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HOW HE SEES IT Language of populism is GOP's chief weapon



Published: Mon, January 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PAUL CAMPOS

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

A few years ago, I was being driven down a spacious boulevard in Mission Hills, a wealthy suburb of Kansas City, Mo., where my wife grew up. As we passed the impressive facade of a house of worship, I suddenly noticed its name.

"Hey, look, everybody," I announced with glee. "That place is actually called the Country Club Christian Church!" The car was enveloped by a long moment of Seinfeldian silence, before my mother-in-law informed me that my wife's sister's wedding had been held there.

Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" and "One Market Under God," also grew up in Mission Hills in the 1970s and 1980s (indeed, he was in my wife's high-school class). In the former book, Frank describes how living in Mission Hills helped turn him into a teenage Reaganite, until exposure to the world outside Cupcake Land (i.e., the rich suburbs that ring America's inner cities) transformed him into a left-wing gadfly.

Amusing polemics

Both books are extremely amusing polemics that try to explain why so many working and middle-class Americans have come to vote against their economic self-interest. Over the past 25 years, the federal government has time and again enacted policies that have favored the denizens of places like Mission Hills at the expense of everybody else.

This has produced a massive skewing of wealth toward the already rich, and more income inequality than America has seen since enactment of the New Deal.

According to Frank, this remarkable situation, in which the majority of Americans in effect vote to cut their own wages so that the small minority of Americans who garner most of the benefits from rising stock prices can become even richer, is the product of a spectacular theft.

What has been stolen is the language of populism. Populists used to rail against the evils of Wall Street and the corrupt financers who exploited the sweat of the working man while piling up vast fortunes of ill-gotten gains.

Today, however, the Republican Party uses the same language to excoriate the "liberal elite," or, alternatively, "the government" (curiously, the fact that all branches of the federal government are now controlled by Republicans hasn't interfered with this rhetorical strategy).

If not for insufferably arrogant government liberals, with their love for high taxes and burdensome regulations, not to mention their support for labor unions and the shiftless poor, every American deserving of wealth -- that is, every hard-working American -- would already be living in Mission Hills, or some place like it.

'Market populism'

That, in an only slightly simplified form, is the message Republicans from Ronald Reagan onward have been selling so successfully for decades now. Frank calls this "market populism," and in "One Market Under God" he strives to explain how a message so ridiculous on its face could have been so successful.

"What's the Matter With Kansas?" tackles a related issue: How the Republican Party manages to hold together a coalition made up of, to put it as tactfully as possible, snake-handling fundie freaks and those who accept Milton Friedman as their personal lord and savior.

The answers Frank gives may not always be persuasive, yet his combination of a scholar's depth of learning with a prose style that is anything but academic make him that rarest of creatures -- a public intellectual who might actually change a few minds.

In any case, whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, Frank asks exactly the right question: How did a nation that enacted the New Deal and the Great Society come to want to transform itself into the equivalent of a Country Club Christian Church?

X Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado.




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