Thomas Frank’s fluff piece, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” is full of rhapsodic word pictures of what a working class paradise Kansas used to be, but he backs off as if he’d touched a hot iron whenever he gets too close to actually understanding the people he describes. He quotes them at great length, but rarely seeks to understand them, still less to explain where their values come from and how former populists came to identify with the Right. At one point he muses that people who take a stand on principle even though it’s economically disadvantageous might actually deserve admiration, but drops it like a hot potato. After all, his whole thesis is that’s what’s “wrong” with Kansas. In another case he describes having a long discussion with someone and actually beginning to see her perspective, but he doesn’t share any insights as to what it means and moves on to another topic, no doubt relieved at his narrow escape.
WARNING!! This piece employs advanced analytical methods such as:
-Actually listening to what people say
-Trying to understand their viewpoint
-Not trying to refute them
-Not filtering what they say through your own ideology
-Not dismissing their beliefs as wrong, unjustified or misguided
So if you’re prone to the is/ought fallacy, where you feel the need to rebut ideas you disagree with, or you interpret describing an idea as advocating it, you should leave right now. Don’t waste time and bandwidth trying to tell me that some of these ideas are misguided, or asking “Can’t they see that…?” This is how they think, and your disapproval means nothing at all. Indeed, if you want to make them stronger, just go on doing what you’re doing.
Attacks on ReligionIs there anything more stupid than mobilizing the Right by attacking something as trivial as “In God We Trust” on coins or a creche in a public park? Talk about bang for the buck. But what about the feelings of nonbelievers? Consider this. You may not like the tune, you may think it’s a pointless exercise in hollow patriotism, you may dislike the militarism in “the rockets’ red glare,” but guess what? Playing the Star Spangled Banner before a ball game is traditional, it doesn't violate your rights, and if you don’t like it, tough. Same with petty nods to religious sentiment. Look the other way when you pass the creche.
And it’s not so much the fervent believers who get riled up. The people who get angriest are often nominal believers, folks who drink, cuss, run around, surf porn, and think they’re doing their religious duty by getting mad when symbols are challenged. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than tithing.
Both sides are being played for suckers. We don’t need a Constitutional amendment. Article 3, Section 2 gives Congress the right to exclude certain topics from judicial review. A simple rider on any law in the last 50 years would have rendered this issue moot. So why hasn’t it happened? Well, if we remove this hot-button issue, people may decide they care about workplace safety or economic justice. It’s a whole lot easier to keep folks voting the Right way if you can keep goading them with this. And the Left has been stupid enough to let it happen.
Genuine InjusticesIf someone trespasses on your property and is injured, or you injure a person committing a crime, they can sue you and bankrupt you. If you are so obtuse that you cannot see this as a gross injustice, what can I say? Tort reform would benefit liberals, too. Look at the havoc RIAA is creating with frivolous, scattergun lawsuits. The only people who would not benefit from a “loser pays” system are lawyers, corporations filing harassing lawsuits, and people who commit crimes and willful tort violations.
I once had someone tell me that he personally knew someone who lost his job and then his home to foreclosure. The home was then occupied by a welfare mother with several kids. No amount of explaining that most people are on welfare because of circumstances beyond their control, that most welfare families are small, etc., will override the fact the he has personal knowledge of a case where the government did not help a working person in trouble, then turned around and gave his home to someone who was not working. One case like this one or this one will undo all your nuanced discussion of how much we need a safety net. The latter link is a right wing blog, but that’s okay because it shows the kind of mileage the Right gets out of these cases.
No, I don’t care that you don’t see any injustices here. That’s part of the problem. The Right does.
Socializing CostsWe see a lot about “privatization of profit and socialization of risk.” where businesses collect profits but pass the costs of pollution or waste on to society at large. We rarely see much about the reverse, where the government dumps the burden of solving social problems onto the private sector. Who’s responsible for equal housing? Developers and landlords. Who’s responsible for equal opportunity in employment? Private employers. Who’s responsible for equal access for the handicapped? Private establishments. Who reimburses their costs? Nobody. Who covers their legal fees if they’re wrongfully sued? Nobody. You can’t discriminate against job applicants because of their immigration status. Then after you've gone to the expense of screening applicants and possibly flying them in for interviews you have to document that they are eligible to work. Does the government give any assistance in resolving their immigration issues? You gotta be kidding (first hand knowledge, here).
