No, Tom Frank, NAFTA Did Not Create the Christian Right

At his recently established perch of Salon, the ever-entertaining Tom Frank leaped into an argument between data-oriented journalists (and political scientists) and the Game-Changey sort to accuse the former–and indeed, “experts” or social scientists generally–of causing the Vietnam War, de-industrialization, and the corporate enslavement of America.

Frank didn’t put it exactly that way, but he’s apparently been harboring a grievance against “experts” or “expert”-reliant journalists for their promotion of what people of Frank’s viewpoint call The Washington Consensus, and/or for their hostility towards or indifference to his own idee fixee: that the substantive and political abandonment of the economic grievances of the white working class by Democrats led workers to embrace cultural conservatism as the only anti-elite “populism” on the table. He never exactly says NAFTA created the Christian Right, but that’s the basic idea, first expressed in his classic book What’s the Matter With Kansas.

And so it’s not surprising Frank’s point of entry to the obscure argument between Ezra Klein and (implicitly) the staff of Politico over data-based journalism versus shoe-leather-and-interviews was actually a piece by The Upshot‘s Nate Cohn arguing that for structural reasons Democrats have no chance at retaking the U.S. House any time real soon. This violated a Frankian tenet of central importance to him:

Isn’t there a way for Democrats to beat them regardless of the geographic hurdles? According to Cohn, not really. Either Democrats have to appeal to lost voters (like “the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia”) by moving rightward, or they will have to “wait for demographic and generational change” to win the seats for them. And maybe that makes sense, given the assumptions of the lame school of political science that D.C. types always gravitate to—the kind in which there are but two poles in political life and politicians of the left party can only win if they move rightward.

It is this kind of strikingly unoriginal thinking, which I am sure is shared by the blue team’s high command, that explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall.

Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.

I’m open and even sympathetic towards arguments that Clinton’s New Democrat heresies cost Democrats some votes in 1994. But it hadn’t occurred to me until now that anybody blamed NAFTA or the 1993 Clinton budget for the entire late twentieth century realignment that made Republicans once again capable of carrying the House. I mean, there was this little matter of the Civil Rights Act and the racial politics of the South, right? And I do believe Republicans did reasonably well in presidential elections prior to Bill Clinton, didn’t they?

I try not to psychoanalyze people I don’t actually know (I met Frank once when we were both on NPR, and found him to be delightful personally), but from his own accounts he grew up in a tony suburb of Kansas City and was shocked when working-class folk in his state suddenly began espousing culturally conservative views. Well, I grew up in the South where these views had been part of the landscape for many generations. Far from being associated with a lapse in left-wing economic “populism,” right-wing cultural populism was generally part of the same package. Indeed, you could argue that the southern brand of “economic populism” was itself reactionary in spirit, and part of a pre-capitalist nostalgia for antebellum feudalism (one of Frank’s idols, Georgia’s Tom Watson, was drew his entire inspiration by the antebellum pols Robert Toombs and Alexander Stevens). And in much of the South “de-industrialization” wasn’t the problem so much as an absence of industrialization to begin with. In any event, the kind of cultural conservatism Frank associates with Clinton’s stab-in-the-back of the working class had its most recent renaissance long before then in its southern heartland.

And while I’d argue Frank misunderstands some parts of the past, it’s nothing compared to his illusions about the present:

[A] data-minded commentator like Nate Cohn is able to look out over the blasted moonscape of Appalachia and conclude that a party of the left has nothing it might conceivably offer the people there. If Democrats wish to win back the seats that Republicans have taken away from them in such stricken areas, the Dems must either become more conservative themselves or sit audaciously on their butts for a couple of decades while some new generation is born and grows up to populate the boarded-up towns and collapsing houses of the deindustrialized hinterland. Those are the only choices.

Frank, of course, thinks economic populism (and by that I am reasonably sure he does not mean “son-of-a-millworker” rhetoric but a serious Naderish anti-capitalist-and-globalization message and agenda) would bring Appalachia and the less booming areas of the Deep South back around to the Donkey Party. Makes you wonder, of course, why nobody–and I do mean nobody–has ever tried it in a predominantly white jurisdiction in such places. Is it because Nate Cohn or some political scientist or the DCCC has told them it won’t work? Has the Washington Consensus kept some self-funding pol from trying it? Is the corporate conspiracy so strong that it’s built an invisible wall against the obvious route to victory no one would breach?

I find this powerful belief in a counter-factual political history bizarre. If there was any reason to think that coming out for the Lord Satan would win someone a congressional seat, it would be tried by somebody somewhere. The lack of interest by pols in the red states he’s talking about in doing what Tom Frank wants them to do is enough for me to conclude he’s been barking up the wrong tree for a long time. But as libertarians and Trotskyists have long demonstrated, the great thing about embracing a completely counter-factual take on history is that it’s hard to disprove.

But it can also be a source of misplaced anger, as Jonathan Chait notes in his take on Frank’s latest essay:

At the end of his rant, Frank almost seems to concede that his problem with political science is that it leads to conclusions he finds inconvenient. “The fatalism here may be science-driven,” he concedes, “but still it boggles the mind.” Let that phrase roll around in your head for a moment. Frank has just told you everything you need to know here.

Maybe so, but the guy really can write.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.