the solution”; that their presidential candidate was so beguiled by Frenchness—a classic stand-in for devitalized upper-classness—that he “would let Paris decide when America needs defending.”9

Oddly enough, this same Zell Miller had once been known as a fairly formidable class warrior on the left, blasting Bush’s father in a famous 1992 speech as a clueless “aristocrat” who knew nothing of hard work and then dropping this memorable zinger on Dan Quayle: “Not all of us can be born rich, handsome, and lucky, and that’s why we have a Democratic Party.”

But in the election of 2004 all the class anger was on the other side. Now it was the Democrat whose aristocratic lifestyle was always coming into question, who couldn’t seem to take a step without detonating some explosive reminder of his exalted position. And it was Republican operatives who were gleefully dropping the word “elitist” on the liberal at every turn for his affected, upper-class ways. For his supposed love of brie cheese. For his wealthy wife’s supposed unfamiliarity with chili. For his mansion. His yacht. His windsurfing. His vacations with celebs on Nantucket Island. The secretary of commerce said he thought Kerry “looks French.” The House majority leader made a habit of starting off speeches with the line, “Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say: ‘Bonjour!’” The NRA came up with an image that brilliantly encapsulated the whole thing: an elaborately clipped French poodle in a pink bow and a Kerry-for-president sweater over the slogan “That dog don’t hunt.”10

And now it was the drawling son of 1992’s aristocrat who was drawing the adoring throngs in the shuttered mill towns and coal-mining regions. It was the committed enemy of organized labor whose prayerful public performances persuaded so many that he “shares our values.” It was the man who had slashed taxes on inherited fortunes and dividends who was said to be, in the election’s most telling refrain, “one of us.”

George W. Bush was authentic; John Forbes Kerry, like all liberals, was an affected toff, a Boston Brahmin who knew nothing of the struggles of average folks. Again and again, in the course of the electoral battle, I heard striking tales of this tragically inverted form of class consciousness: of a cleaning lady who voted for Bush because she could never support a rich man for president. Of the numerous people who lost their cable TV because of nonpayment but who nevertheless sported Bush stickers on their cars.

The most poignant, though, was one I saw with my own eyes: the state of West Virginia, one of the poorest in the nation, in the process of transforming itself into a conservative redoubt. This is a place where the largest private-sector employer is Wal-Mart and where decades of bloody fights between workers and mine owners gave rise to a particularly stubborn form of class consciousness. It does not stand to gain much from Bush’s tax cuts and his crackdown on labor unions. But if class is a matter of cultural authenticity rather than material interests, John Kerry stood about as much of a chance there as the NRA’s poodle did of retrieving a downed duck. As I toured the state’s valleys and isolated mining towns, I spotted Bush posters adorning even the humblest of dwellings and mobile homes. Voters I spoke to told me they planned on voting Republican because of their beliefs regarding abortion or gun control.11

Every hamlet seemed to have a son or daughter on duty in Iraq, and wartime loyalty to the commander in chief was in the air. Running through each of these issues was the sense that Bush was somehow more authentic than his challenger. In the city of Charleston, West Virginia, I was told by a conservative activist that

when you see those photos of [Bush] on his ranch down in Texas, with jeans and a cowboy hat, that’s genuine. I was in Beckley when he was there a couple weeks ago, and that crowd, four thousand people, they loved the man. They loved the man. Personally… You can’t manufacture that; you can’t fake it. They love him. They connect with him, they think he understands them, and I think he does, too.

West Virginia had been carried by Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, and almost every other Democratic candidate going back to Franklin Roosevelt, but this time it went Republican by a convincing thirteen percentage points.

2.

The illusion that George W. Bush “understands” the struggles of working-class people was only made possible by the unintentional assistance of the Democratic campaign. Once again, the “party of the people” chose to sacrifice the liberal economic policies that used to connect them to such voters on the altar of centrism. Advised by a legion of tired consultants, many of whom work as corporate lobbyists in off years, Kerry chose not to make much noise about corruption on Wall Street, or to expose the business practices of Wal-Mart, or to spend a lot of time talking about raising the minimum wage.12

The strategy had a definite upside: Kerry’s fund-raising almost matched that of the Republican candidate, while the newspapers brimmed with exciting tales of New Economy millionaires volunteering to work their entrepreneurial magic for the Democrats, and the society sheets offered juicy details on fund-raising stunts pulled by wealthy women of fashion.13 Yet there can be no question about this scheme’s ultimate effects. As the savvy political journalist Rick Perlstein put it in a postelection report,

For a party whose major competitive advantage over the opposition is its credibility in protecting ordinary people from economic insecurity, anything that compromises that credibility is disastrous.14