The political landscape flipped in 1964 when Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act and carried the Deep South. This may have been racism in part, but to a substantial extent it was because the Civil Rights Act reached new levels of invasiveness. This isn't the Government telling a large factory to clean up its effluent. It’s the government claiming the right to dictate how individual private property owners handle their business. This, and many other laws like it, help drive the “takings” movement, which argues that regulation beyond a certain level constitutes taking private property in violation of the Fourth Amendment. You disagree? Who cares? You’re not the one whose property or business is being micromanaged.
Actually, the really relevant amendment is the Third, which bans quartering of soldiers in private homes. Because that’s how England tried to lessen its military expenses, by dumping the costs onto homeowners. If we wrote that Amendment today, we might add a lot of other prohibitions to it.
Personal AccountabilitySome years ago I was talking with a Norwegian visitor about American politics. I noted that Norway had very liberal welfare benefits and asked what would prevent a Norwegian from simply quitting work and going on welfare. The most wonderful thing was the look he gave me, as if I’d asked why he wouldn't get up on a table at a royal banquet and moon the Royal Family. He gaped like a goldfish and then stammered, “Well … they just …. wouldn't … do that. ” Anyone doubt that a lot of Americans would? (Hint: visit the links five paragraphs back)
But surely there are people in Europe who abuse welfare. Why don’t we find outrage there? Europe is a halcyon place. There’s no Freedom Party in Austria, National Front in France, Danish People’s Party, British National Party …. A regular love fest.
It’s not just welfare. It all but takes a nuclear warhead to fire even the laziest worker in government and many industries. Thomas Frank laments at great length the decline of union power and high paying unionized jobs, but says not a word about the role of Jimmy Hoffa and others in selling out many unions to the Mob. Nor does he talk about the work rules that protect lazy, dishonest or incompetent workers.
The Right absolutely sucks on scientific literacy, the environment and economic justice, but the Left completely sucks on individual accountability. Require welfare recipients to keep their kids in school, stay off drugs and cooperate with the police? We can’t do that! That’s “regimenting” the poor. Prison sentences are “excessive,” probably because the U.S. is the last country in the Western world that hasn't thrown in the towel on crime. Grades are “elitist.” Standardized tests are discriminatory, even though they are mostly about as rigorous as Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year Competition. Every proposal to link benefits to socially responsible behavior meets fierce opposition from the Left.
Americans are keenly aware that they have a social obligation to help the needy. What infuriates them is being told that recipients of aid have no reciprocal obligations to society.
You want to know how anyone these days can still be a conservative? This does it for me. Civilization simply cannot afford to lose this battle. There can be no social, economic, or environmental responsibility without individual responsibility. And the corrosive effect of undermining individual responsibility eats at all levels of society. Why should anyone bother being responsible if nobody else is required to be?
Shielding SociopathsMany leftists will argue that we have to tolerate the occasional welfare or tort abuse because shielding the rights of the worst elements of society shields everyone. Not so. Protecting the rights of sociopaths protects only the rights of sociopaths. The average person is far more worried about burglars searching their homes without warrants than the police. They are far more worried about being wrongfully executed for their wallets or cars than for a crime.
If you want to protect civil liberties, ask people what liberties they feel are threatened most. The answers will probably revolve around keeping what they earn, not having to report to the government, not having their private affairs regulated, and being protected from sociopaths. So of course they will flock to the polls to elect candidates who call for higher taxes, more paperwork and regulation, and more micromanagement, while arguing that prison sentences are excessive.
Class is Behavior, not Race or MoneyThe fundamental fallacy of the Left is that social class is dictated by money. This is the thesis running through Frank’s book: why do middle class Kansans ally with the rich even though the rich turn around and screw them? At one point he toys with a concept called “authenticity,” which is behavior that superficially makes the upper class seem like the middle class, but he quickly returns to the fixation on money.
Both race and money, of course, influence behavior, but one need only consider the way rich folks sneer at the “noveau riche,” or Southerners talk about "white trash" to see that what really matters is behavior. People barricade themselves inside those loathsome covenant communities because they want to be surrounded by people who behave a certain, very tightly defined way.
So the cherished vision of the left of all the downtrodden uniting isn’t going to happen. The average middle class suburbanite has far more in common with the rich guy in a McMansion than he does with a welfare mother. And there’s another reason the middle class allies with the wealthy. They know perfectly well that once the wealth of the upper class is gone, they’ll be next.
The Pecking OrderIf you haven’t committed the is/ought fallacy yet, here’s your chance. When foreign aid workers pass out aid, they start out by doing it in typical Western fashion: first come first serve, wait your turn, everybody is equal. Problem is, in many places in the world, that is offensive. People are offended at having women treated the same as men, children as adults, one social class or ethnic group like any other. Like it or not, many people believe they have a right to a place in the social hierarchy above others.
I suspect this attitude lies at the root of widespread American attitudes on personal misconduct. We’re scandalized by (or envious of?) Tiger Woods but outraged by someone having out of wedlock kids on welfare. We’re far more offended at some ghetto kid on drugs that a Wall Street tycoon snorting coke. Nobody much cares about $1000 a night escorts but streetwalkers get busted regularly.
Why? Well, partly it’s the effects of the offenses. The guy who supplies the tycoon with blow isn't likely to go spraying a neighborhood with gunfire. The $1000 a night escort isn't going to be hassling people on the street, getting into fights in public with other escorts, and probably won’t be robbing her client if she wants to stay in business.
But more than that, what Tiger Woods, the snorting tycoon, and the escort all have in common is society doesn't directly pay for them. Indirectly, maybe. The costs may get passed along (Tiger’s income fell, but the tycoon and the escort’s clients may write their sins off as business expenses or fees.) On the other hand, society does pay directly for the welfare mom’s new baby, the unemployability, prison time and crime of the user of street drugs, and the quality of life degradation created by open prostitution. I don’t think people explicitly reason this out; I suspect they have a gut feeling that people at the higher end are contributing to society and “deserve” some slack, and people who are dependent on society need to focus on needs over wants.
I think there’s a very widespread perception on the Right that the middle and upper classes who do the work and pay the taxes should benefit most from government over those who receive benefits. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of the emphasis on helping the needy as the highest priority. Elitist? Yes. And your point is…?
Why Obama?So why is the Right crazy over Obama? Race is part of it, but I suspect a small part. For years now we've been seeing movies with a black President and people don’t boycott those films. Granted, Obama is real life, but I think if there were widespread antipathy to a black President, we’d have seen it more explicitly.
ACORN probably plays a much bigger role in this than anyone has suggested. If people have a widespread notion of a right to a place in the social hierarchy, the idea of mobilizing the lower ranks to challenge them will be infuriating. The notion of launching a massive new entitlement in the midst of a deep recession doesn't help. And the talk of raising taxes is a red flag because the middle class knows perfectly well that they’ll be next.
Navigating the Mine FieldSo how to defuse the anger on the Right? Why bother? Because if we don’t, it will keep building. We will see more extreme candidates, more extreme rhetoric, and very likely more unbalanced people resorting to violence. If you don't solve the problem, the Right will do it for you. What can the Left do without selling out core liberal principles?
Two things. First, stop the stupid. Attacks on religion keep the Right fired up, so stop the pointless challenges to trivia like “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Atheist bloggers can rant all they like, just don’t let them on a court docket.
Second, push individual responsibility. Stop pretending that criminals are victims. Prisons don't rehabilitate, for the very simple reason that the legal system allows many to pretend they're victims of the System, or they had poor representation in court, or had a bad childhood, or anything else except face the reality that they committed a real offense against someone who, most of the time, did nothing to threaten them. Link social assistance to socially responsible behavior. Want assistance? By all means. Obey the law, stay off intoxicants (if you have money for alcohol or drugs, you have money for food and medicine), keep your kids in school, back the teachers in disciplinary matters, and assist the police in solving crimes. and if "your culture" doesn't support those behaviors, get a new culture.
This piece was written in 2012. I've posted things like it may times on liberal-leaning sites, always to a chorus of "Lalalalala I can't HEAR you," or being called a "troll. Well, now we have Trump. Are we having fun yet?