Why Don't They Listen to Us?

While the intensity of political polarization that grips the nation today is relatively new, America has been drifting to the right for decades. Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, only three Democrats have occupied the White House, and of those, Bill Clinton alone survived for more than a single term. Although poll data show that most voters think the Democrats are better on such central issues as the economy, jobs, health care, and education, they continue to return Republicans to power. Republicans now occupy the governors' mansions in twenty-eight states and own both the House and Senate, where leadership has been increasingly drawn from the radical right.

With the untimely death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, we lost the most consistently progressive voice in either house of the United States Congress. If our ideas and our politics have been in the service of those less advantaged, as we believe so passionately, why have we had such a hard time making ourselves heard in ways that count? How did our voice--the voice of economic opportunity, the voice that speaks of justice in education, jobs, health care, and taxation--find so little resonance with the very Americans for whom we claim to speak?

In his intriguing book What's the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank argues that culture now trumps economics in the political sphere and offers as explanation yet another, if more sophisticated, version of false consciousness. "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about," he writes on the very first page. "This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests." American politics is, he insists,


a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life ...
This is heady, angry stuff, words that make me want to cheer and weep at the same time. And in his description of the facts he's right. But there's a kind of contempt underlying the passion of Frank's words, a dismissive shrug, an "it's-hard-to-believe-anyone-could-be-that-blind-and-stupid" dimension that fails to give any credibility or rationality to the behavior he so accurately describes, as if it comes out of some kind of conservative and/or media smoke and mirrors rather than anything in personal experience.

Let me be clear: I don't take a backseat to anyone in my anger at the right, especially the radical religious right and its neocon partners. Their ideological inflexibility, the way they manipulate the facts to fit their preconceptions and sell their falsehoods to the American public, is both outrageous and frightening. But my concern here is to examine the political behavior of the millions of other Americans--those working-class and lower-middle-class women and men who are not driven by ideological rigor, who are not convinced that they speak the word of God, yet who listen appreciatively to the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, and Bill O'Reillys as they rail against us as "liberal elites" who have lost touch with the people, and who went to the polls in our recent presidential election and voted accordingly. Why do they subscribe to a politics that in Frank's words, "strangles their own life chances?"

True, the right has had more money and is better organized than we are. True, they spent the last few decades setting up right-wing think tanks whose sole purpose was to turn out millions of words in support of their ideology, while we assumed we would prevail because we stood for the economic interests of the little guy against the rich and privileged. True, they see black and white, while we see a world shaded in grays, which is a much harder sell, especially when people feel a need for certainty in what has become a very uncertain world. True, also, there are larger geopolitical forces that operate without regard to anything we do or don't do.

These are indeed formidable barriers to communicating with those whom progressives think of as their natural constituency. But none of this explains how blue-collar, working-class America, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, transmuted into Richard Nixon's "silent majority" and from there into "Reagan Democrats," setting the stage for the Republican Party and its corporate constituency to dominate the political arena. Why, in the face of exploding deficits, a war that has become increasingly unpopular, a three-year-long recession, millions of jobs lost and not replaced, a public education system that's a national disgrace, prescription drugs made by American manufacturers that cost half or less in neighboring Canada, and a health-care system that's the most expensive in the world yet fails to provide the most elementary care for tens of millions of Americans, why--when we're on the people's side of all these issues--don't they listen to us?

But, one might ask, who is the "we" of whom I speak? It's a legitimate question, one I've asked myself as well, since there is no easily identifiable left, no progressive group that can claim to speak for the variety of people and positions that lay title to the left side of the political spectrum, no "we" that speaks with the kind of authoritative and unified voice we hear from the conservative right. Not since the heyday of the American Communist Party, whose adherents spoke with the kind of on-message discipline we now see among right-wing conservatives, has any group or organization on the left been able to enforce that kind of control. Even the anti-war movement, the closest thing we have to a movement capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of people to action, is an amalgam of individuals and groups whose politics range from liberal Democrats to the various shades of the fractious left.

Nevertheless, there is a more or less unified sensibility among these people and groups who form the "we" I refer to. They are dominantly well-educated urban folk who find common ground on political issues--most important, on the war in Iraq--but also on economic and social policy issues such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, poverty, gun control, civil liberties, and civil rights, as well as on the lifestyle and cultural issues that have roiled American politics so deeply: abortion, gay rights, the role of religion in public life, divorce, family values, stem cell research, the very meaning of life itself, to name a few. And while the academy may not be the hotbed of left politics the right portrays it to be, liberal and progressive social scientists from universities around the country have increasingly sought to become public intellectuals, part of the march of pundits across our television screens and the pages of our daily newspapers, in the service of defending against the right's onslaught in the culture wars.

