Another Perspective

The Great Backlash?

Have Republican elites taken the little guy for a ride?

By 6.21.06

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In his best-selling 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas, historian Thomas Frank argues that Democrats are coming up short in elections because too many low-to-middle income people are turned off by what they see as an excessive supply of elitism and condescension among liberals.

"George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by 23 percentage points," reported Frank in a post-2004 election essay in the New York Review of Books.

To pull the working-class base away from the Democrats, Frank contends that Republicans have successfully portrayed themselves as fighters for the little guy, successfully representing themselves as the kind of values-oriented, hard-working patriots who won't buckle when it comes to fighting al Qaeda or fighting to keep Christ in Christmas.

Rather than having the economic issues of taxation or income inequality on the front burner, Frank argues that Republicans have effectively used a strategy of fueling what he calls "The Great Backlash," a tactic that defines politics as culture and focuses on bringing out the votes. Frank sees this as a reactionary movement against the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the old days in Kansas, Frank writes, "when business screwed the farmers and workers," the little guys fought back with a left-wing populism. In contrast today, with politics more tied to hot-button cultural issues, Frank describes a political landscape that gives short shrift to economics: "Strip today's Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and the next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. 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."

The "central mythology," according to Frank, is that "conservatives are always hard-working 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."

At a meeting with evangelical Christians at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, exhorting his audience to "win this culture war," complained that "the press beats up on you like there's something wrong with faith, family and freedom."

Rather than seeing their "way of life" threatened by flawed trade policies, a mismanaged war or out-of-control federal spending, Frank maintains that Republicans have painted "liberal arrogance," the "liberal media" and "liberal elites" as the chief villains, the "know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees."

John Kerry, with his Yale pedigree, aristocratic manner and rich wife -- and looking too French -- made the perfect villain in what Frank calls the "backlash pantomime." A 2004 billboard campaign by the National Rifle Association with the slogan, "That dog don't hunt," showed a fancily clipped and prancing French poodle wearing a pink bow and a Kerry-for-President sweater.

The charge, on top of phoniness, secularism and out-of-touch elitism, was insufficient toughness. Or as Frank states it, "George W. Bush was authentic" while John Forbes Kerry was "an affected toff, a Boston Brahmin who knew nothing of the struggles of average folks."

And so, the election choice for many was between a milquetoasty French poodle and a God-fearing and two-fisted Texan with a muscular foreign policy.

In California recently, President Bush, sticking to the same game plan, provided an insight into his method of policy-making. "I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true," he explained. "One, I believe there's an Almighty. And, secondly, I believe one of the gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everyone's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."

The problem, of course, is that al Qaeda uses precisely the same language to egg on its base, proclaiming that God is on their side in their fight "to be free" -- free of U.S. domination, free of an Israeli state and free of decadent Western influences.

The second problem, even if one believes that the Almighty is setting the agenda at the Pentagon, is that this administration hasn't exactly done a bang-up job of implementing the kind of down-to-earth strategies that are required for a successful outcome.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.