Why Don’t They Listen to Us?

While the intensity of political polarization that grips the nation today is relatively new, America has been drifting to the right for decades. Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, only three Democrats have occupied the White House, and of those, Bill Clinton alone survived for more than a single term. Although poll data show that most voters think the Democrats are better on such central issues as the economy, jobs, health care, and education, they continue to return Republicans to power. Republicans now occupy the governors’ mansions in twenty-eight states and own both the House and Senate, where leadership has been increasingly drawn from the radical right.

With the untimely death of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, we lost the most consistently progressive voice in either house of the United States Congress. If our ideas and our politics have been in the service of those less advantaged, as we believe so passionately, why have we had such a hard time making ourselves heard in ways that count? How did our voice-the voice of economic opportunity, the voice that speaks of justice in education, jobs, health care, and taxation-find so little resonance with the very Americans for whom we claim to speak?

In his intriguing book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argues that culture now trumps economics in the political sphere and offers as explanation yet another, if more sophisticated, version of false consciousness. “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” he writes on the very first page. “This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.” American politics is, he insists,

a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life . . .

This is heady, angry stuff, words that make me want to cheer and weep at the same time. And in his description of the facts he’s right. But there’s a kind of contempt underlying the passion of Frank’s words, a dismissive shrug, an “it’s-hard-to-believe-anyone-could-be-that-blind-and-stupid” dimension that fails to give any credibility or rationality to the behavior he so accurately describes, as if it comes out of some kind of conservative and/or media smoke a...

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