Swearing off economic liberalism also prevented Democrats from capitalizing on the great, glaring contradiction of their rivals’ campaign, namely, the GOP’s tendency to demote “values” issues once elections are over. Republicans may have seemed like God’s authentic warriors when seen from the streets of Beckley, West Virginia, but as I wandered among the celebrations at the Republican convention in September it was obvious that they were still primarily soldiers for the business community, courting their most important constituency in the manner to which it was accustomed. Indeed, examples of the distinctly nonpopulist essence of Republicanism were hard to miss: the well-dressed GOP revelers pouring out into Fifth Avenue traffic as they left a party that had been held—so tastefully!—at the Cartier jewelry shop; or (my personal favorite) the Republicans celebrating tax cuts and laughing at Purple Heart winners15 at a party in the New York Yacht Club, the kind of place that makes it easy for a fellow of means to pine for the nineteenth century.

At one party, held in a former bank building, I saw the relationship between the two GOP factions acted out in a manner so bluntly allegorical it could have been a Herblock cartoon. The party’s nominal purpose was an episode of the talk-radio program hosted by Michael Reagan (the more conservative of the late president’s sons), but the majority of the action seemed to be the generous dispensing of top-shelf liquor to satisfied corporate lawyers and Wall Street types. While these chosen ones sank comfortably into high-end inebriation, a string of famous right-wing talkers could be seen mounting the balcony where Reagan sat and taking their turns before his microphone, each one no doubt switching on the anger and giving virtuoso performances of their trademark anti-elitist routines for the listening hinterland. And high up on the stone wall of the building were inscribed these words, a sort of caption for the evening’s doings: “Having little, you can not risk loss. Having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”

Culture war most assuredly helped protect those who had much in 2004. George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by 23 percentage points, according to pollster Ruy Teixeira. Then, on the morning after the election, the country’s liberals were astonished to hear that, according to exit polls, at least, “moral values” outranked all other issues in determining voters’ choices.16 Later on that same day, the reelected President Bush set out his legislative objectives for his second term. Making America a more moral country was not one of them. Instead, his goals were mainly economic, and they had precious little to do with helping out the working-class people who had stood by them: he would privatize Social Security once and for all and “reform” the federal tax code. “Another Winner Is Big Business,” declared a headline in The Wall Street Journal on November 4, as businessmen everywhere celebrated the election results as a thumbs-up on outsourcing and continued deregulation.

In the months since then the magnitude of the corporate victory has only become more apparent, with Republicans in Congress working to tighten up bankruptcy law at the request of the credit card companies, open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil companies, and crack down on class-action lawsuits for the greater glory of Wal-Mart. The clout of the US Chamber of Commerce, the D.C. glamour lobbyist of the moment, is acclaimed by all as it raises millions to keep the pro-business bills coming. “Fortune 500 companies that invested millions of dollars in electing Republicans are emerging as the earliest beneficiaries of a government controlled by President Bush and the largest GOP House and Senate majority in a half century,” wrote Jim VandeHei in The Washington Post.

And the values issues? They seemed to dissipate like so much smoke once the election was over and won. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the chair-apparent of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, waited only a single day after his buddy Bush had been safely reelected before informing the nation that, no, his committee would not be approving judges who planned on overturning Roe v. Wade. The great crusade against gay marriage, which had worked such wonders for Republicans in so many states, was essentially abandoned by the President in January. After all, more important matters were beckoning: the war with the trial lawyers, for example, or the need to persuade people that our basically sound old-age insurance program was actually in crisis.17

In March the President and Republican congressional leaders chose to make much of the tragic Terri Schiavo affair, but the obvious futility of their legal demands and the patent self-interest of their godly grandstanding require little embellishment here.18 Let us simply note how perfectly this incident, when paired with simultaneous GOP legislative action on big-business items, illustrates the timeless principles of the backlash. For its corporate backers, the GOP delivers the goods; for its rank-and-file “values” voters it chooses a sturdy wall against which they are invited to bang their heads.

Meanwhile the stunned Democrats held introspective panel discussions in Washington, wrote weepy editorials protesting that they, too, had values, and headed home for Christmas to lick their wounds. But the Republicans took no time off in the season of goodwill. Far from declaring a Christmas truce, they pressed their advantage in the Christmas Panic of 2004. ‘Twas suddenly the season to be indignant, and from conservative commentators across the land there arose a collective clatter about how the liberal elite had ruined everyone’s favorite holiday with their infernal determination to suppress the innocent folkways of the good Christian people of Middle America. The provocation was the decision by a handful of towns and school districts (as usual, every node of the right-wing publicity apparatus relied on the same three or four examples) to keep Nativity scenes off the lawns of city halls and overtly religious songs out of public school pageants.

