I don't read many biographies I'm busy enough as it is but this is one that I'll have to pick up. The first review that I read of Parker's book "A Mind of His Own" by Jeff Madrick sent me to the library to start reading Galbraith's books, finally, after all these years.
The second review that I read "Sisyphus as Social Democrat" by J. Bradford DeLong contains compelling explanations of why Galbraith's thought is not as influential as it once was. The loss is ours, says DeLong.
Naturally, there have been many other reviews. The website for the book contains many of them. Since I sometimes blog the work of Thomas Frank, I'll link directly to his review, which appeared in The New York Times not quite three months ago.
As you would expect, his essay concentrates on the 2004 election, which he analyzes in terms of the backlash that his book discusses at length. Here are the first three paragraphs, just to get you going:
For more than thirty-five years, American politics has followed a populist pattern as predictable as a Punch and Judy show and as conducive to enlightened statesmanship as the cycles of a noisy washing machine. The antagonists of this familiar melodrama are instantly recognizable: the average American, humble, long-suffering, working hard, and paying his taxes; and the liberal elite, the know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees and their friends in the judiciary.
Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economicstrade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.
The 2004 presidential campaign provides a near-perfect demonstration of the persistent power of backlashas well as another disheartening example of liberalism's continuing inability to confront it in an effective manner. So perfect, in fact, that it deserves to be studied by political enthusiasts for decades to come, in the manner that West Point cadets study remarkable infantry exploits and MBAs study branding campaigns that conjured up billions out of nothing but a catchy jingle.
Since I've posted about Thomas Frank several times in the past, and will no doubt do so again in the future, I thought that I should link to his Times op-ed from November 5. Frank deploys his WTMWK analysis of the Republicans' reliance on culture war to win elections:
The first thing Democrats must try to grasp as they cast their eyes over the smoking ruins of the election is the continuing power of the culture wars. Thirty-six years ago, President Richard Nixon championed a noble "silent majority" while his vice president, Spiro Agnew, accused liberals of twisting the news. In nearly every election since, liberalism has been vilified as a flag-burning, treason-coddling, upper-class affectation. This year voters claimed to rank "values" as a more important issue than the economy and even the war in Iraq.
[. . .]
Like many such movements, this long-running conservative revolt is rife with contradictions. It is an uprising of the common people whose long-term economic effect has been to shower riches upon the already wealthy and degrade the lives of the very people who are rising up. It is a reaction against mass culture that refuses to call into question the basic institutions of corporate America that make mass culture what it is. It is a revolution that plans to overthrow the aristocrats by cutting their taxes.
Still, the power of the conservative rebellion is undeniable. It presents a way of talking about life in which we are all victims of a haughty overclass - "liberals" - that makes our movies, publishes our newspapers, teaches our children, and hands down judgments from the bench. These liberals generally tell us how to go about our lives, without any consideration for our values or traditions.
The culture wars, in other words, are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.
Against this militant, aggrieved, full-throated philosophy the Democrats chose to go with . . . what? Their usual soft centrism, creating space for this constituency and that, taking care to antagonize no one, declining even to criticize the president, really, at their convention. And despite huge get-out-the-vote efforts and an enormous treasury, Democrats lost the battle of voter motivation before it started.
[. . .]
To short-circuit the Republican appeals to blue-collar constituents, Democrats must confront the cultural populism of the wedge issues with genuine economic populism. They must dust off their own majoritarian militancy instead of suppressing it; sharpen the distinctions between the parties instead of minimizing them; emphasize the contradictions of culture-war populism instead of ignoring them; and speak forthrightly about who gains and who loses from conservative economic policy.
What is more likely, of course, is that Democratic officialdom will simply see this week's disaster as a reason to redouble their efforts to move to the right. They will give in on, say, Social Security privatization or income tax "reform" and will continue to dream their happy dreams about becoming the party of the enlightened corporate class. And they will be surprised all over again two or four years from now when the conservative populists of the Red America, poorer and angrier than ever, deal the "party of the people" yet another stunning blow.
This gets at a significant portion of the truth about Kerry's failure, but it can't explain all of it. The success of the culture war complaint has always been linked to the ability of Republicans to distort or omit the facts of both liberal and conservative governance. Without a media megaphone as effective as the one that Republicans have right now, it seems to me that even if Democrats follow Frank's strategy, they'll still lose national elections.
Democrats will never be able to match the unscrupulousness of Republican campaigns. From a moral point of view, of course, this is a good thing. Whether or not it's a good thing from a political point of view, I hate to say, is another thing. How can Democrats combat the Republicans' willingness to lie to their own supporters? At the very least they need to challenge the tendency of the more reputable media outlets to repeat the lies without calling them lies as soon as they appear in public and begin to effect the outcome of campaigns.
Here's a telling paragraph from the Purdum article:
From state capitals to Capitol Hill, the Republicans made gains on Tuesday. Eleven state ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage passed easily, even in laid-back, live-and-let-live Oregon, and apparently inspired turnout that helped Mr. Bush. William J. Bennett, the former education secretary who has crusaded for moral values, noted in National Review Online that it was Ohio, which may well have lost more jobs under Mr. Bush than any other state, that gave him his electoral vote victory.
Thomas Frank should consider writing a sequel with the obvious title.
Like it or not, the Bushies ran a more effective campaign. Here's hoping that someone in the Democratic party is really paying attention.
Josh Benson finishes substituting for Noam Scheiber on the latter's blog etc. with this farewell post on Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? It's only a blog post, but I have to say that it's the best thing I've seen so far on Frank's book. It puts the professional reviewers to shame.