Yet our voices rarely rise above a whisper in the public consciousness. Why have we had such a hard time making ourselves heard?

The question inevitably takes us back to the history and unfinished business of the last several decades, to the enormous upheavals in the social-cultural makeup of the nation that started with the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, was followed by the various liberation movements of the '60s and '70s--sexual, feminist, gay--and culminated in a cultural revolution that challenged nearly every aspect of established American life, including the way we looked, dressed, and behaved in public. Blacks, who before had been consigned to the back of the bus, were suddenly in contention for white jobs, especially white working-class jobs. Women's traditional roles, whether in the family or in the larger world, gave way before the intense scrutiny and protest of the feminist movement, while men looked on in bewilderment and anger. The codes that had for so long guided sexual behavior, at least the public face of it, fell before the onslaught. Homosexuals--aliens others reviled as queers and faggots--turned out to be our own children, who leaped out of the closet demanding acceptance. All of it leavened, if not sparked, by massive disillusionment with a government that, using tactics ranging from dissimulation to outright deception, escalated the war in Vietnam, which, even with the sacrifice of nearly 60,000 American lives, we couldn't win.

For those who saw the events in a positive frame, these were at best liberation movements, at worst eruptions of youthful exuberance, with perhaps a touch of excess. For the others--the silent majority of the Nixon era, the blue-collar Republicans of the Reagan years, and not least the growing number of evangelical Protestants--these changes were at best disconcerting and somewhat alarming, at worst shocking violations of the moral order, of the laws of God and nature, the twentieth-century version of Sodom and Gomorrah.

It was the perfect political moment for the conservatives, who since the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 had felt victimized by the "liberal media" and isolated from the political mainstream, to step in as the voice of the people, the voice that echoed their anxieties about the pace of change and called for a return to God, morality, and "family values." The airwaves bloomed with a host of personalities dedicated to getting the message across, men like Rush Limbaugh who gave voice to white male rage about women's changing roles by railing about "feminazis"; and women like Laura Schlesinger, the physiologist turned talk-show therapist, who lamented the abdication of character in modern life, talked about God's laws as if they had been handed down to her personally, and advised the troubled souls foolish enough to call in to shape up and stop whining.

As the movement grew, it gave birth to a stable of pundits and policy analysts who write for such periodicals as Commentary, Policy Review, American Spectator, and the Weekly Standard and make the rounds of the cable news networks and Sunday morning talk shows. At the same time, conservative money poured into organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Project for the New American Century, think tanks that support a group of right-wing writers whose job was to stir popular anger and fear into a stew that would boil over and scorch what they called the "liberal elite," each generation becoming more vitriolic until we now have Ann Coulter, who accuses liberals of treason. Before long they had framed the debate, and the initiative was theirs.

The intensity of the right's reaction, the wholesale condemnation, the moral certainty with which it was expressed, predictably led to a counter reaction on the left, although interestingly, apart from Michael Moore and Al Franken, there haven't been nearly as many easily identifiable national personalities. As the attacks from the right escalated, liberals and progressives found themselves on the defensive, and their positions, too, hardened. Pretty soon both sides had drawn a politically correct line behind which they hunkered down--a wall that, although not made of bricks and mortar, would soon separate us as completely as the Berlin Wall did the two Germanys.

I say "both sides" because it's true. But here I'm not concerned with them; I want to talk about us, about how we promulgated and enforced a politically correct line on a series of key social-cultural issues that played into right-wing charges that we were out of touch and helped to consolidate our virtual isolation from America's lower-middle and working class.

Enforced! I can almost hear the astonishment as some readers ask derisively, "Who are the enforcers? Have progressives jailed anyone for being politically incorrect?" No, of course not. But if there were no pressure to remain silent, how do we explain the many times we sat at meetings wanting to dissent but didn't for fear of being politically incorrect? Or the times we wished for a fuller, more nuanced discussion of the subject at hand but stilled our thoughts because we knew they would be unacceptable, that our commitment to the cause would be questioned?

