One of the basic texts of the last decade in American politics was Thomas Frank's study of political change, What's the Matter with Kansas? Published in 2004, the book became that rare thing, an instant classic.
It pinpointed a phenomenon that many people were in the process of observing but few had seen with such clarity as Frank — the shift, as sudden and apparently irreversible as the breaking off of an ice floe, of heartland voters, formerly Democratic, into the Republican Party. In a nutshell, that change, and the melting away of long-held political loyalties, was characterized by what Frank saw as a paradox — that these voters were disregarding matters of economic self-interest and responding instead to appeals based on values.
Hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration became the new points of concern, with conservatives making a point of hanging these issues on "liberals," a once-honorable term which acquired such opprobrium that no one voluntarily accepts the designation anymore. Even "moderate" has become taboo in the modern Republican lexicon. In the South, there was the additional factor of racial turnover in the political system.
Social policies that had once been seen as beneficial to an entire society, or at least to the average workaday voter — everything from public school education to universal suffrage to minimum-wage legislation to collective bargaining — were suddenly characterized as threats to traditional values, even though they had long been regarded as part and parcel of those values.
Populist animus, once directed by society's have-nots against the haves, began to be redirected against "liberal elites" or against sub-groups within the have-not population — blacks, Hispanics, gays, anybody and anything that symbolized the strange and unfamiliar to the ethnic majority.
Besides being considered a burden in their own right, taxes fell under suspicion of being a means of favoring those strange new forces against the ethnic majority. Under national administrations of either party, tax policy became progressively less progressive, with the concept of corporate welfare rebranded as a matter of incentivizing "job creators."
Increasingly, political debates in America have come to focus on the promise or specter (pick one) of social change, and it has required phenomenal screw-ups by the party traditionally identified with business interests (i.e., the Republicans) to move power from them to the party now identified with the aforesaid social change, the Democrats.
At some point down the line, history may be kinder to George W. Bush, but, as of now, people on both sides of the political aisle seem to concur that his administration amounted in its totality to such a screw-up. Katrina, the bungled war in Iraq, massive deficits, and, finally, economic near-collapse — all these paved the way for a transfer of power to the Democrats, to an African-American president, and to an acceptance of social change as something more or less incidental to the need for economic relief.
To the extent that such relief is not seen as being in the offing, President Obama's reelection is endangered. And this is why Republican rhetoric has focused so completely on the continuing economic stagnation. Everything that benefits the GOP on the social front speaks for itself and need not be enumerated.
At last week's Democratic Convention in Charlotte, there was a fair amount of private talk among the traditional Democrats in the Tennessee delegation regarding the possibility that a victory by Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries and her nomination would have held together the state's party structure. It is a fact that in 2008, the year of Obama nationwide, the Democratic Party began its nosedive in Tennessee, surrendering control of the state House of Representatives.
At Charlotte, office holders were at a premium in the state's delegation: two congressmen and three mayors, two minority leaders in the state House. The Tennessee delegation at the Republican convention in Tampa boasted a governor, two U.S. senators, seven congressmen, and innumerable members of the majority leadership in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Where the Democrats held an advantage was in diversity. Roughly a quarter of the state's delegation was African-American. There were Asians, Hispanics, union members, several members of the LGBT community, including one transgendered person.
In the demographic long run, as my colleague Chris Davis' article last week, "Affirmative Action," indicated, the Republicans, too, must take on such diversity, merely to maintain a sufficiently large electoral base.
In the short run, Thomas Frank's thesis still holds for Tennessee, and it remains to be seen whether it holds in the nation this year.
Senior editor Jackson Baker writes the Flyer's "Politics" column.