“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Cassius, from Julius Caesar
Why is it that people of modest means vote against their own interests, giving victories to Tea Party ideologues who serve only the ends of the economic royalists who underwrite their campaigns? Why do people support a minimum-wage increase, equal pay for women, financial-sector regulation and gay marriage, but vote for candidates who oppose all those measures? Why do they vote blue for president but red down the ticket? The question tortures every liberal and a good many moderates.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, and brother, does it get flung around. It’s the Koch brothers. It’s a failed educational system. It’s Karl Rove, or maybe it’s the bigoted reaction to a mixed-race president. Perhaps it’s a lack of effective leadership.
Truth is, it’s all and none of those things. It is important to remember, however, that no leadership is effective with people who are unwilling to be led.
It is true that the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, to promote their ever greater wealth and their right-wing extremist ideology, have spent lavishly on politics in the last decade – at least $200 million on the record and untold dollars more in secret. Ditto for the DeVos clan of Michigan, right-wing bosses of the Amway empire, and the Coors family of Colorado, whose fortune is built on the genius of flavor-free beer.
It is also true that the American political center has been shifting rightward since, roughly, 1973. Every time the Democrats move to the center, the Republicans move the center. The most dramatic result, among many other catastrophes, is the most egregiously disparate distribution of income and wealth since the Gilded Age. Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics has created a stir with his upcoming book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he claims that concentrated wealth is the enemy of democracy. Amazing. The man’s mind has seized on the obvious with the strength of a vise.
So, back to the question: why? Why do people fall for this stuff? There can be no doubt that money is a poison in the political process; that state legislative seats are important, and that they’re for sale on the cheap by candidates who require money to run; and that the public pays little attention. Indeed, in most legislatures, which are part-time, people can run only if they are retired, independently wealthy or sponsored by some special interest or another. It’s a recipe for gerrymandered congressional districts and right-wing domination.
At least equally important, however, are the power of myth, the meaning of symbols and the disdain for both that characterizes modern American liberalism. This may be a gross generalization, but there is enough truth in it to have considerable practical effect: Nationalism is a dangerous thing; recognizing this, liberals tend to be less nationalistic than conservatives. This leaves them open to charges of being less patriotic than conservatives. Liberals don’t like to parade the flag. It smacks of nationalism, perhaps of jingoism.
So conservatives do that. It’s not that the fat cats who run the conservative movement are more patriotic than anyone else. In fact, they’re busy doing such unpatriotic things as moving jobs to China and money to the Cayman Islands. But they understand that patriotism and its symbols are important to Middle America and its voters. So they use the liberals’ self-conscious efforts at sophistication against them: the liberals, who would like to change the country for the better (what could be more patriotic?) are cast as the blame-America-first enemies of the flag.
Then the cynical lords of the right conflate the flag with the cross of Christianity, and pretty soon they’ve turned Jesus into a gun-totin’, flag-wavin’, blue-eyed capitalist. He rides a snowmobile and doesn’t ski cross country. He rides a dirt bike, never hiking. He eats ribs, not arugula, and he takes a jet ski, not a kayak. Probably he loves cigarettes. Amazing. Dishonest? Hell, yes, but clever politics.
The myth that goes with the flag is that of the American Dream: rags to riches. The right-wing has seized on this as its cause, persuading millions of voters of the patent lie that asking anything of the rich will somehow diminish their own chances of becoming rich. Meantime, their policies have all but destroyed anyone’s chances of joining the economic middle class, let alone the upper crust.
So who has been clever, and who has been stupid? Liberals have a message, and here it is: the modern American dream was built and mostly realized in a postwar world in which marginal tax rates on the highest incomes topped 90 percent; where labor unions were at their strongest, with stout support from the government; where government spending on infrastructure was at its highest; where civil rights was the cause du jour and women were beginning to assert their humanity; and where Depression-era, strict regulation of the financial sector kept some order in the markets and banks were not a titanic criminal enterprise.
It was not stability but reform and progressivism that drove the economic growth and allowed for moral growth as well. We’ve regressed, and the regression dates to a time when the right-wing began to assert itself as American, and the left let them have the field.
The Tea Party movement was co-opted early by the DeVoses, Coorses and Kochs. The Republican establishment may have some trouble with that wing of their party now, but without it, they would hardly be in serious political contention. The Occupy movement, meanwhile, rejected everything – leadership, money, traditional organization – that make for political effectiveness. Their members may vote Democratic, but in too many state and local races, they’re not even competitive. They content themselves with the idea that the educated classes are with them. So did the Whigs in the 1830s and ‘40s. Whigs haven’t really been much of a force lately.
So people are confused. They think America’s one thing, and they have to be conservative to be part of it.
No. The best America is a liberal America, and liberals, by god, need to stand up and say so.