Lessons from America

New Statesman (1996), August 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

Lessons from America


In this issue, on the eve of the Republican convention in New York, we publish (page 14) an extract from an important new book by the American radical writer Thomas Frank. He dissects the central puzzle of modern US politics: that the mass of ordinary Americans, on average and below-average incomes, vote for politicians who openly favour the rich--through reductions in taxes on high incomes, inheritance and capital gains, cuts in welfare benefits, and deregulation of industry and finance. The result is a country of quite staggering and growing inequalities, where the income (including stock options) of the typical chief executive is between 400 and 500 times that of the average worker. (In Britain, Europe's most unequal country, it is a mere 50 times greater.) There has been no trickle down. The poorest fifth of households have lower average incomes than they did in 1979. Yet it is not the rich who have put Republicans into power: barely half the Americans earning more than $100,000 a year voted for George W Bush in 2000.

How has this come about? And what are the implications for Britain and the British left? According to Mr Frank, the Republicans adopted the political approach of the left at the very moment the left abandoned it: they have turned themselves into class warriors, with a highly organised popular movement behind them. But the agenda is social and cultural, not economic. Millions of Americans have been convinced that an intellectual, liberal elite, mainly through its control of the media and professions such as teaching and medicine, has imposed abortion, homosexuality, pornography, divorce and promiscuity on the nation; given special privileges to minorities; and denigrated "traditional values" such as patriotism, sexual fidelity, gun ownership and general godliness. And just as the left once flourished with a set of aspirations that could never be realised (nationalisation of the means of production, for example), so now does the right. TV and films become ever coarser, gays more open, divorce more common. However, as Mr Frank writes, that suits US conservatives because their followers' feelings of powerlessness are dramatised and their alienation aggravated. "The goal is not to win cultural battles, but to take offence, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly."

Could it happen here? Religion counts for much less in Britain than it does in America, particularly among the majority white population. …

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