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What’s the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

By Thomas Frank

306 pp. $24


The outcome of last November’s election was a long time in the making. It is clear, in the easy wisdom of hindsight, that the Democratic Party’s descent into its present minority status began more than thirty-five years ago. Starting with Richard Nixon’s narrow capture of the White House in 1968, Republicans have won seven of ten presidential elections. (They had lost seven of the previous nine.) More significantly in terms of party standing, their marginal pickups in the House and Senate that year presaged their eventual emergence by the 1990s as the majority party in Congress. For those of us who grew up in a political America in which Democrats dominated Congress as a matter of course, it is stunning to note that Democrats are today numerically weaker in the House than they have been since the days of Harry Truman and in the Senate since before the Great Depression.

I cannot claim that I foresaw all this at the time. But there was a small moment that struck me then and that in retrospect grows in significance. It was a few days before the 1968 election, and the polls showed Hubert Humphrey trailing Nixon. Humphrey gave the kind of finishing speech that all Democratic candidates, especially those in trouble, had been giving since the days of Franklin Roosevelt: vote for the Republicans and you’re back to unemployment, bread lines, and general economic disaster. In its familiarity, the speech hardly registered with me. But the next morning I ran into a student at the university where I was teaching who was quite perplexed. He was basically of liberal persuasion, but as a child of the prosperous postwar era he was at a loss concerning Humphrey’s argument. “What was that stuff about Herbert Hoover all about?” he wondered.

That was for me a revelatory moment. For young people, at least, the Depression no longer mattered, and this had obvious implications for the long-term development of American politics. If memories of the 1930s would no longer determine political outcomes, what would? What we today call cultural issues were not so much at the forefront of political sensibility as they would later be, but Nixon strongly benefited from his “law and order” appeal. Liberals called it a code term for racism, but most Americans, appalled by urban riots and burgeoning crime rates, took it at face value and responded accordingly. That was a foretaste of politics to come. Indeed, foreign-policy issues for the moment aside, it is not too much to say that the Democrats’ current electoral dilemma boils down to this: their old economic issues no longer work, and on cultural issues they lose. That very large generalization requires extensive unpacking and elaboration.

We might begin by recasting policy differences in a more general context. It is commonly noted that in any argument the side that determines the terms of debate is already well on the road to victory. And the fact is that on all the big questions Republicans currently have the initiative and Democrats must do the best they can playing defense. For most of the middle to early-late years of the twentieth century, matters were reversed. On economic issues, the Republicans were the “me too” party: they would, in the aftermath of the New Deal, do all the good things the Democrats did, only more efficiently and less intrusively. Now, after Ronald Reagan rewrote the rules of political debate, it’s backwards: the Democrats find themselves promising to follow Republican market initiatives, only with more heart and less human cost. Liberals don’t like it, but they have learned to agree, rhetorically at least, with Bill Clinton’s famous declaration that “the era of big government is over.”

So also with cultural issues. The degree to which moral and cultural differences determined last November’s results is hotly debated, but everyone agrees that to the extent that they did matter, they overwhelmingly helped the Republicans. Liberals find it necessary to deny recurring suspicions that they are antinomians, moral relativists, and secularists set on removing religious values from the public square. Their discomfort with cultural issues is reflected in their protests that matters such as partial-birth abortion, school prayer, or same-sex marriage are not proper items for political debate; they are rather “wedge issues” that conservatives illegitimately bring into the public arena in order to divide the nation (read: in order to cost Democrats votes). A party whose response to a whole category of issues is to say, in effect, “we’d rather not talk about it,” is a party that has allowed the opposition to frame the terms of discussion.

The Democrats’ current political dilemma has hardly gone unnoticed. One influential, if controversial, take on it, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America , gained a lot of attention before the election, and its thesis has been widely referred to (if not always with proper attribution) since. As his subtitle indicates, Frank believes that what’s the matter with Kansas is what’s the matter with America. And what’s the matter with America (at least on domestic issues; he does not discuss foreign policy) is almost everything.

