The real work for progressives starts November 3, either fighting a newly unleashed George W. Bush or helping a sure-to-be besieged John Kerry. But to be effective, progressives must understand why the right has been so successful at shaping the national debate.
The conventional view sees the right's success as a reaction to the left's predominance during the 1960s and early '70s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a series of liberal Supreme Court decisions, urban riots, and court-ordered racial remedies all drove working- and middle-class whites rightward. Richard Nixon's "silent majority" became a vocal majority. A counter-establishment of think tanks, pressure groups, and media stars emerged. Ronald Reagan was a product of this movement; George W. is its most recent incarnation.
This view offers some comfort to Democrats because it suggests that the pendulum will swing back as the public wearies of the excesses of the right. It also holds that the only way Democrats can ever regain political dominance over the long term is by moving to the so-called center. But this view is historically incorrect. American politics remained quite moderate through the 1980s. Until 1994, Congress was mostly controlled by Democrats and still harbored some liberal Republicans. Even under Reagan, America continued to extend civil rights and social programs. Meanwhile, the main targets of conservative ire -- high crime, illegitimate births -- began to disappear.
In reality, the right-wing ascent is a more recent phenomenon, born of working-class anger and anxiety. The take-home pay of workers without college degrees -- that is, the vast majority -- has dropped steadily for 20 years. Health costs have skyrocketed. The shift of factory jobs to Latin America and China accelerated in the 1990s. Union membership imploded. Huge chain stores like Wal-Mart pulverized local retail businesses. Agribusiness drove tens of thousands of small farmers to ruin. Middle Americans who had anchored the nation's heartland with a faith in upward mobility have become disillusioned and resentful.
The right has deflected this anger toward cultural issues -- abortion, guns, gay marriage -- while encouraging a swaggering, "bring it on" patriotism. Right-wingers pose as angry populists protecting middle America from liberal snobs and know-it-all professionals inhabiting the cosmopolitan coasts. The high-decibel right-wing media fill the airwaves with diatribes against Hollywood, The New York Times, the Ivy League, and Washington do-gooders. Even fighting terrorists is turned into a cultural class struggle. During the campaign, Republicans accused Kerry of being too effete, too "sensitive," too "French" to fight effectively. America, they said, needs a regular guy who shoots game and drives a pickup truck, a cowboy from Texas.
The right has been able to turn working-class rage into cultural, rather than economic, resentments because no one has explained to middle America what's actually happened. The wealthiest 1 percent now owns more than the bottom 90 percent put together. The rich didn't get where they are solely through hard work. The captains of American industry and their Wall Street advisers have shown no lack of ingenuity in robbing small investors and duping blue-collar employees. They've showered campaign contributions on politicians in order to get special favors and lower taxes. They've wangled deregulation, privatization, and free trade on terms that benefit them, but scarcely anyone else. They've bankrolled right-wing media.
The right has done everything in its power to keep the dots disconnected. For too long, rather than connect them, Democrats have courted upscale suburban voters -- independents with no strong party affiliation -- and offered precious little to the working class and the poor. In this respect, Kerry's campaign has been a fresh departure. Kerry's insistence on rolling back Bush's tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000, and using the proceeds to finance affordable health care, is the clearest articulation of progressive principle emerging from the Democratic Party in years. But has Kerry gotten through? Early polling suggested that voters with only a high-school degree were tilted toward Bush, while Kerry was getting the college grads.
Cultural class warfare wins when anger has no other means of expression. Republicans speak the language of class, denuded of economics. The task for progressives, starting November 3, is to put the economics back in.
Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect.