If only working-class and poor people would register and vote, liberal Democrats would win every election-that’s what we thought, until November 2, 2004. Democrats work on voter registration, Republicans work on vote suppression. So tens of millions were spent on Democratic voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts over the summer and fall. But on November 2 we discovered how wrong we were. Turnout in poor and working-class precincts was unprecedented, but many of those voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush-especially white people from non-union households, especially outside of cities. How did the Republicans do it? How did they get poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich?
Thomas Frank became the pundit of the hour for his answer to those questions. In his best-selling book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, published before the election, he argued that Republicans distracted and confused ordinary voters with a phony kind of class-war rhetoric and with the culture wars. In short, they fostered what we used to call “false consciousness.” In Marxist theory, when workers accept the ruling ideology that justifies their exploitation, they have false consciousness. It’s “a failure to recognize the instruments of one’s oppression or exploitation as one’s own creation, as when members of an oppressed class unwittingly adopt views of the oppressor class”-that’s the dictionary definition. It’s when ordinary workers “insist on re-electing the very people who are screwing them” – that’s Tom Frank’s definition.
The notion of “false consciousness” has always been appealing. But it’s not hard to critique what is false; the problem is to know what is true. It’s not just the postmodernists who object to the notion that we know the truth; almost all the people on the left who have lived through the political reversals of the last thirty years have developed a more humble sense of their analytical powers.
Although Frank uses the term “false consciousness” only a couple of times, his book provides the best example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this kind of analysis. He brings to life the notion of false consciousness by focusing on the way the poorest counties on the Great Plains have turned Republican and “drifted into delusion” (Barbara Ehrenreich’s phrase). He shows how the Republicans and their media voices-Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and so on-appeal to ordinary people with a class-conscious anger at “the elite.” This elite is not the capitalist class; it is the liberals, who are held responsible for the “decline” in “values” that voters are called on to reverse. This ideology demonizes the New York and L.A. types who got rich by pushing sex and violence in the media; they are Volvo-driving, Brie-eating, latte-sipping sn...
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