Frank’s thesis is that all across the nation”especially in the so-called red states”millions of impoverished or relatively impoverished Americans are voting and acting contrary to their genuine interests. They are unhappy with developments in America, but rather than direct their anger against the corporate economic powers that are doing them dirt, they have instead been diverted to conservative cultural issues”race, crime, moral decay, homosexuality, guns, abortion, feminism, anti-Americanism, and on into infinity”that are largely irrelevant to their lives. Worse, in allying themselves with conservative interests, people at and near the bottom wind up supporting economic causes”privatization, low taxes, deregulation”that objectively do them harm.

No one can say that in presenting his endlessly repeated thesis, Frank is guilty of excessive subtlety. American politics, in his view, has gone beyond the irrational to the demented: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.”

Out of this “derangement,” Frank says, has come a “Great Backlash,” a movement of self-deluded conservative populism that in the end “may well repeal the entire twentieth century.” Frank offers a description of his home state and its politics that, applied to the nation, is apparently meant to terrify us all.

In its implacable bitterness Kansas holds up a mirror to the rest of us. If this is the place where America goes looking for its national soul, then this is where America finds that its soul, after stewing in the primal resentment of the backlash, has gone all sour and wrong. If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then here is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face . . . and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic.

Lurking behind this politics of insanity, in Frank’s view, are the coldly rational forces of corporate capitalism. The capitalists aren’t crazy, just malign. Capitalism itself, Frank says, is “borderline criminality.” It is also an entirely zero-sum operation in which the unjustified wealth of the few comes at the expense of the many. In Kansas”and so elsewhere across the country”the depredations of the system are such that the cities are in irretrievable trouble and the towns and rural areas “pretty much in free fall.” When the author is in full rhetorical overdrive, his readers might suppose that things haven’t changed all that much since John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath . (Frank does not burden his argument with empirical data. His evidence for his sweeping economic generalizations ranges from the impressionistic to the nonexistent. In fact, a number of critics have charged that his economic analysis of Kansas is flat wrong.) The author’s view of capitalism and its effects, all in all, is about as nuanced as the village atheist’s view of Christianity.

Politics in America, in Frank’s analysis, used to be”and still ought to be”the way the Populists of the 1890s and progressive interests up into the 1960s imagined it: the liberal masses”workers, farmers, and all but the cream of the middle class”arrayed against the conservative economic elites. But now, Frank complains, things have been turned upside down. Conservative analysts have successfully sold a conspiratorial version of politics founded on “the systematic erasure of the economic.” In this view, existing economic arrangements”those of the minimally regulated free market”are not to be debated but simply accepted as the givens they presumably are, established by nature and sanctified by providence. (An earlier book by Frank bore the title One Market Under God .)

With economics eliminated, Frank argues, politics becomes a struggle over culture, and elites and masses are redefined accordingly. In peddling their bogus worldview, the conservatives claim that a New Class of liberal cultural aristocrats”concentrated in the universities, the mainstream media, the entertainment world, and political and judicial bureaucracies”exercises intellectual hegemony over the masses of ordinary Americans who have watched, bewildered and dismayed, as their conservative moral values have been systematically ridiculed and traduced. John Dos Passos famously wrote of America as “two nations” of rich vs. poor; in the new version those two nations are made up of blue-state modernists vs. red-state traditionalists.

For Frank, the idea of “New Class” cultural domination fails on several counts. The notion of a liberal elite commanding the intellectual heights is false in itself (a proposition he apparently thinks so self-evident as to require no serious argument in its support). In any case, the emphasis on culture obscures the continuing essential reality of business domination over American life. The politics of culture is a politics where class animus has been led wildly astray.

Even in those rare instances where the cultural argument holds a modicum of validity, it cannot be separated from the corruptions of corporate America. Yes, Frank concedes, there is a good deal of vulgarity in our popular culture, but that is the product of an unholy alliance, securely rooted in the pursuit of profit, between the business culture and the counterculture. In general, the cynical leaders of the backlash”as distinguished from the true believers at the grass roots who really do care about issues like abortion, religion, homosexual marriage, and the rest”are often moderate cultural modernists themselves, but they are perfectly happy to reap the benefits that accrue to them from red-state Americans losing sight of the material issues that ought to dominate their political imaginations.

