Everybody's Got One
A blog. An opinion. An elimination orifice. A dream. An agenda. A past. A hidden talent. A conceptual filter. A cross. A charism (often the same). A task. A wound. A destiny. A lost love. A blind spot. A bad habit. A secret. A passion. A soul ... okay, maybe not everybody ...
Thursday, July 01, 2004

Who built this city?  

I have not read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? - only a few reviews, some tour publicity, and had a pointless discussion about it - but I suspect I don't need to. The local details are likely intriguing, but overall I've heard it before. The organizing befuddlement, as I understand it, is the curious belief that Progressives and Populists are basically the same – or if separate demographic strains then kindred spirits, natural allies, rather than the social and cultural adversaries they actually are. As I've written before, Populists are fundamentally reactionaries: they want to go back to a Golden Age, or at least a simpler, less complicated time, when life was clearer and people knew where they stood. Which is another way of saying, when people knew their place, or at least had one to know. Progressives, on the other hand, who tend to be better educated (and correspondingly better situated), want to move forward to the new millennium, jettisoning anything (and anyone) who gets in the way – although they're not averse to having fellow travelers on the long march. The traditions and practices Populists cling to are presumed backward, stultifying, and best replaced by intelligently-crafted improvements.

It takes a time of severe economic dislocation or distress to make these two groups allies. It's happened twice in the last century and a half: in the 1890s, when industrialism started to really impinge on established agricultural communities, and in the world-wide depression of the 1930s (four times if you count the next-generation recapitulations of Wilson's teens and LBJ's Great Society as separate occurrences rather than downstream harmonic reflections). Progressives and Populists can agree on economics, as they both tend to blame greedy capitalist cabals for everyone's troubles. But once economic survival becomes less pressing, issues migrate up the Maslow hierarchy to cultural ones, where the two groups' interests diverge sharply.

Progressives believe if they can somehow get the conversation back on economics, they can get back the support of Populists. This explains the Democratic emphasis on the Worst. Economy. Ever. (Facts and/or perspective be damned; they want their majority back!) It also explains the touching fantasy – active in spasms since the last re-alignment thirty years ago – that if Democrats would only move sharply to the left, no longer content to be a pale reflection of GOP plutocrats, there are votes lying on the ground just waiting to be picked up. Go back to the economics of the '30s, rebuild the New Deal coalition, and all will again be right with the political world. Populists, so easily and destructively manipulated by conservatives, will again channel their inherent political followership to the proper, constructive, ends. (Progressives like Frank are experiencing some nostalgia of their own, harking back to an electoral Golden Age, when the Populists knew their place. What should be disquieting is that they seem to be moving farther back in time to situate it.)

Unfortunately, Mistuh Roosevelt, he dead. William Jennings Bryan, he deader. And it wasn't the economics of the '30s that built this coalition, it was the economy.

Be careful what you wish for.

posted by Kelly | 11:39 PM link