The response was a huge collective exercise in persecution mania, with radio hosts joining newspaper columnists and evangelical leaders in depicting themselves as unassuming common people crushed under the boot heel of arrogant liberalism, of “cultural fascists,” of “leftist jihadis hunting down Jesus,” of “liberal, anti-Christmas Nazis,” of those who believe “God is the enemy.” “Blatant religious bigotry,” steamed one columnist. Denial of “the rights of people to practice religion freely,” moaned another. “True freedom of worship for Christians is under increasing attack,” shrieked a third. “Leftist organizations are aggressively seeking to redefine America in their own God-less image,” wrote Jerry Falwell. “They hate the idea of Christmas with a deep abiding hate,” declared Pat Buchanan.19

Sean Hannity teamed up with Michael Medved to issue a CD in which the two could be heard deploring, an advertisement claimed, “the recent onslaught of cultural attacks against the Christian aspects of Christmas.”20 Paul Weyrich imagined himself a victim of thugs who want to “get back at God” and advised readers to bravely confront the liberal bullies by saying, “We’re here. We are not going away. Neither is Christmas. Deal with it.” As usual Ann Coulter struck the perfect note of persecuted-majority sarcasm, confessing to her readers that she “belong[s] to a small religious cult that celebrates the birth of Jesus.” Bill O’Reilly warned of a “well-organized movement” following a “strategy of minimizing the birth of Jesus” because, duh, religion “stands in the way of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, legalized narcotics, euthanasia and many other secular causes.” (A less well-known conservative, one Noel Sheppard, added to this vision of conspiracy his startling discovery that the liberals commenced their “coordinated attack on Christmas almost immediately after Senator Kerry conceded,” thus revealing it as part of their sinister plan to prevail in 2006 and 2008.)

All across America a good old-fashioned red-state Christmas—just like the ones we used to know, only much touchier—brought another year of liberal woe to a close. Righteous parents fantasized that they were striking back at the liberal Gestapo every time they uttered the subversive phrase “Merry Christmas.” Visions of noble persecution danced in everyone’s heads, as dazed Democrats wandered upstairs for yet another long winter’s nap.




















Letters

The Matter with Democrats August 11, 2005

  1. 8

    When I first heard about the British letter-writing campaign, I couldnå?t believe anyone was ignorant enough about American political sensibilities to do such

    a thing, or at least to do such a thing straight, on behalf of the candidate they really wanted to win. But they did. See Peronet Despeignes, “Brits’ Campaign Backfires in Ohio,” USA Today, November 4, 2004, and Andy Bowers, “Dear Limey Assholes…” Slate, November 4, 2004. The “pansy-ass, tea-sipping” epithet was one of the many responses sent by Ohio residents to the Guardian, according to USA Today.

  2. 9

    Just as interesting, to me anyway, was the fact that Zell Miller had taken until 2004 to figure all this out. The man had been a Democratic politician since the Fifties; each of his complaints had been part of the backlash repertoire for decades; and he had now come through the Sixties of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, the Seventies of Archie Bunker and Dirty Harry, the Eighties of Ronald Reagan, and the Nineties of Newt Gingrich before deciding it was time to make his move to the right.

  3. 10

    In fact, poodles are hunting dogs, bred hundreds of years ago to retrieve ducks from water. Their distinctive clipped coats were designed to aid them in this purpose, keeping the dog’s body and joints warm as it splashes about but otherwise leaving it free from encumbrance. See Jill Hunter Pellettieri, “Why Are Poodle Haircuts So Weird?,” Slate, February 10, 2004.

  4. 11

    In this sense they were heeding the advice of Charlton Heston, who toured the state during the 2000 campaign, exhorting voters to break with their traditional support for Democrats on the hallucinatory grounds that Democrats would violate their right to bear arms, and that this delusional fear far outranked “marginal” economic issues. As Heston put it in one speech, “You must forget what some shop steward or news anchor said…forget all the marginal issues and vote freedom.”

    I toured West Virginia in the company of Serge Halimi, an editor at Le Monde Diplomatique. Read more about what we saw at mondediplo.com/2004/10 /02usa.

  5. 12

    On Kerry’s campaign advisers, see Anna Sullivan, “Fire the Consultants,” Washington Monthly, January/February 2005. On the consultants’ corporate connections, see journalist Doug Ireland’s blog for September 8, 2004, direland.typepad.com/direland/2004 /09/jesse_jackson_l.html. On the failure of Kerry to criticize Republicans for the many financial scandals of recent years, see the Op-Ed by Frank Partnoy, “Why Nobody Mentioned Markets,” Financial Times, October 20, 2004. See also the essay by Eliot Spitzer in The New Republic, November 22, 2004, in which the same argument is made in greater detail, along with the point that John Kerry was, ironically, the perfect man to offer such criticism, since he had been one of the only national Democrats to support Spitzer’s effort to clean up the mutual-fund industry.

