The 2010 Election, Culture War, and Class Consciousness

The exit polls from the 2010 mid-term elections demonstrate the domination of the "culture war" narrative over class consciousness throughout the statistics and in both liberal and conservative politics.

One of the most alarming statistics of recent electoral history is the degree to which working class white people have voted for conservative politicians. The white majority has identified more with the ideas of white capitalists and less with the reality of those they work with everyday.

In this year's election, white voters making less than $50,000 a year voted 55 percent to 42 percent for Republicans over Democrats.

Further, an AP poll conducted before the election found white voters without a four-year college degree favored Republicans by 18 points, 58 percent to 36 percent. In 2008, exit polls indicated these same voters favored Republican congressional candidates by 11 percent. In 2006, the Republicans won these votes by 9 percent points.

Where working-class whites most likely vote with a progressive tendency is where they are members of labor unions. Since 1976, labor union households have backed Democratic congressional candidates by an average margin of 62 percent to 35 percent. However, only 17 percent of voters were members of unions this election.

People of color, and others who continue to experience oppression in our society, have primarily voted for politicians that represent more progressive ideas. This year, African American voters voted 90 percent to nine percent for Democrats, Latinos voted 64 percent to 34 percent for Democrats, and Asians voted 56 percent to 40 percent for Democrats. Women's votes were evenly split, but this may seems to be because so many progressive voters did not vote this election.  LGBTQ voters favored Democrats 68 percent to 31 percent for the Republicans.

This can be understood as a result of people, on both the left and the right, being encouraged to link their politics more and more with their specific social or cultural identity. There was only a six percent Democratic advantage coming from white voters making below $50,000 a year compared to white voters making over $50,000 a year, and a slightly larger difference between working class people of color and their wealthier counterparts (they primarily represent huge Democratic voting blocs racially).

Class consciousness plays a secondary role to other social differences in modern United States' politics, and this lack of class consciousness is now, more than ever, a major problem for the progressive movement.

Why is the culture war narrative such a factor in U.S. elections?

In part, it is because it represents the backlash against the peoples' movements of the 1960s. It was Bill O'Reilly who most explicitly revealed this in a 2006 book titled Culture Warrior. In it, he frames U.S. politics as a battle between the values of a religious U.S. majority and a small but powerful group of secular progressives. It takes little sociological and historical study to understand what he was really doing in his work was pushing religious individuals to link their religion with the pre-1960s values of both a dominant white culture and unapologetic capitalism.

This perverted narrative was seen in the polls this year, where white Protestants were convinced to vote for Republicans over Democrats 69 percent to 29 percent. This is a six percent increase in the Republicans' share of the 2008 white Protestant vote, and an 8percent increase for Republicans compared with 2006 results.

This conservative culture war frame is the primary ideological build of the modern conservative movement in the U.S. O'Reilly's book is a small part of this. The idea that "religious" values are under attack by the government is repeated both on Fox News and radio programs hosted by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and others. For a deeper analysis of this, and how conservatives have purposefully smashed the Christian religion into a doctrine that coincides with their own white, capitalist values, see my previous PA article "Defeating the Ultra-Right: Know your Enemy."

Another reason the culture war narrative has become so strong is rooted in the way white voters perceive class. This perception has been molded by both the capitalists themselves as well as efforts by conservative pundits and the Republican Party.

The capitalist class began working long ago on minimizing their appearance as a distinct class. In John K. Galbraith's 1958 book The Affluent Society he noted that capitalists, especially since the presidency of FDR, shunned overt displays of wealth. After the Great Depression, news reports on the wealth of the nation's most powerful industrialists plummeted. They continue to enjoy the wealth and power they have always had, to even greater and greater degrees as disparity has increased over the past 40 years, but take care not to appear as if this is so.

