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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Thoughts in transit...

Sitting around Birmingham airport waiting for my flight back to the US, I settled into one of those cushy chairs at Starbucks and continued my on-again, off-again reading of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?. His annoying diatribe style has not subsided, but rather has merged with an analytic perspective and some interesting self-reflection. I am increasingly convinced that this might be the kind of book I should assign next term when I teach US government to the 2 level students Queen's.

Last evening, another of my wonderful colleagues at Queen's decided at the last moment to invite a group of us over to her home for a seasonal gathering. An American colleague and I engaged in an interesting conversation with the hosting spouse, Patrick, who was curious about our views on American politics -- and more specifically how we would explain (or justify) our claim (as a country) to being a democracy when in fact we are a nation of uninformed and irrational people who obviously lack the wisdom to select even halfway intelligent leaders (not quite his words, but close enough). Patrick's question did not shock us or make either of us defensive, for both of us are curious as he as to what has happened to US politics over the past decade. In response, we both found ourselves citing Frank's book, which is an interesting response from two political scientists who claim expertise on US government and politics. For all our cumulative knowledge, we are as baffled and as stunned by the new logic of American politics as Patrick and other Europeans. Frank, for all his annoying harangues, seems to have hit on an explanation by focusing on the 'culture war' that emerged out of the excesses and extremes of the 60s.

Of all Frank's observations, what I have found most interesting was his point that the right wing backlash, antiliberal 'literature' (if we can call it that) of today -- the stuff of Coulter and Limbaugh and Liddy -- is strikingly similar to the leftist writings and critiques of the US elite of the 30s, and he offers an example from the Daily Worker as an example. He contends that the major difference is that today's right wing harangues have been stripped of economic factors, thus masking (in true postmodern form) the true nature of the problems that afflict them from the gullible public. Interesting twist that seems to make some sense.

(The flight from Birmingham to Newark is now underway, and as if to reinforce the point, the 1997 movie 'Conspiracy Theory' just came up as the feature presentation for this flight. If Frank is correct, the craziness of conspiracy theories is now central to understanding the narratives drivng US politics.)

But there is something more to Frank's argument than just the culture/class wars -- something more basic and traditional. The war is being won by the right not merely through the media and Fox News. It is also being won the old-fashioned way -- at the precinct level where the "bias" hits the road. So if politics involves the mobilization of bias (a phrase familiar to political science types of the old school who read E.E. Schattchneider's Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America), then what the right has accomplished is truly brilliant, for they mobilized the culturally reactionary bias of the American electorate through both the media and through the old stale party apparatus that had been all but abandoned by the professional campaign establishment of both the Democratic Party and the GOP moderates.

Given this elaboration on Frank's theme (I haven't finished the book yet, so I am only speculating where he is taking his argument), it seems clear that the liberals need to develop a strategy that matches the bias mobilizing approach in both the media AND the grassroots party organization. Like I said, interesting stuff….
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