Last week, Michelle Goldberg wrote a smart and provocative blog post that didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved. In it, she argues that conservatives may be giving up the ghost, and abandoning the pseudo-populist brand of conservatism that, for decades, has been their mainstay, in favor of a more open elitism.
Goldberg takes as her main piece of evidence a new book by antifeminist activist Charlotte Hays called When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. In the book, Hays mocks working class people for allegedly being fat, lazy, and poorly dressed. Oh, and she also apparently thinks poor folks who have diabetes are hee-larious. Classy!
Hay’s book has been well-reviewed by her fellow conservatives — and her book is hardly the only evidence of right-wing anti-populism out there. Charles Murray, so often a pioneering figure in making vile politics respectable, got there first with his book on “the state of white America” from a few years back. There’s also the popularity Fox News effete-snob-in-residence Stuart Varney. It’s notable, too, that to-the-manner-born Mitt Romney didn’t even try to orchestrate any of the fake populist media stunts — think George H.W. Bush with the pork rinds — that previous G.O.P. presidential candidates were sure to pull.
For decades now, Republican populism has been a vital component to the Republicans’ electoral success. Richard Nixon, who in his Checkers speakers famously alluded to his wife’s “Republican cloth coat,” was a master at it. So was Ronald Reagan, with his cowboy shtick, Bush I with the aforementioned pork rinds, and Bush II with his Texas twang and his dropped g’s. The Republican party finally began to dominate when it learned to cultivate a populist image and to appeal to the cultural populism of backlash politics. Once the G.O.P. perfected that formula, it was able to persuade millions of working class and middle class Americans to happily vote against their economic interests .
However, that change in political affiliation was a long time coming. Frustrated conservatives had been trying for many years to undo the New Deal, to no avail. I once conducted a research project that involved digging deep into propaganda produced by the American Liberty League The Liberty League was a group funded by wealthy wingnuts to defeat FDR and the New Deal. As I read through their pamphlets, I immediately sensed that there was something about them that was very different, rhetorically and polemically, from their modern equivalent. It wasn’t long before I figured it out. The difference is this: the most effective modern propaganda for the right is always populist in nature, and is pitched toward the interests of ordinary workers and taxpayers. The Liberty League stuff I was reading, however, notably lacked the common touch.
IIRC — and it’s been a while since I read them — their materials sounded like they were written by and for the bosses rather than the workers. The arguments were all about how New Deal programs supposedly hurt businesses. Or they were abstract arguments about “freedom” and “socialism.” But nothing I read showed any engagement or identification with working people or their concerns. It was no wonder why the Liberty League failed. FDR gleefully used the League as a punching bag. Following the 1936 elections, the group went into rapid decline, and by 1940 it had disbanded entirely.
It would not be until many years later that conservatives learned the trick of appealing to voters’ populist instincts. The story of how they did it is told in a number of interesting books, such as this one.
But back to the present. It’s hard to tell if what Goldberg is observing is a long-term trend or a momentary blip. But if the conservative movement does indeed turn its back on populism, it’s hard to see what else is has to offer its white working- and middle-class voters — other than the racism, of course. I suppose some white working class voters might look at a book like Hays’ and think, “Of course it’s not me she’s talking about — it’s those other trashy people. I’m different.” But insulting increasingly large swathes of the electorate doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.
In America, we of course have a two-party system, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a political party die. But occasionally, it’s happened. The Federalist Party, for example, disappeared practically overnight. It basically committed suicide during its Hartford Convention of 1814-15, when the party denounced the War of 1812. Unbeknownst to them — news traveled slowly in those days — the Battle of New Orleans had occurred and the war had already been won. Oops! The Federalists were denounced as traitors, and from that moment on ceased to exist as a force in national politics.
Of course, if the Federalists had had the benefit of modern technology, they would have acted differently. And it’s hard to imagine the Republicans giving up the pseudo-populism that their base — white Southern evangelicals, many of whom are working class and lower middle class — has found so appealing. But conservatives have been acting in remarkably stupid ways lately — see here and here. I’d say all bets are off.