The epitome of this phenomena can be seen in how Bill Gates or Steve Jobs represent themselves in public, wearing casual clothes or answering specific customer inquiries into company business directly, via email or their smart phones. This mythology runs so deep that Bill Gates is often the person used to reinforce the idea that anyone can become a multi-billion dollar capitalist tycoon if they simply have the will to do so.

And this idea is widespread. A 2000 Time/CNN poll found that 39 percent people living in the U.S. believe they are in the wealthiest one percent or soon would be. Obviously, this is an impossibility.

Where class is observed by most white people, it is observed through the conservatives' culture war frame. It is astonishing to notice the rise of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has always been focused on making people view reality through the culture war frame, during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Before the Heritage Foundation conservatives relied on groups more focused on economic policy for ideas. The National Association of Manufacturers is one such group, which now works more behind the scenes and is delegated to focusing on specific tasks, such as combating legislation focused on protecting the environment.

Conservatives have used the culture war narrative to make people believe the wealthy are all secular progressive types who, according to them, seek to destroy the culturally conservative values of the average U.S. citizen.  Key to doing this is the idea of the "latte liberal," the focus on wealthy progressive celebrities in "sinful" Hollywood, and other ideas that can be heard on talk radio or read about in Thomas Frank's excellent book What's the Matter with Kansas?

The Republican Party is in on this scheme, and plays with it to manipulate working class people. George Bush's mansion is referred to as "Crawford Ranch," he took care to appear folksy in his public appearances despite being a Yale graduate and being the member of a millionaire family his whole life. He may have worn a tie, but he was sure to put on the cowboy hat just as much.

This charade was briefly revealed only a month ago, when a PR group working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a casting call for an ad to attack West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. The casting call, first reported on the Politico website, stated "we are going for a 'Hicky' Blue Collar look," and asked that potential actors wear clothes that looked "beat up."

The greater progressive movement has to refuse the culture war frame, but it has thus far done so poorly.

Part of this is due to some progressives actually reacting to the culture war frame rather than refusing it as false.  It has been tempting to do so, as the frame comes from the backlash which reacted to those sections of the progressive movement that fought racism, sexism, and heteronormativity in the 1960s.  As such, the conservative culture war frame provides a perfect enemy for the progressive movement to battle.

Accepting the conservatives culture war frame, however, means that the progressive movement may agitate people who would be on their side if it were not for the frame in the first place. White, Christian people are currently under the idealistic frame's spell, thinking in terms of it to varying degrees.

The left has to shatter this frame if they want to move this country in a more progressive direction, and it can do this by emphasizing all people's right to self-determination.

The majority of the progressive movement often discusses class as it relates to other oppressive forces. This has been very important in making sure progressive groups do not reinforce gender, race, LGBTQ, and other oppressions in their own activity. This has also led people to realize how all oppressions are interrelated.

This has provided progressives with a new frame that relates class consciousness and race cognizance, that links gender discrimination and men's economic dominance, and so on.

BUT, the left also has to talk about class relations being represented as power relations as a phenomena in and of itself if it is to bring working class white people back into the progressive movement. It is not enough to talk about wealth disparity among people of different classes. It is better to talk about power differences, as this can be related to all forms of oppression.

Some of the ideas that can be most helpful in responding to the culture war frame I have already detailed in my previous article "Communists Advance the Progressive Idea."

I believe the Communist Party and the labor movement do a good job of this already.

We must keep in mind what the current relations are and move forward. The 2010 elections were a battle lost, but they by no means represent the end of the war.

Photo: Devoid of a meaningful agenda, Tea Partiers typically directed both anti-immigrant and anti-Black racially coded messages at President Obama, as this fellow aptly demonstrates. (Photo by FibonacciBlue, cc by 2.0)

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  • Excellent article!

    While the ruling class strategy of manipulating our beliefs has been very successful over the last 40 years, it's a dangerous game for them.

    I believe that the masks may slip, and slip suddenly!

    --JimLane (currently in Kentucky)

    Posted by Jim Lane, 11/16/2010 10:52am (13 years ago)

  • J.P. Holmes - an interesting, good article.