Backlash leaders are in fact doubly cynical. They can, in Frank’s telling, indulge the cultural fantasies of conservatives because they know in practice they will never have to deliver on the promises of change they make. Fighters of the culture wars always lose. (“Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”) Once the elections are over, manipulators of the backlash bury the cultural issues while exploiting the economic rewards their conservative victories have generated. As Frank inelegantly puts it, “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate.”

But if it is cynics and opportunists on the right who are mostly accountable for the “landscape of distortion [and] paranoia” that is backlash country in America, Frank does not spare presumed liberals in his account of what has gone wrong. Indeed, he devotes most of his last chapter to an indictment of Democratic policies in the 1990s (the Democratic Leadership Council’s studied moderation; Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” between the Democratic left and Republican right) for the catastrophic derailment of populism from economics to culture.

In their seemingly clever device of moving to the center”which meant in practice disavowing a fundamental critique of American capitalism’s deficiencies”the Clintonite Democrats were guilty of the “purest folly.” Their “criminally stupid strategy” of removing central economic distinctions from the table has made them easy prey for their enemies: “[B]y dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns.”

Frank’s prescription for liberal Democratic revival follows from his analysis. The Democrats must repudiate their decision to reconstitute themselves as “the other pro-business party” and become again the “party of Roosevelt,” taking up the class issues and rhetoric that FDR wielded to forge a long-term political majority. A return to class-based economic conflict is the necessary alternative to a politics of culture in which liberals will perpetually wind up as losers.

The Democrats’ present failure stems from their presumption that on economic issues they win by default, that non-wealthy voters know their own material interests”those historically opposed or left unaddressed by Republicans”and do not require instruction or reminding as to which party is on their side. In this view, liberals need not risk alienating affluent moderates by employing class-war language to attract those whose votes they already have.

Against this strategy Frank argues (oddly, one would think, for a self-proclaimed populist) that people don’t necessarily know their own interests. The folk, it turns out, are, and have been for some time, rather easily gulled. They need to be taught to recognize their true concerns. And in this Democrats have failed. They must now reintroduce the masses (Frank is vague as to what specific categories of Americans he is addressing) to the realities of class division in the nation and must mobilize them accordingly.

Democrats have to relearn, Frank says, the lessons of organization and movement-building that marked liberalism’s long-term development towards fulfillment in the New Deal. Politics is based in solidarity. Frank notes specifically the effect of union membership on voting behavior. With other demographic variables held constant, being a member of a union makes a person more likely to vote Democratic. Union voters, he argues, keep their eyes on economic interests and are less likely than their nonunion counterparts to get caught up in cultural backlash issues. Union membership, of course, has declined significantly over the past half century, from 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s to 12.9 percent today. Frank appears to attribute that decline mainly to the “union-busting” activities of the right, but he also notes that it has gone “largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate its fealty to corporate America.”

That concluding cheap shot at moderate Democrats is typical of Frank’s approach. The concept of sincere error is largely foreign to him. Contemporary conservatives and liberals alike are not just mistaken in their understanding of politics; they are for the most part venal sellouts for whom hypocrisy and mendacity are second nature.

Not so, to be sure, with the deluded folk. Their problem is not venality but, well, a certain form of stupidity. They are apparently just too dumb not to be taken in by the “hallucinatory appeal” of backlash cultural issues. Frank, one assumes, would quarrel with this way of putting his argument, but he offers no alternative explanation for how millions of middle Americans are so blind to their real interests and so self-destructive in their political behavior. The backlash, in his own words, “is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.” Or consider the typically ripe rhetorical flourish with which he concludes his book: “Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.”

Frank is led to this bizarre binary view of contemporary American politics”people are either knaves or fools”by his insistent (if entirely unexamined) assumption that the only rational politics is a material politics. Voters who place cultural or moral concerns above economic self-interest are obviously beset by a form of false consciousness (Frank never uses the term, but his analysis presupposes it).

