Are Corporations Trying to Distract Us with Social Issues While They Take Control of Our Economy?
I was having breakfast with a friend in North Carolina the day after that state voted against gay marriage, and after Barack Obama said on television that he now supported it. My friend knew I had supported the cause for a long time, so he asked me what I thought of Obama’s comments. I said "I think he’ll be tacking to the right economically once he’s re-elected."
I was right, but not because I have any special predictive gifts. History had provided the background for Obama’s changed views while Republicans had pioneered his tactics.
One key to Obama’s “evolution” can be found in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? In it, a frustrated Frank argued that conservatives had persuaded heartland Americans to vote against their own interests by using social issues like gay marriage and abortion. His arguments resonated with a lot of liberals. Many of my friends expressed anger, frustration, and even contempt for the way “values voters” (as Republicans called them) repeatedly undermined their own economic needs in the voting booth.
Is it their turn? Politicians are winning liberal hearts and minds on social issues, while at the same time embracing a corporate political agenda based on ever-greater wealth for the few and increasing austerity for the many.
Let’s be clear: The term “social issues” is not used dismissively. These are human rights issues which speak to our core values of personal freedom and social justice. But are these just causes being exploited by corporate-backed politicians?
The answer seems to be yes.
Politicians in the “liberal Kansas” school are increasingly outspoken on issues like reproductive choice and gay marriage, while at the same time continuing to promote their corporate economic agenda. Many, if not most, of them are so-called "centrist" Democrats from the Bill Clinton wing of the party. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican, is also a prominent member of the “personally liberal, economically conservative” clique.
They’re not alone. I’ve known more than a few corporate leaders and Wall Street executives, and most of them were quite liberal on social issues too. It makes sense, when you think about it. When your goal is money, you’re not likely to care what people do with their bodies – as long you get their wallets.
That’s the “liberal Kansas” strategy in a nutshell.
Frank considered the “Kansas” phenomenon a liberal political failure, and he was certainly right about that. He also derided the centrist Democrats as “criminally stupid” for “pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues.”
That’s also correct, if the Democratic Party ever wants to win consistently and build a working majority. But it’s beginning to look as if, at least where its base is concerned, the Democratic “Kansas” strategy is working. It seems that most of party’s rank and file is happy to let this rightward economic shift continue, as long as its leaders say the right things about social issues.
Democrats campaigned on populist themes in 2012 campaign. But as soon as the election was over the party’s leaders returned to what Frank described in 2004 as “endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it.”
Since his re-election, Barack Obama has proposed to cut Social Security, echoed the deficit hysteria of the right, continued to negotiate NAFTA-like trade deals in secret (hidden from Congress and the public but available to 600 “corporate advisors”), and continued to privatize the military/national security state. (He has also pursued the most aggressive anti-whistleblower presidential campaign in American history.)