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The Cultural Conservative Con

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Lindsay Beyerstein has a good review of Thomas Frank’s new book. I do think, however, that her punchline underemphasizes the most important part of Frank’s argument:

Short answer: the habit of subsuming economics to “culture.” This tendency is nearly universal in America. David Brooks has made a career out of it. The habit is reinforced whenever we repeat the red state/blue state metaphor. Americans aren’t comfortable talking about social class, especially not in any way that suggests that one class might benefit at the expense of another. If culture is everything, there’s no reason a factory worker from Witchita shouldn’t trust another regular guy, even if hat guy owns the factory. In the culture wars, they’re on the same side.

But it’s much worse than that. If social conservatives were getting significant policy results, their support of Republicans wouldn’t be hard to explain. We may disagree with their priorities, but they would be making a rational choice. The thing is, though, that Republican elites for the most part aren’t on the same side. As Frank correctly points out, the bible-thumping rhetoric is largely just window dressing. Republican Congresses and presidents are big on symbolic gestures–such as proposed “Human life” and “Federal marriage” amendments and the dog-and-pony show of “partial birth abortion” legislation–that have the advantage of not actually changing the policy status quo, because they have no chance of passing or delegate policy choices to the courts. And this suits Republican elites fine. While they may be able to tolerate state laws formally banning abortion, at the most they want abortion illegal but not so illegal that if the daughter or mistress of a Republican Congressman gets knocked up she can’t get a nice safe abortion from the family ob-gyn. Roe is a great way to solve the problem, because they get the policy outcome they want while pretending they are opposed to it. But ultimately, working-class social conservatives–at least at the federal level–are, in fact, being played for suckers. Not because they’re voting against their class interests, but because they don’t get substantive policy victories on cultural issues. Beyerstein is, of course, right about the unwillingness of Americans to discuss class and the pathologies this creates. But even on their own terms, poor culturally conservative Kansans are, in fact, being duped.

(Disclaimer: I haven’t read the full book, just the Harper’sessay. But since he repeated this argument in a recent NYT op-ed, I’m pretty sure that this is an important part of his argument.)

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