The Party of the People

The Republicans, unlike the Democrats, have delivered what their constituency wants

By Jack Beatty

The Republicans are the party of the people. Consider Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, where the per capita income is around $25,000, and where, in 2000, George W. Bush got 70 percent of the vote. Or Loup County, Nebraska, per capita income $6,235, which Bush carried by 75 percent. Rural America is Bush country. It is also a museum of poverty, and its poverty shapes its politics.

The Democrats are the party of the elite. Consider Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In a 1948 student poll Thomas E. Dewey beat Harry Truman by 2 to 1. In 2000 Al Gore beat Bush, an Andover alumnus, by nearly the same margin, reflecting the Democrats' historic capture in 2000 of "professionals," a group well-represented among the parents of Andover students. Next to African-Americans, the most reliable Democrats in the electorate are women with post-graduate degrees.

These reverse stereotypes play hob with obvious realities. To use Stanley Greenberg's categories in The Two Americas, Privileged Men—"white, married, educated," and affluent—are as Republican as the hoary stereotype suggests. Only 31 percent voted for Gore in 2000. By contrast, Gore carried white Union Families by 52 to 44 percent.

Still, the reverse stereotypes carry enough truth to retire cliches like "fat cat Republicans" and "populist Democrats." Populist Republicans is more like it.

How did this happen? And what does it mean for the Bush-Kerry matchup?

The Shanksvilles of America have been tricked by the Republicans, Thomas Frank writes in the April issue of Harpers.

The trick never ages, the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital-gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking.

But these trends and measures are not Republican swindles on credulity. They are the priorities of the funders of both parties, and Bill Clinton advanced and presided over them. Clinton promised "people who work hard and play by the rules" greater economic security; they got de-industrialization with NAFTA, the WTO, and the normalization of trade with China—and greater economic insecurity. Senator Ernest Hollings (D, S.C.) called the anti-trust division of the Clinton justice department "the anti-anti-trust division" for its benign attitude toward conglomeration. Clinton promised a tax cut for the middle class but delivered a cut in capital gains.

And the Republicans "values" agenda is not a con. Bush signed a ban on late-term abortions vetoed by Clinton. He curtailed stem-cell research. He ended abortion counseling in U.S.-funded clinics in the Third World. And Bush has made the White House God's temple. The first words the speechwriter David Frum heard upon entering the Bush White House were, "Missed you at Bible study."

Love guns and hate gays? Bush is your kind of populist. Low taxes? Bush has relieved the tax burden on working Americans; Clinton promised to, but failed to deliver. Has Bush made America stronger? Almost certainly weaker, as Richard Clarke argues, by subordinating the war on terror to the obsession with Iraq. But he talks strength, and believes in force. He has, after all, liberated thousands of Iraqis and Afghans from life under tyranny to death under American bombs—i.e. "freedom." Bush thinks the whole world deserves "freedom," and if he has to fill graveyards "changing the world," as he declared at his recent press conference, well, at least people will know that when America says it will do something, it will follow through no matter how counter-productive the effort or how many Red (and Blue) State kids die along the way. The GOP "strong on defense" mantra is no con. Bush's foreign policy is war.

The Red State electorate is not fooled. They may not know the details of Bush's crony-capitalist raid on the treasury but would they reject the GOP if they did? They vote for values, strength, guns, and righteous ferocity abroad—and the GOP delivers. The rest comes under the heading of keeping government off our backs.

What have the Democrats delivered? Under Clinton: business cycle prosperity led by a high-tech stock boom. This is the party of the people? Kerry recently assured a gathering of Wall Street Democrats at "21" that he would follow in Clinton's footsteps, emphasizing capital-gains tax cuts and deficit reduction over social programs—in short, economic conservatism, which has thin appeal compared to Republican cultural populism. A balanced budget may be good for the economy but won't increase life chances in Loup County. What could is a program of economic populism—everything from fair trade to public-sector jobs making America safer, greener, and smarter. But Bush's deficits rule that out. So a President Kerry, like Bill Clinton before him, will have to dissipate political capital in budgetary austerity and tax increases. Meanwhile, a just-released study of West Virginia suggests the Republicans have made things worse for the distressed latitudes of Red America. Bush promised to create 4,800 jobs in West Virgina; but, according to the study, prepared by the Center for American Progress, the state has lost 12,000 jobs, and the industries still hiring pay a third less than those shedding the jobs. Personal bankruptcies are at an "all-time high." A Bush-induced fiscal crisis bars the state from helping its people. While 92 percent of West Virginians will receive less than $100 from Bush's latest tax cut, the state, whose tax system is tied to the federal system, has had to cut child-care for low-income residents, Medicaid, and higher education—largely because of the shortfall in revenue created by Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. But if, as Frank argues, economic distress feeds cultural populism, hard times in West Virginia and across Red America may help Bush at the polls. In the late nineteenth-century rural poverty made radicals like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who urged farmers "to raise less corn and more hell." Now, in what Frank calls "one of the great reversals in American history," it makes Republicans.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/04/the-party-of-the-people/303179/