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A decade ago, Thomas Frank set out to make sense of a key political problem: why do members of the white working-class vote against their interests and support right-wing economic policies and politicians? Frank’s answer was that that politicians and pundits stir the conservative Kansas Republicans (or “Cons,” as he refers to them) to action by evoking certain social issues, such as abortion, immigration, and marriage. By portraying themselves as champions of the conservatives on these issues, the politicians can get Cons to vote them into office. However, once in office, these politicians turn their attention to conservative economic issues, such as tax reduction (for wealthy individuals and businesses) and financial deregulation. In other words, Frank’s argument is that right-wing politicians have been successfully engaged in a game of bait-and-switch.
Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow.
Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower. (pp. 67-68)
Not surprisingly, Frank’s book provoked a vigorous debate about many dimensions of American politics, including the continuing relevance of class (and various definitions of class) in explaining voters’ behavior. More recently, George Packer, in The Unwinding, did a remarkable job describing the ugly effects right-wing economic policies have had in recent years on the Midwest, especially on lives and livelihoods of working people in rural areas. Now, in the seventh year of the Second Great Depression, the political and economic problems posed by both Frank and Packer—of right-wing populism, a working-class that has been attacked or ignored by politicians they’ve voted into office, and so on—are even more pressing.
Much empirical and theoretical work, therefore, remains to be done. But we’re certainly not going to find the answers in the genetic research Thomas Edsall [ht: br] has decided is important. Drawing on two recent papers by pyschologists and political scientists, Edsalls seems to think there’s a heritable factor underlying people’s political choices, especially those who support right-wing “traditionalism.”
The study of the heritability of attitudes, partisan inclinations and ideology is a nascent subfield in political science. It has the potential to provide insight into a host of crucial matters, including the roots of hostility between the contemporary right and left, and into how political parties alter their stands on issues in both practical and rhetorical terms.
The problem with this research is not, as Edsall presumes, that it presumes or necessarily leads to “racist, sexist and xenophobic” abuses. No, the real issue is the same one that ultimately undermines sociobiology: there is no gene that guides the beliefs and actions they’re trying to explain. In particular, there is no gene—among Kansans or anyone else—that determines their political beliefs or what they do when they enter the voting booth.
The search for such a genetic factor is a misguided attempt to locate a biological determinant of what are intrinsically historical and social practices and events. Working-class voters don’t lend their support to economic policies that ultimately hurt them because they’re genetically predisposed to hold “socially conservative policy positions, maintaining traditional values, and placing importance on religion in one’s life,” which then happen to be embodied in a political party that does everything in its power to run them into the ground.
What we need, in other words, is new thinking about how class has been—and can once again be—the focus of an alternative economic agenda, a discourse and a movement, as relevant in Kansas as in other areas of the country, that move beyond the choices we have inherited from both major political parties in the United States. That’s the only problem of heritability we need to confront.