April 20, 2011
What's the Matter With Norma Rae?By Christopher Chantrill
Back in the evil Bush era, you'll remember, Thomas Frank rode his liberal lament What's the Matter With Kansas? to a weekly column at The Wall Street Journal.
Frank echoed the feelings of many liberals: how could the traditional working stiff in Kansas be voting for Republicans when the Democrats so obviously had his economic interest at heart? How was it possible that the strident and divisive social conservatism -- not to mention racism -- of the GOP had seduced these good people into the GOP column? Cue Candidate Obama and his "bitter clinger" message to Democratic contributors.
It's hard for liberals to realize that the good old days, when rank-and-file New Deal Democrats in their millions gazed up at a framed picture of FDR or of JFK on their living room walls, are over. One day an amiable dunce strolled into town and ten years later the pictures on the wall were gone. Ronald Reagan had split the New Deal coalition.
Conservatives ask the opposite question. Why, we ask, is the white working class still listening to the class warfare rhetoric of the Democrats? Don't they realize that bankrupt entitlements are going to throw Grannie out into the snow when the Greek moment arrives?
OK, that's not quite fair. Conservatives don't think the white working class is stupid; we just wish that we could persuade it about the wonders of high-deductible health insurance and defined-contribution pensions. And the poll watchers at National Review are careful to note that the white working class that voted for Scott Walker wasn't quite so enthusiastic about Justice David Prosser in the April 5 state supreme court election. That's because they look at Social Security and Medicare as a "lifeline."
Folks understandably want to cling onto their entitlements until the Greek moment. Life after entitlement reform is going to be harder for people on fixed incomes. Why sign up for austerity in advance?
But not everyone thinks that way. A liberal friend recently sneered to me about a woman relative who is a Tea Party activist. She'd never held a job in her life and her husband has been on military disability -- a service-related back injury -- ever since he got out of the service 35 years ago.
You tell me. Should a voter on government disability call for tax increases for the rich or for spending cuts on the undeserving poor in order to preserve his own benefit?
It depends on whether the voter thinks in "I got mine" terms like the proverbial dog-in-a-manger or in terms of "us," the victims on fixed incomes, against "them," the greedy rich bankers and CEOs. Either way, there is plenty of opportunity for GOP politicians out there.
So maybe that's why Sarah Palin strolled amiably into Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday, and told the assembled throng she was a former union member, the wife of a union member, and that pensions were sacred. Gov. Scott Walker was a hero.
Union solidarity is when union members look after each other, not when union bosses sacrifice members to a political agenda, she said.
Who ever thought that a headline Republican would one day be pitching directly for the votes of union members, talking union talk, appealing to the union members' instinct for job security?
I've got a great idea for a book proposal. How about some liberal writer starts shopping around this concept: "What's the Matter with Norma Rae?" about how once solid Democratic union members are now voting for Republicans.
It's telling that only a few days before Palin went to Wisconsin, President Obama was reduced to firming up his base, talking about the wonders of Social Security and Medicare and no spending cuts. So the president is going to run the ship of state full speed ahead for the next year. If he wins reelection, then he'll deal with the problem in January 2013. He's going Greek, refusing to address the basic problem in the federal budget, Medicare, until the ship hits an iceberg.
If the president loses, it will probably be because Sarah Palin taught the GOP how to talk to the union rank-and-file, that their security hangs on a return to fiscal responsibility.
No doubt the Democrats will call them names, and some liberal will write a book about it. But they might want to look at Charles Murray's numbers on white America, i.e., Kansas. Life in America is hunky-dory for the upper-middle class, Murray told listeners to the 2011 Bradley Lecture. Since 1960, its marriage rate among 30-49 year olds has declined a little from 88 percent to 83 percent. But among the bottom 30 percent since 1960, the marriage rate has plummeted from 83 percent to 48 percent. Yes, marriage in the white working class is now less than 50 percent.
If I were in the white working class, I'd be out in the streets, calling for a Tea Party.