It's possible to dismiss the idea of coercion in voluntary associations only if we don't take seriously the human need to feel a part of a community, especially in difficult and contentious times. When we feel under siege, as we have increasingly in recent years, there's an impulse to pull together, to tighten our bonds, to take comfort and affirmation in the presence of others like ourselves. This is our community--colleagues, friends, comrades with whom we share a world that frames our lives. To speak out against the "party line" is to set ourselves up as outsiders and risk being excluded. Or, if not wholly excluded, sent to the periphery, someone who suddenly becomes the "other," not out perhaps, but not quite in.

Unfortunately, our silence creates emotional and intellectual conflicts that can be costly both personally and politically, as I found out a decade ago when I published Families on the Fault Line, a book about working-class families. Some readers of an early draft of that work criticized my use of the word black (the designation almost all the people I spoke with used to identify themselves) instead of African American, which was then the politically-correct term. Others questioned the fact that I referred to illegals (the word used by every Latino I spoke with) instead of the newly-minted undocumented workers. And still others told me I should "push the delete button" on my computer before going public with my doubts about the efficacy of bilingual programs, even though these were also the concerns voiced by many of the Latino and Asian families I interviewed.

I struggled with these criticisms, fought silently with my critics and myself, and finally decided to write about the intellectual and emotional dilemmas they posed. In the final version of the book, therefore, I recounted the criticism and mused aloud about the constraints of needing to be politically correct. What obligation, I asked, do I have to honor my respondents' definitions of self and their opinions on the red flag issues of the day? What responsibility do I have to the political subtleties of the time? To my own political convictions? How do I write what my research told me was a true picture of the lives I wanted to portray and not give aid and comfort to right-wing bigots?

I leave it to others to decide how successfully I answered those questions. What I know is that going public about the problems raised by the need to be politically correct didn't endear me to my critics and left wounds that didn't heal easily.

A caveat here: I understand the impulse to keep our differences to ourselves and to vet the work we put into the public arena for fear that our words will be distorted to serve the agenda of the right. But I also know that, no matter how carefully we say our piece, we cannot protect ourselves or control the way our ideas are used--or abused. I learned that lesson firsthand in 1996 when I published The Transcendent Child, a book that examines how and why, despite living in families where poverty, neglect, and abuse are commonplace, some children manage to become functional adults while others, often in the same family, do not. The theory I developed to answer the question sets forth a complex of psychological qualities and social conditions that make it possible for some people to transcend a problem-filled past and develop flourishing adult lives. Not a word to cast blame on those who don't, not a syllable to suggest that their plight is due to their own failing, or because they're stupid, lazy, or unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet within weeks of publication, I became the darling of right-wing radio talk shows, whose hosts insisted that this was my message, even shouting me down when I argued that it wasn't.

These real concerns notwithstanding, the consolidation of power by the political right in recent years has convinced me that by insisting on political correctness, we not only played a part in impoverishing the national discourse but, in doing so, we also marginalized ourselves politically and lost what should have been our natural constituency. Our belief that we had to hold the line lest it crumble completely, our fear that by granting any legitimacy at all to the pervasive cultural anxiety of the time we would give fuel to the enemy led us to take positions on many issues that damaged our credibility with a considerable portion of the American public.

Let's go back, for example, to the 1960s and 1970s, when the sexual, gender, and cultural revolutions were roiling American society. In each of these struggles, there was both hope and danger. The birth control pill and the sexual revolution that followed promised important breakthroughs in women's ability to express their sexuality more freely and openly. But as with all revolutions, there were excesses and unintended consequences, among them the shift downward to younger and younger ages, until some among us were defending the right of fourteen-year-olds to be sexually active--while most remained silent.

I'm not suggesting that we should have joined the right in arguing against sex education in the schools in favor of an "abstinence only" position. Even if I believed in it, common sense tells me it wouldn't have worked in the highly sexualized society in which our teenagers live. But surely we could have spoken up publicly and agreed with thoughtful and frightened parents that most 14-year-olds are too immature, too prone to give way to peer pressure, to make an informed decision about sex. Never mind the argument that 14-year-olds in Samoa or some other island paradise manage their sexuality quite well. American kids generally do not, as witness the number of unwanted pregnancies, as well as the many stories I've heard from teenage girls about the role of peer pressure in their "decision" to become sexually active (Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution?).

Move up a couple of decades to the 1980s when "crime in the streets" was the biggest issue in American politics. While the right argued for more police, for tougher sentences, for trying juveniles as adults, we insisted that racism and overheated media coverage were at the core of the furor, that the perception of crime didn't match the reality, and with as much fanfare as we could muster, presented statistics to prove the point. It struck me even then that we were mistaken to try to reorder perceptions with facts, partly because we failed to take account of the psychological reality that experience overwhelms statistics no matter how compelling the numbers may be, but also because the perception of crime wasn't totally illusory.

Not that there wasn't truth in our side of the argument; it just wasn't the whole truth. I believe unequivocally that racist assumptions are built into the American psyche but, in this case, they were fueled by the fact that a disproportionate number of street crimes were committed by young African Americans. The media were often irresponsible and always sensationalist in reporting crime, but they didn't make it up. Crime was on the rise; the streets in urban communities had become more dangerous; and, while most people were never themselves mugged, it was enough to know someone who had been--whether a personal acquaintance or a victim encountered on the 11 o'clock news--to create the kind of fear that was so prominent during those years.

Back then there was a saying that "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged on his way to the subway." When I first heard it, I was outraged by those flip words; now it seems to me that they weren't entirely wrong. So today I wonder if a conservative isn't a working-class guy who heard the "liberal elite" (as the right has effectively labeled us) tell him he had nothing to fear when experience told him otherwise--not just on crime but on a whole slew of issues that have turned the country into a cultural and political battlefield.

Take the family values debate. While the events of these last decades left most Americans worried about their families and longing for a return to what felt like a less tumultuous past, feminist writers told them it was all nostalgia, that the families they remembered never existed. We weren't totally wrong, but anyone who lived through those earlier times, as I did, knows also that we weren't wholly right.

Yes, the image some now hold of the family of the fifties is part fantasy, but the '50s really were a time of relative quiet in family life. Yes, if the families the right now celebrates had been so perfect, they wouldn't have given birth to the revolutionaries of the sixties, who wanted to smash the family as they knew it. Nor would the divorce rate have soared as soon as women became more economically self-sufficient. Yes, in those allegedly halcyon days many women awakened every day with what Betty Friedan so aptly labeled the "problem that has no name." But those same women also found a certain amount of gratification and safety in their families. And even those who were actively discontented (and I was among them) didn't recognize their families as the oppressively hierarchical and patriarchal institution some feminist scholars were describing. Yes, there was much to celebrate as feminists led the way in opening the doors of the occupational world and women gratefully flooded through. But there were also legitimate questions about what happens to children when both parents work full time, which we preferred not to talk about. Yes, most Americans agreed that divorce was a reasonable option when it became too hard for wives and husbands to live together, no matter what the reasons, but that didn't mean they were ready to destroy the institution of marriage itself. I have no brief for those writers who bemoan divorce and warn us that our children will be damaged forever, but our refusal to acknowledge and discuss the pitfalls in divorce for everyone in the family, fathers included, was another of those politically correct blind spots that distanced us from people we wanted to reach.

Even on abortion, that most contentious issue of all in the culture wars, we missed opportunities to build alliances. Not with the hard-core right-to-lifers, to be sure, but with the majority of women and men who might agree on a woman's right to choose, but not a child's. Our reasons for standing against legislation that required a parent to be notified before granting an abortion to a teenager (some parents would force a decision on an unwilling child, others would be abusive) weren't all wrong. But they weren't all right, either. It is, after all, in the nature of the parent-child relationship that parents impose decisions about things large and small on their sometimes unwilling children. True, the abortion decision is larger than most, and a girl forced to continue a pregnancy faces consequences that will affect not only the rest of her life but the life of the child she will bear. Nevertheless, our refusal to acknowledge the real dilemmas inherent in how and when to draw the line between parental authority and responsibility and an adolescent child's rights left us more isolated than we should have been on abortion, especially at a time when most Americans favored our side of the abortion debate.

Whether on welfare, race, or identity politics, we kept silent when we might have built bridges. We resisted talking about the role of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the rising rate of illegitimacy in the African-American community and called those who did racist. I don't say this as an advocate for the Clinton welfare reform program, which has its own serious deficiencies: not enough effective job-training; no adequate child care to allow a mother to work in peace even if she finds a job; and perhaps worst of all, no guarantee that she will keep the health care her family was entitled to under the Medicaid program once she has a job. My argument is simply that our opposition to the reform of AFDC, even after it became clear that its unintended consequences had created a whole new set of social problems, left us with little influence either with policy makers or the general public in the debate about how to change it.

On race, too, we failed to speak out at crucial moments and to face up to self-evident truths. For decades the left has argued that the anti-social behavior of significant numbers of African-American youth (dropping out of school, getting pregnant, gang behavior, drugs) is a direct result of the painful realities under which they live and the hopelessness and helplessness their plight generates. Once again, we're not wrong, but we're not wholly right either.

