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.

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.


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.

This Issue

May 12, 2005