Media pundits regularly describe American politics in terms of a spectrum, from far right to far left. It’s time to recognize that this simplistic model has lost some of its explanatory value. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t adequately describe what is happening politically in the country.
Rather, I have been using the term political parabola. For those who are geometrically-impaired, a parabola looks like the cables on a suspension bridge or half of the McDonald’s golden arches. In the political parabola of American cultural politics, the right meets left politically. The ends of the so-called spectrum – right and left — are closer to each other than they are to the middle. This concept clarifies much current political discourse as well as the way working-class people are represented and are participating in the debates.
People on the political margins have a lot in common these days. For example, many Catholics are at once anti-war and anti-abortion. Here in Youngstown, our former Congressman and newly-released prisoner, James Traficant, is a cross between a West-Texas populist and a member of Posse Comitatas. Like many liberal commentators, he deploys class and cultural resentments over the economy, government bailouts, foreign policy and a myriad of social issues, often expressed in highly emotional terms.
Meanwhile, on the right, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are increasing their populist rhetoric as they decry the impact of high unemployment and economic crisis on the working class. O’Reilly goes in further in Who’s Looking Out for You? He begins by using economist Michael Zweig’s definition of the working class, according to which over 60% of US families are working class, and he goes on to claim that he, O’Reilly, is their best representative.
The result is a growing American style of populism that has a cross-class appeal and important political implications. As Frank Rich has suggested, “The recession-spawned anger that (Glenn) Beck has tapped into on the right could yet find a more mainstream outlet in populist revolt from the left and the center.”
Both Republicans and Democrats are aware of the growing politics of resentment on both ends of the parabola. It’s hard to determine just how deep this discontent runs, just as it is uncertain how it could influence voting patterns. At this point, both parties are trying to mobilize the discontent and influence current debates. But as many Democrats have faltered and caved to corporate interests on the health care debate and corporate bailouts, Republicans seem to be winning the battle for the populist hearts and minds. If nothing else, they’re making a lot more noise. Just look at this summer’s tea parties and town hall meetings.
But where does the working class fit in this emerging populism? While the protesters’ politics may seem conservative, their social class is not clear. Some liberal commentators can’t seem to figure out whether to dismiss them as privileged elites (or would-be elites) fighting to protect their own tax breaks or as working-class dupes who don’t understand their economic interests. Of course, no one asks about income, education, or occupation at these rallies, so it’s hard to know who’s really turning out.
Still, amid their high anxieties about Obama’s citizenship and socialist plots, they do have one thing right: neither the political debate nor media reports are paying enough attention to how the economic crisis is affecting ordinary Americans. A recent poll by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism indicates that economic news pays more attention to banking and finance, the auto crisis, and the stimulus package than to the impact of the economic down turn on housing, unemployment, and the lives of working Americans. To help improve reporting on the current economic crisis, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism has even initiated a new Nieman Watchdog project entitled “Reporting on the Collapse.”
Class confusion is nothing new in America, but given the current state of affairs, we need to keep in mind a few key points about working-class populism. One, the working class is diverse culturally, politically, and geographically. That means that the “working-class position” is always complex and contested. Second, the recession has added large numbers to the working class, as people who once thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class struggle to recover from the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement accounts. Consequently, any analysis that views the working class as dupes or no longer relevant economically or electorally may be short-sighted. Today’s working class is probably both larger and better educated than at any point in American history. Third, as unemployment grows, working-class populists may push even conservatives to view government spending more positively. We’ve seen this recently with conservative politicians in Texas who initially refused to accept stimulus funds but are fighting to make get their share of public support. Even conservatives know that hungry citizens can be dangerous.