Benson is surely right in arguing that Frank's discussion of how white, working-class voters vote against their economic interests by supporting the GOP is too simplistic. (Franks discusses the so-called "backlash" at great length. The basic idea is that the GOP has used the culture war to convince white, working-class voters to vote for Republicans, and thus to vote against their own economic interests.) Here's how Benson puts his main objection:
. . . the biggest flaw of Frank's book is a question he barely addresses: How do these white, working-class Kansans process the economic implications of their vote? Do they think they'd be more likely to have affordable health care and a good job under Democratic policies? And if so, do they care? In my humble opinion, answering these questions is a prerequisite to rebuilding the Democrats' appeal to such voters. Frank doesn't have much of an opinion, though. He simply takes it for granted that these voters are stupidly working against their own material interests.
Benson understates Frank's error, I think. Contrary to what Benson thinks, Frank doesn't simply take it for granted that white, working-class Kansans are stupidly or unknowingly working against their own economic interests. Here's a bit of evidence to show that Frank is in a position to know that matters aren't so simple.
At one point Frank interviews Kay O'Connor, a state senator from Olathe. She says quite sincerely, I'm sure that some people "have higher ambitions for monetary gains as opposed to, shall we say, spiritual gains" (p. 169). Frank talks with other Kansans with similar views and tells of his conversations with them throughout the book, but especially in chapter 8 (pp. 157-178). The title of that chapter "Happy Captives" gives away Frank's take on all of these Kansas conservatives who support the GOP.
Frank's problem isn't that he takes for granted that all white, working-class Republicans have been duped by the GOP. He provides evidence, again and again, that the religious conservatives among these voters are sincerely acting on their religious convictions. And if you wanted to transform your religious convictions about abortion or school prayer into law, which party would you join? The GOP, of course. Where else would you go?
Now Frank is right about this: the GOP has hardly delivered on its promises to the religious right. As he says, "The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate" (p. 6). I can't say to what extent this bait-and-switch bothers devout Christians. But Frank is typical of leftists in his inability to comprehend religious conviction. It doesn't factor into his analyses. Yet Kay O'Connor couldn't have made its genuine significance any plainer.
It seems to me that Frank, without realizing it, dismisses or ignores the possibility that religious conviction can truly trump economic interests, that the devout can recognize that their economic interests can be hurt in the political bargains that they make, and that they can comfortably reconcile themselves to this tradeoff. That is, he doesn't simply take his position for granted; instead, he willfully sets aside evidence that should force him to complicate his analysis. Therefore, Frank's intellectual sin is more grievous than Benson believes.
Frank notes correctly that the religious right doesn't get much at all from its bargain with the GOP, and that Kansas itself is suffering in various ways from policies and economic practices favored by the GOP. And it's probably often the case that many working-class voters don't realize that the above-mentioned tradeoff is taking place at their expense. (I believe that it is. I agree with Frank on this point.) It could be, though, that all of this is genuinely of lesser importance to devout Christians than that their religious convictions drive their political lives. Would it really surprise you to learn that some contemporary Christians place their faith above their material well-being? Isn't that what Jesus demanded of his followers?
I'm thoroughly secular, and thus I don't share the religious convictions that Frank documents throughout his book. It's one thing, however, not to share these convictions; it's another thing altogether to deny them their appropriate role in a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary political scene. (I might add parenthetically: Is it any wonder, then, that the left, in its search for the root causes of Islamic terrorism, has had next to nothing to say about the role of Islam itself? See my earlier post on Shmuel Bar's essay on the religious sources of Islamic terrorism.) Frank's inability to find a significant place in his analysis for religious conviction is surely a flaw in his book, which, nonetheless, I still recommend.
More: All of my earlier posts on Frank can be found among the posts in the politics category. Just click and scroll down to the entries from July 2004.
I wasn't sure what to call this post, but I think that the title will do. Now that the Democrats are holding their convention, we're seeing a lot of big articles in the press that address the problems that the party faces. Here are two that I think are especially worth reading.
First, if you want to begin to understand some of the problems that are still affecting the Democratic party, then I suggest that you start with this article by Joshua Zeitz from American Heritage. It covers the 1964 Democratic convention, in particular the fight over who would represent Mississippi at the convention. The exodus of white Southerners from the Democratic party began in earnest in 1964. This article helps to tell the story.
For more on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party and the drama of the 1964 convention, read the first chapter of Ronald Radosh's Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996 (New York: The Free Press, 1996). Radosh's account is somewhat more politically charged than Zeitz's (which is hardly surprising, if you know Radosh's work), but Zeitz's piece contains many interesting anecdotes that you won't find in Radosh's chapter. I then recommend that you read Radosh's book in its entirety.
Second, Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), has written an extended piece on what he thinks the long-term vision of the Democratic party should be, even though he deliberately avoids detailed policy recommendations. Some form of economic populism is required, he argues, which lines Perlstein up with Thomas Frank, as far as I can see.
Most of this L.A. Times op-ed by Thomas Frank is lifted from the last few pages of What's the Matter with Kansas? The basic idea of the op-ed, much condensed, is that the working-class no longer has a political party that looks out for its interests. But the book covers many more topics than that one.
Frank's personal website contains a page devoted to What's the Matter with Kansas? There you'll find links to many reviews of the book. (At the moment the content of welcome page of Frank's site is the same as that of the page devoted to his new book. That will change, eventually, I assume.)