I’ve been thinking a lot about Frank’s Kansas book. Mostly I’ve been thinking that he did an excellent job of describing the situation, but wasn’t as conclusive as I would have liked about the why of his thesis. Why do so many lower income Americans vote against their economic interests and vote Republican? Because of class, Frank argues. Because there persists in this country a class resentment against the ‘educated Eastern elite’ — a kind of reverse snobbery that (to my ears) sounds vaguely anti-Semitic. There is, in fact, a kind of basic disregard for economics in this country — at least, a disregard for economics outside the vague attitude of ‘the responsible thing is to balance the budget’ on the one hand, and the monthly gauntlet of paying the bills on the other. It’s not as if the two things are unrelated. But we can’t seem to connect them in our minds, or with our votes.
Maybe it’s because the numbers are so big that they’re unreal. Who can tell me how GNP and trillion-dollar deficits translates into whether I should buy that new snow-blower or switch to that bisaver program with my home mortgage? Or maybe it’s that the Cold War and anti-Red witch hunt of the 50s has permanently scarred all conversation about the politics of economics. Who has how much and is it ok?
Class goes beyond income level of course. But how far beyond? Why is it, for example, that once follks reach a certain tax bracket, their taste in food and clothes and art&music and material possessions starts to look suspiciously like other folks’ in the same bracket, regardless of political leaning, race, upbringing, etc? How did my paycheck launch me into this cultural demographic? Where is my beautiful home? My beautiful car? My god, what have I done?
And why is class so hard to talk about? The St Paul Bar Tour, which had high hopes of prolific, bar-inspired writing output, was stymied when it came to class. We entered bar after bar and at each one, we knew something was different. And it wasn’t the price of beer. It was class. And we agreed at one point on the tour. Class: it’s so important, but we’re afraid to talk about it. Because it touches so many of the things that are painful in America: race and poverty and education and conflict conflict conflict. Stereotypes. Isms of all kinds.
So why is it that a 100 years ago, socialism and all kinds of progressive political thinking was so rampant amongst the lower-income people of this country: laborers and farmers and factory workers and so on. The DFL — Democratic-Farmer-Labor — party here in Minnesota is a great example. This is the local incarnation of the Democratic party, but it’s the union (puns always intended) of three different political threads in this state.
We had a war (WW1) and a Depression (which gave us Social Security, the greatest of all progressive initiatives) and another war (WW2) and then economics seems to disappear from the acceptable American political palette. Or at least, the acceptable palette for lower-income Americans. What happened? Where does the logic come from, that the correct response to the moral turpitude and injustice of the world is lowering taxes?
Frank describes some of what happened in his book. But I left feeling unsatisfied — I think mostly because it felt like his accurate descriptions didn’t ultimately offer an explanation for the greater mystery: what happened to economics?
My latest crusade has been that the revolution starts in the kitchen. Home economics. Where you buy your food, and what you do with what you can’t eat. So why is that idea so revolutionary?
There’s a thread in Frank’s book where he writes about the red/blue state split, and how folks in the red states boast that they know how to roof their own homes, etc. But we all, regardless of state color, shop at Walmart or Target or wherever the local megastore is in your community. It’s as if we have forgotten the most basic home economics lessons: where do we spend our money? Where does it go after we spend it?
So I’ve been thinking that one of the major cultural shifts in America in the last 50 years has been the rise of credit spending. That is, buying on credit. I’ll have to do more research; was credit spending so rampant earlier in our history? I can’t imagine it was. But now we have a whole society built around spending money we don’t yet have. It’s like Sulivan’s line: “the poor are rich with all they do not yet possess.”
So I wonder if in this direction lies the answer to Frank’s central question. We vote against our economic interest because we just don’t think about economics past our own doorsteps. We vote against our economic interest because we don’t stop to consider what our economic interest truly is.
I’m thinking this minute of those stories you hear about folks so poor they can’t clothe or feed themselves properly — but they own a television set. Dulled by ubiquitous entertainment and lulled into political slumber by the ease of my credit cards. America: land of lotus eaters, lulled by visions of Visa vistas.