No doubt the prospects of African-American youth have been seriously affected by the massive neglect of our public schools, very high levels of unemployment, crushing poverty, police practices that criminalize behavior that's treated like a boyish prank in white suburbs, and a long history of prejudice and discrimination. But as William Julius Wilson, a Harvard scholar who can't by any stretch be called an apologist for the right, argues, there are also behavioral causes of black poverty--decisions and choices that are not the inevitable result of social constraints but of an amalgam of culture and personal behavior that is destructive to both the individual and the community. To believe otherwise is to strip an entire population of any agency and to treat them as if they were as helpless to influence the direction of their lives as leaves tossed about in a hurricane. Well meaning, perhaps, but ultimately condescending.

As was the huge flap that arose recently, mostly among whites, when comedian Bill Cosby scolded black parents for their failure to parent and young people for their illiteracy and irresponsibility. The white liberal press, mainstream and internet, huffed and puffed; white readers wrote letters of protest; and Barbara Ehrenreich published a stinging rebuke ("The New Cosby Kids," The New York Times, July 8, 2004). A few weeks later, senatorial candidate Barak Obama used his platform as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention to say much the same, albeit in language kinder and gentler than Cosby used. "[The] government alone can't teach kids to learn ..." Obama said, "parents have to parent ... children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." To which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., himself an African American, virtually shouted "Amen," while noting also that black Democratic delegates were "galvanized" by Obama's words, "not just because they agreed, but because it was a home truth they'd seldom heard a politician say out loud" (The New York Times, "Breaking the Silence," August 1, 2004).

As racial and identity politics became increasingly strident, we were right on economic issues but tone deaf to the cultural and emotional sources of white working-class fear and anger. They objected to what they saw as minority privilege, and we called them racist, which was probably true but did nothing to facilitate an alliance with them. I'm not saying that we should have backed away from our support of affirmative action, minority scholarships, and other attempts to level the playing field. And perhaps their rage and fear were so great that no bridge was possible. We'll never know because we couldn't hear their cri de coeur. Instead, we spoke from our own privileged position and tried to silence their resentment by reminding them that they were the beneficiaries of a long history of white privilege.

Certainly, if we consider privilege from the long view of history, whites of all classes have been (and still are) privileged when compared to African Americans and other people of color. But tell that to the white, working-class people I studied, men and women who were struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, and you'll get an earful about what that "privilege" feels like to them.

A decade ago, I wrote about the emerging movement of European-American clubs and warned that in these groups we could see "the outlines of things to come" (Families on the Fault Line). The clubs themselves faded away, but the consciousness of self as "other," an idea that had been alien to whites of any class until identity politics came to dominate political life, took root and evolved into what we see today: America's white working and lower-middle class claiming for itself the status of another aggrieved group, only this time the largest in the land. And unlike earlier working-class movements of discontent, it isn't the bosses or the corporations or even the government that are the target of their anger, it's us, "the liberal elite."

This, then, is the political reality we face today--a reality that, as I have been arguing, we had a hand in creating. History, however, is useful only if we can take its lessons forward to a different future. These aren't easy truths to take in, especially for a generation that cut its political teeth on the slogan of the 1960s: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Friends and colleagues who read earlier drafts of this article generally agreed that the insistence on being politically correct had hobbled discourse on the left and too often kept them silent. Yet they did not see themselves as an active part of the problem. Instead, each one said something akin to "Yes, but not me." In silence, however, there is complicity, and each one of us who failed to speak, or who complained sotto voce to some trusted friend, has been part of the problem.

It's time to break the silence.

There's much to do in the coming years to build a set of institutions that can begin to compete with the highly organized, enormously well-funded network of newspapers, periodicals, think tanks, publishing houses, and television and radio stations the right already has in place. But no institutions will save us until we find the way to reframe the debate so that it's on our terms, not theirs. That means opening up discussion among ourselves to debate and develop positions and strategies that, while honoring our own beliefs and values, enable us to build bridges across which we can speak to those who now see us as an alien other.

It's not enough to speak in another voice, however. We must learn to listen as well, to develop a third ear so that we can hear beneath their rage to the anguish it's covering up. Only then will we find our way into the hearts and minds of those Americans who have been seduced and exploited by the radical right into "strangling their own life chances." Only then will we be able to stop asking, "Why don't they listen to us?"
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