  6. 13

    On New Economy millionaires, see Matt Bai, “Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy,” The New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2004. On wealthy women of fashion, see Diana Kapp, “Insider,” San Francisco, June 2004, which details the efforts of two Bay Area “shoe horses” to persuade their fellow “stylistas” to donate their shoe budget to the Kerry campaign instead.

  7. 14

    See “The Wal-Mart Factor,” Boston Globe, November 7, 2004, in which Perlstein chides the Democrats for missing the biggest issue-opportunity of the year: the public’s widespread unhappiness with the Wal-Mart retail model.

  8. 15

    While at this party I was handed a Band-Aid decorated with a purple heart, stapled to a note mocking John Kerry’s war wounds. The obvious message was that if a liberal could get a Purple Heart, then Purple Hearts were a joke. Many of the other revelers were wearing the Band-Aids as they partied the night away.

  9. 16

    Moral values” mattered most to 22 percent of the electorate (80 percent of whom voted for President Bush) while “Economy/Jobs” mattered most to 20 percent and “Terrorism” and “Iraq” accounted for 19 percent and 15 percent respectively. This poll has since been much criticized for its vagueness, and rightfully so. For example, while all the other options were quite specific, the choice of “moral values” was not defined in any way. What was incorporated under “moral values”? Isn’t concern about the economy or the Iraq war also a matter of morality? My own suspicion is that the question was designed to identify conservative culture-war voters specifically, since “values” has been a standard slogan of the Bush campaign. However we look at it, though, no amount of criticism can wash that 22 percent figure away. Furthermore, the astonishment with which it was met in liberal circles cannot be understated.

  10. 17

    On the abandonment of the Federal Marriage Amendment by the President, see Bush’s instantly infamous interview with The Washington Post, January 15, 2005. See also Robert Borosage’s essay “Shafting Kansas,” which appeared on TomPaine.com on December 13, 2004.

  11. 18

    It is worth pointing out that the Schiavo matter, like every other culture-war skirmish over “values,” was in fact suffused with the language of social class. For example, Daniel Henninger, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, described the Schiavo case as a battle between the people and the elites in that it “ensures that these future questions of who lives and who dies won’t be decided by the professional class alone in conferences and courtrooms.”

  12. 19

    Cultural fascists”: from a press release issued by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, December 1, 2004, and widely circulated on the Internet (www.catholicleague.org/04press_releases/quarter4/041201_cword.htm). “Leftist jihadis” and “God is the enemy”: from an essay by Mac Johnson on the Web site of Human Events (Human Events Online), December 1, 2004. “Liberal, anti-Christmas Nazis”: from an essay by Chris Field also on Human Events Online, dated December 20, 2004. “Blatant religious bigotry”: from a radio editorial written by Connie Mackey, produced by the Family Research Council, December 6, 2004. “Rights of people to practice religion”: from “ACLU Christmas Haters” by Kaye Grogan, December 10, 2004, and available on the Web site of RenewAmerica, an organization dedicated to the politics of Alan Keyes (www.renewamerica.us/columns/grogan/041210). “True freedom of worship”: from “Mistletoe, Snow and Subpoenas?” by Eve Arlia, December 10, 2004, and available on the Web site of the Concerned Women for America (www.cwfa.org/articles/7013/LEGAL/freedom). Falwell: “The Impending Death of Christmas?” Insight on the News, December 13, 2004. Buchanan: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” The American Conservative, January 17, 2005 (the essay also appeared in numerous on-line outlets in December 2004).

  13. 20

    The Hannity/Medved CD, Keeping Christ in Christmas, was advertised in this way on one of the Focus on the Family Web sites. Weyrich: “Make a Difference with ‘Merry Christmas,’” an essay dated December 20, 2004 that appeared on the Web site of GOPUSA in addition to Insight on the News and the Web site of Weyrich’s own Free Congress Foundation. Coulter: “Merry Christmas, Red States!” Human Events Online, December 23, 2004. O’Reilly: “Christmas Haters Have an Agenda,” New York Daily News, December 13, 2004. “Coordinated attack on Christmas”: from “How (and Why) the Left Stole Christmas,” written by Noel Sheppard, December 15, 2004, which can be found, curiously enough, at a Web site called IntellectualConservative.com. Sheppard’s effort includes a humorous Christmas carol that goes, “It’s appallingly looking NOT like Christmas/Ev’rywhere you go:/Leftists are at it once again, using their anchormen/ On a campaign to spread disdain you know.”

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