Magazine article The American Prospect

Starting November 3

Magazine article The American Prospect

Starting November 3

Article excerpt

The real work for progressives starts November 3, either fighting a newly unleashed George W. Bush or helping a sure-to-be besieged John Kerry. But to be effective, progressives must understand why the right has been so successful at shaping the national debate.

The conventional view sees the right's success as a reaction to the left's predominance during the 1960s and early '70s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a series of liberal Supreme Court decisions, urban riots, and court-ordered racial remedies all drove working- and middle-class whites rightward. Richard Nixon's "silent majority" became a vocal majority. A counter-establishment of think tanks, pressure groups, and media stars emerged. Ronald Reagan was a product of this movement; George W. is its most recent incarnation.

This view offers some comfort to Democrats because it suggests that the pendulum will swing back as the public wearies of the excesses of the right. It also holds that the only way Democrats can ever regain political dominance over the long term is by moving to the so-called center. But this view is historically incorrect. American politics remained quite moderate through the 1980s. Until 1994, Congress was mostly controlled by Democrats and still harbored some liberal Republicans. Even under Reagan, America continued to extend civil rights and social programs. Meanwhile, the main targets of conservative ire--high crime, illegitimate births--began to disappear.

In reality, the right-wing ascent is a more recent phenomenon, born of working-class anger and anxiety. The take-home pay of workers without college degrees--that is, the vast majority--has dropped steadily for 20 years. Health costs have skyrocketed. The shift of factory jobs to Latin America and China accelerated in the 1990s. Union membership imploded. Huge chain stores like Wal-Mart pulverized local retail businesses. Agribusiness drove tens of thousands of small farmers to ruin. Middle Americans who had anchored the nation's heartland with a faith in upward mobility have become disillusioned and resentful.

The right has deflected this anger toward cultural issues--abortion, guns, gay marriage--while encouraging a swaggering, "bring it on" patriotism. Right-wingers pose as angry populists protecting middle America from liberal snobs and know-it-all professionals inhabiting the cosmopolitan coasts. …

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