Saturday, July 24, 2004

Red (?) States

As far as I know, in pretty much every political culture which has inherited at least some of its symbolic language from Europe (i.e. most of them in this world shaped by empires) the colour red tends to be associated with the left. I'm less clear on how widespread the association of conservatism with the colour blue is, but that is certainly the case in Canada and my impression is that this is something we have inherited from the Parliament in Westminster, and therefore a fair number of other states have probably inherited something similar.

Yet in the trendy lingo bandied about by pundits in this U.S. election season, "red states" are those likely to vote Republican, while "blue states" are Democratic. Not only do I find this personally confusing every time I hear it, and have to take a few seconds to remind myself that red actually symbolizes the slightly more right-wing party in this instance, but I also take it as a sign of the general disconnection in the U.S. from the political culture in most of the rest of the world -- even the political culture in the rest of the world's rich, white-dominated countries.

Of course, I find it hard to believe that people actually voted for George Bush, and even harder to believe that many plan to do so again, but they did and they do.

There is a new book out called What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank. I have not read the book itself, but I have read some articles about it, and heard its author interviewed. Frank points out that the growth of working-class conservatism is connected to the deployment by the Republican Party and the other branches of the conservative movement of a twisted kind of class conscious language even as the Democrats have retreated from class-based approaches. The conservatives have invested a great deal of money and effort over the last three decades in creating a frame in which liberal values on certain issues are seen as being the purview of elites who force them down the throats of ordinary Americans, and this has mobilized increasing numbers of working-class Americans to vote for a party whose economic policies are most harshly counter to the wellbeing of ordinary folk.

An interesting insight into where this came from, and another example of the disconnection of U.S. political culture from the rest of the world,came from the interviewer on the radio show on which I herad Frank interviewed. This host objected strenuously to Frank's statement that the conservative mantra of liberal-equals-elite has a grain of truth to it, and instead said it was the centrists who have taken over the Democratic Party that are elites while true liberal values are not elite. This is actually kind of a complicated assertion based in the various ways that the word "liberal" is used, and I won't try to sort it all out now -- certainly the rather superficial sense of liberalism as tolerance for social difference is a value-base that anyone can hold. However, it should be noted that, in most of the world, those who deploy class-based analysis as a significant part of their politics from a left perspective have tended to see liberalism (in the classical sense) as an elite ideology.

What really gets me, though, is not just that the political structures in the United States manage to get a significant proportion of ordinary folk to vote for the party that is most aggressively against their own economic interest. Rather, as I observed a couple of posts back, the political structures are such that it probably does make strategic sense for progressives in swing states to vote for John Kerry, who not only is not left, he isn't even liberal in any sense that would make sense outside of the particularities of U.S. political culture where "liberal" is an amorphous agglomeration of meaning that includes everyone from moderate conservatives like Kerry and Clinton to actual liberals to all the many and diverse flavours of leftists that are out there. A system that makes Kerry a sensible choice for leftists is, well, ingenious in its oppressiveness.

It is hard to be hopeful in the face of all of this. Certainly it doesn't help any to see the visciousness of the attack and counter-attack as progressives debate the Nader candidacy -- surely our knives can find better homes than each other's backs. And, let's be honest -- it does not really matter that much. So there is not much to do but keep on keepin' on, and remember that as disconnected as the political culture in this country might feel from time to time, it has produced some amazing social movements over the years and it can do so again.

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