One wonders, however, if he fully subscribes to the vulgar leftism his argument suggests. What does he make, for example, of all those wealthy liberals who voted for John Kerry and who contributed generously to his campaign even though Kerry made clear that he would repeal the tax cuts that George W. Bush pushed through in their favor? Were they, too, guilty of political irrationality? Such rhetorical questions answer themselves. When American Jews”the wealthiest ethnic group in the nation”voted overwhelmingly last November, as they regularly do, for the Democratic candidate, they were not voting in ignorance of their own interests. They were voting for what they saw as a particular Jewish concern”social justice”that rightly trumps economic self-interest. One might argue with their angle of vision, as a number of my conservative Jewish friends do, but no one would label it, as Frank describes the Republican votes of the less well-off, a “species of derangement.”

It is fair enough to question the true significance to the lives of ordinary Americans of some items in Frank’s litany of backlash issues. But consider the three that regularly come to the fore: the role of religion in public life, gay marriage, and abortion. It is not irrational or irrelevant to consider the elimination of public acknowledgment of religion a likely contribution to the loss of moral seriousness in our civic life. It is not irrational or irrelevant to view with grave concern a redefinition of marriage that would overturn the practice of millennia. And it is certainly not irrational or irrelevant to insist on that most basic of civilizational requirements: the protection of innocent human life.

Frank’s economic analysis is similarly subject to fundamental question. He expatiates at some length on the need for Democrats to take up FDR’s successful class-based politics without once finding it necessary to refer to the Great Depression, an event without which that politics would have been entirely quixotic, indeed quite unimaginable. Frank’s is a politics without context. Recollection of Roosevelt’s attacks on the “economic royalists” may provoke nostalgia on the left for the heroic struggles of yore, but employed in today’s very different economic situation such attacks would meet among most Americans blank incomprehension.

All this may seem indulgence in analytical overkill. Thomas Frank kindles enthusiasm in the most leftward ranks of Democrats, but he hardly represents the party’s vital center. He is to liberalism, one might say, what someone like Ann Coulter (a figure he regularly invokes) is to conservatism.

Yet he cannot simply be dismissed. The positions he takes are extremely put, but many Democrats assent to his essential view that the culture wars represent a distraction from political reality and pose a threat not simply to their party’s interests but to the political health of the nation. Few liberals would go as far as he in his denunciations of capitalism”what other game, after all, is there in town?”but they resonate to his criticism of the greed and excessive influence in politics of corporate interests. To put matters fancifully, their ids are with Frank even when their egos tell them otherwise.

From the fanciful to the immediate: Why did the Democrats lose in 2004 and what can they do to turn things around? On the latter point, perhaps the most telling comment is that attributed to former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder in response to the string of Republican presidential victories in the 1980s: “There are three things Democrats must do to recapture the White House. Unfortunately, we don’t know what any of them are.”

As to what happened in November, it appears that the prevailing opinion is that John Kerry lost what should have been a winnable race. If only, one hears over and over from Democrats, he had articulated a stronger, clearer, more compelling message, then things would have turned out differently. That view seems to me to underestimate the party’s problems. To begin with, the Democrats have become the minority party not just in presidential terms but at virtually every level of electoral competition, federal, state, and local. Whatever Kerry’s inadequacies (and what alternative candidate, one wonders, would have performed better?), he can hardly be blamed for so encompassing a political rejection”one, moreover, that has been building for a very long time.

Kerry did, to be sure, have a message problem, but that problem was and is not just his, but his whole party’s. To sum up in a phrase: the Democrats are a center-left party in a center-right nation. They stumble over their message because if they clearly say what they most deeply believe it gets them in political trouble. Consider the contrast with their opponents. Republicans are conservatives who are proud to say so and who do not fear that saying so will hurt them. Democrats are liberals who, in a correct analysis of their political situation, assiduously avoid using the word that most commonly describes them. Their label discomfits them and their positions give them an edgy relation with the majority of voters.

Take, to begin with, their views (necessarily presented here only in outline form) on a subject we have not previously considered: foreign and military policy. Kerry tripped all over himself in this area during the campaign, but he did so mainly because of the internal exigencies of Democratic politics. He faced the near-impossible task of mobilizing the intense antiwar sentiments of much of his party without reinforcing the general perception that Democrats are insufficiently hawkish. Democrats, it is widely thought, are instinctive doves who are entirely comfortable only with those exercises of American power (as in Kosovo) where humanitarian impulses, rather than defense of the national interest, are the primary imperative.

