So what the hell happened? I spent some quality time with the pundits today, and near as I can tell there are three possible explanations:
1. The U.S. is divided along religious lines.
2. The U.S. is divided along cultural lines.
3. The U.S. is divided along an urban/non-urban fault line.
I’ll admit to being intrigued by the last explanation, which conjures up ghosts of Weimar Berlin or Milosevic-era Belgrade: the oppressed volk rising up again the decadent cosmopolitans whose cities are fatally infected by promiscuity, homosexuality, and, that old stand-by, Jewry. (Hey, that’s my kind of town!) Though I will decline to extend the analogy further by speculating about the nature of fascism and its applicability to the present case, I am nevertheless amazed that these bogeymen still retain their power, and that they remain, almost a century later, so persistently emblematic of the urban condition.
Of course, the cranky old Marxist in me can’t help but note the omission of class as an axis of division, not in the vague cultural sense that most political commentators employ the term but in the more traditional and distinctly un-sexy sense of lived economics. Allow me to briefly pontificate:
It occurred to me yesterday that the Democratic party once relied on trade unions to reach out to working-class voters who were otherwise beneath the radar of the political elites. For decades, unions provided both the ideological and institutional structures that are required to mobilize large numbers of economically-marginalized citizens, as well as authentication of the Democratic party’s commitment to their issues. The loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs during the last decade and the attendant decline in union membership means that these citizens, whose prospects for economic advancement are now in the hands of Wal-Mart Inc., have been cut adrift from the Democratic party. In the absence of a Plan B on the part of the Democrats, what institution was ready and waiting to step into the void? The Church, maybe?
Which brings us to the fundamental problem. If you’ve ever spent time with factory workers, or army guys, or the generically (as opposed to the bohemian) poor, you have likely noticed that they’re not always the most politically correct lot. They don’t drink mocha lattés. They often smoke. They sometimes make jokes about women and homosexuals that you might find offensive. And they’re not particularly receptive to globalization or to the ethnic communities that represent said globe. There are exceptions, of course, and in many cases it is the exceptions that rise through the ranks of union leadership to become discursive intermediaries between the workers on the shop floor and the latté-drinking politicos. As my father once said to me, “you have to know how to talk to these guys,” and this is, at root, the primary role of the intermediary. In the absence of class politics, however, there is nothing much to talk about, and without a union, there is no organized structure to facilitate the conversation.
Somehow, the Democrats seem not to have noticed that their own economic policies over the last thirty years have decimated their base of support, and they appear genuinely bewildered by the trouncing they have just received at the polls. With any luck, when they are exhausted by the orgy of self-flagellation that has almost certainly already begun, they will roll up their shirtsleeves and get to work on a Plan B. That is, if it’s not already too late.
Okay, I’ll stop with the politics already. In fact, I promise to write about something entertaining like music or movies or sex next time. (Speaking of Weimar Berlin...)