    I think the question of power-relations (which you raise) is central to any movement towards more substantive change. Unfortunately, we as a movement have largely ignored questions of power-relations at our own peril.

    Two examples:
    It is because we (the people's movement) lacked the power to win single-payer and the public option, that we ended up with less (albeit, still a huge success). Not because we were sold out, as many on the left claim.

    It is because we (the people's movement) lacked the power (the unity, the foresight, the sternness, the money) to mobilize additional tens-of-millions around their class interests, that the Republicans / Tea Party took control of the House. Not because working class Americans really agree with the Republicans / Tea Party, as the right claims.

    In regard to people's 'Frame,' we should study this more. I think it is absolutely true that the far-right (Glenn Beck, Fox, etc.) have set the ideological frame much better than we have.

    They use short, catchy phrases. We use long-winded proclamations. They speak to their audience as if they were children. We speak to ours as if they all had college degrees in economics, politics AND philosophy. Is it any wonder that they reach a broader audience.

    By-and-large people are looking for answers. They are desperate for solutions. However, we live in a society of immediate gratification. And we seem completely unable to really get people's attention, provide them with answers and set them in motion all within a 60 second sound-bite.

    As a result, we leave the imaginary ideological starting point at a disadvantage (among many other disadvantages). My point: we need to do better at reaching people where they are at - and quickly.

    One final note: we can't reach people who hold irrational beliefs with a rational argument. It is a work in futility. Rather we have to work to gain people's trust, build a relationship with them and agitate them once trust is built. Help them to understand their own self-interests as part of a long-term process of change.

    In other words, we aren't going to convert the tens-of-millions of working class folks away from irrational beliefs (beliefs that go against their self-interests) by ONLY using the right's media (new media, etc.) tactics in reverse.

    We have to get back to the basics. We have to build a narrative around trust, mutual self-respect, self-interest, community and an understanding of actual power-relations.

    It is the right-wings narrative (over 30 years) in the churches, schools, communities, etc. that made Glenn Back and the rest of his ilk possible, not the other way around. The right-wing created - manufactured - the political will among a base that was taught to hold irrational beliefs (by people they trust - the clergy, the teacher, etc.) that make their 'Frame' so powerful.

    Now I know that this seems contradictory: But we have to reach people quickly, where they are at AND we have to work to build trust around an alternative narrative, which takes time, which means we have to be embedded in communities, we have to become the trusted elders that provide the alternative narrative.

    Ah, but such is the dialectics of struggle; many-sided, complex and full of interconnections and contradictions.

    A good article! In solidarity, Tony.

    Posted by TonyPec, 11/09/2010 10:55am (13 years ago)

  • I wrote this article much faster than I did many of my other articles, and I would like to clarify its conclusion.

    We have to recognize that the beliefs of people are not set in stone. Some white, Christian working class people do, indeed, exhibit the chauvinistic characteristics the capitalist promoted culture war frame has foisted upon them. However, these characteristics are not inherent in white, Christian working class people, as many in the labor movement and allied with feminist or anti-racist organizations demonstrate.

    Further, those white, Christian working class individuals who do further the continued oppression of other cultural or social groups are actually working against their own interests. This is because such action justifies unjustified power-based discrimination, making class based discrimination so much easier.

    Finally, why I advocate the strategy outlined in my article "Communists Advance the Progressive Idea", with all its focus on the power held by wealthy, straight white men, is because I believe working class people are smart enough to recognize the "wealthy" qualifier, and the capitalist nature of this oppressive group (if it is pointed out by such a progressive narrative).

    Therefore, despite the two demographic qualities white, Christian working class people might have in common with the white, Christian capitalists, their position as working class is more important because 1) it is that quality for which they experience a real lack of power and 2) it is that quality that gives them insight into the oppression of, and the ability to stand in solidarity with, other U.S. Americans.

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 11/08/2010 9:45pm (13 years ago)

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