To counter that impression, Kerry talked tough on terrorism and moderated his opposition to the war in Iraq by insisting that, however wrong we were to go there, we would now have to stay the course. That fully satisfied neither hawks nor doves. Neither did the candidate’s recurring insistence that he would, without reservation, act on what is right for America and yet at the same time restore to the center of American policy maintenance of close relations with presumed allies”France, Germany, and Russia”whose desire to cooperate with American interests is less than obvious. There was a coherent argument to be made that opposition to the war in Iraq is not inconsistent with a vigorous defense of American interests, but the Democrats’ uncertain history on national security since Vietnam hurt their credibility. (Kerry’s record on national security as a Senator and his overheated testimony on Vietnam to a Senate committee as a young veteran were emblematic here.)

On the economic issues we have already glanced at, the Democratic situation is more ambiguous. Frank suggests”and he is far from alone in this”that the party’s success depends on reaffirming its traditional identity as the agent of “equality and economic security.” He and those who agree with him are half right, or almost so. Economic security is indeed important to Americans and they tend to prefer Democrats on the issue, as polling results on items such as health care and social security regularly confirm.

Yet, in one of the not infrequent contradictions of American politics, voters combine their concern for economic security”and their reliance on the state to guarantee it”with an intense generalized distrust of, and opposition to, big government. Lyndon Johnson’s overly ambitious Great Society program, especially its failed War on Poverty, did much to diminish the faith in government that FDR’s New Deal had generated. That faith has never fully been revived.

As for economic equality, that is an issue that appears to generate more concern among the party’s liberal intellectual elite than among its rank-and-file. The historical record is consistent: ordinary Americans insist on equality of opportunity; they are, at most, indifferent to equality of result. They harbor sporadic populist resentments against the rich (and so respond favorably to moderate doses of business-bashing), but they want less to level the orders above them than to join them. As the absence”unparalleled in the Western experience”of a significant socialist party indicates, Americans care about economic growth, not redistribution. Democrats can win when they focus on ensuring prosperity for all, but not when they emphasize by how much the poor trail the wealthy.

It is cultural issues that most divide the nation”and that most put Democrats at a disadvantage. Americans can (more or less) find common ground on economics and foreign policy, but, on cultural matters, they are radically at odds with one another. The differences in their realms of moral understanding go so deep as to make communication difficult. Their mutual incomprehension produces stereotypes of the other that range from the oversimplified to the truly vicious.

At its deepest level, this is a war of religion. Secularists vote heavily Democratic; those most regular in their religious observance vote disproportionately Republican. But that, as liberals point out, distorts the issue. Most secularists are Democrats, but most Democrats are not secularists. America is a religious nation, and our differences are not so much of religion vs. irreligion as they are of divergent understandings of what our religious commitments require of us politically. That is a complicated matter that defies easy summary, but it is a serviceable generalization that here, as in the culture at large, we pit liberal, mostly Democratic, modernists against conservative, mostly Republican, traditionalists.

These religious and moral differences play out in critical political controversies. Everyone agrees that Supreme Court appointments will be the most controverted issue of President Bush’s second term. That is because those appointments may well determine the outcome of everything from abortion to affirmative action to gay rights to religion in public life. (Experts on both sides present sophisticated jurisprudential arguments in defense of their positions, but most people look more to congenial outcomes than to consistent principles of law.)

These are the issues that try Democrats’ souls. In each case (abortion most complicatedly) their instincts lead them to the politically unpopular position. Artful finessing by artful candidates can go only so far: Democrats must sooner or later choose between principle and prudence. As with the culture, so, if less obviously, with politics in general. Today liberalism is not, as it was for so long, America’s default political position, and that transformation”effected so gradually that many people have missed it”means that Democrats are no longer the nation’s natural political majority.

We can perhaps understand most clearly what has happened by focusing not on the demographic data that map the Democrats’ decline but on the struggle over ideas that illuminates the Republicans’ ascendancy. The GOP has gained the political initiative by managing to identify itself as what one might call the party of American exceptionalism.

Republicans are by and large (all that follows is “by and large” and admittedly oversimplified) unselfconsciously patriotic. They assume without question that America is a force for good in the world, and it does not much bother them that the “international community” (including certain putative allies) often thinks otherwise. They don’t want out of the United Nations, but neither do they take it very seriously. Pursuit of the national interest seems to them a self-evident imperative of foreign policy. They favor a strong defense, and although they prefer that military conflict be avoided, they are not, on principle, antiwar. And when war does become necessary, they think it should be fought vigorously and that it should end in overwhelming victory. They are nervous about the idea of empire and do not think the United States is one. About wars of choice (including Iraq and, earlier, Vietnam) they are uneasy but tend, once war begins, to rally round the flag.

In economic matters, Republicans assume all of the following. People should take primary responsibility for their own well-being. In making it or not, it is individuals who most matter, not the system. Individualism is a good thing and the ambition for improvement of one’s condition that follows from it is to be encouraged. Competition contributes to human flourishing. Dependence on welfare is never good in theory but is sometimes required, if only for brief periods, in practice. In the trade-off between freedom and equality, freedom has priority. The free market is the norm, though occasionally it needs modest regulation. Provision for economic security is a necessary function of modern government, but it is not government’s chief end and should be kept within careful limits. In general, the nanny state cannot be done away with but must always be regarded with suspicion.

In moral/cultural/religious affairs, Republicans are unapologetically conventional. They want God in public life and are pleased, rather than embarrassed, when politicians end their speeches with “God bless America.” They are mostly Christians and the churches they attend are unlikely to substitute the social gospel for orthodox Christianity. The use of racial preferences, white or black, seems to them a denial of the American Dream of equal opportunity without regard to irrelevant personal characteristics. Most of them view abortion the way Lincoln viewed slavery: it should be severely restricted on the way (extreme cases aside) to its ultimate extinction. They are instinctively opposed to same-sex marriage though they don’t like talking about it and are not good at articulating their arguments against it. They are worried about moral decline, but are at the same time optimistic about the nation’s future”which makes them odd conservatives but prototypical Americans.

If their identification with American exceptionalism”whatever one thinks of the merits of the position”has worked to the Republicans’ benefit, where does that leave Democrats? In trouble, one would think, but not irretrievably so. To begin with, more Americans than ever go to college, and college students are taught by their overwhelmingly liberal professors to consider American exceptionalism a provincial embarrassment. That may, over time, catch up with Republicans.

More broadly, the center-left/center-right electoral division that currently works to the Democrats’ disadvantage is a relatively narrow one that leaves most particular elections up for grabs. Americans are more ideological than they used to be, but most of them are not so much in the grip of ideology as to be unbudgeable in their political preferences. Particular candidates and issues make a big difference. Republicans should be relieved, for example, that the Twenty-Second Amendment prevents Bill Clinton from running for president again, and it is always possible that Republicans currently in power will fall victim to hubris, incompetence, or simple bad luck. Finally, the drift to the right of American politics since the late 1960s is not an irreversible law of history.

Still, as things now stand, Democrats go into national elections, and the majority of elections elsewhere, as presumptive underdogs. For that to change, they might well have recourse to Thomas Frank”not as a source of political wisdom but as a near-infallible source of error. His fundamental thesis turns out to be wrong: America’s poor and relatively poor are not in fact voting, whether rationally or irrationally, for Republicans. According to exit polls from last November, a majority of those whose incomes are less than fifty thousand dollars per year preferred Kerry to Bush. It seems that Frank wasted a book explaining something that needs no explaining because it is not true. It’s not that the poor don’t vote for Democrats”it’s that there aren’t enough poor to allow Democrats to win.

Democrats go wrong not because they have forgotten the lessons of FDR and the New Deal, but because they have not sufficiently put those lessons behind them. Ours is the least class-ridden society in the Western world. The political economy of the 1930s is not America’s historical paradigm; it is its great exception. Democrats, of course, are not entirely ignorant of that. They now address themselves to middle-class interests, but their middle class is still a working class that simply has a few more dollars in its pocket. They have not fully learned the lesson of exceptionalism: that America is the quintessential bourgeois society. We are, for better and worse, middle class and middlebrow right down to our bones. And their failure to see that is what’s the matter with the Democrats.

James Nuechterlein is former Editor of First Things and a Senior Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life .