The Revolt of the Invisibles

All the post-election blather about the composition of Bush's base proves that Karl Rove and the Bush GOP are right: The entire Democratic Party establishment, along with the "serious" news outlets (the broadcast networks, the prestige daily papers), have no idea what's become of the white working class. None. They set it aside momentarily a mere 30 or so years ago and now they can't find it anywhere. Maybe this is why they have tended to give fundamentalist churches all the credit for Bush's victory: The Christian right is the only totemic explanation, so far, of where all the people who live off-radar have gone.

It's also a formidable part of the answer. Two or three years ago I sat at a middle school baseball game and listened to one mom recount her afternoon. Someone else had given rides to the kids who usually came to games with her. "And it was so weird," she said, "coming over here with their gear spread around the van but them gone. It was like the whole crew got raptured!" I didn't get the joke immediately, but everyone around me did. Until then it never occurred to me that the language of end times was a comfortable facet of everyday life for people I encountered regularly. Of course I knew there were evangelicals aplenty in the land, but I thought they were somewhere else, sitting on hard pews in country churches, not in the bleachers at baseball games near my house. What shocked me was to realize how little I knew about my neighbors, or they about me, and how quietly the gulf between us had grown up. Class is culture now, I thought later, and left vs. right in the usual sense has nothing to do with it; it's all about who's on the inside and who's on the outside.

And the most sorely aggrieved outsiders in present-day America are the white working class. Over the past generation their lot has been erosion and instability, a state of affairs their country has commemorated by writing them out of the national story. To appreciate the magnitude of this disappearing act, let us try for a sense of proportion in the matter of winners and losers. While the national wealth grew in the '80s and '90s, the gains were passed to the top with a vengeance, so that in the end only about 20 percent of the populace actually made out as well or better from all the heralded expansion. During this time of supposedly boundless triumph, the other 80 percent have seen their real wages stagnate or shrink, with the brief exception of a few years during the late-'90s stock market bubble. But since then, computer- and automation-driven productivity gains have only accelerated the thinning of ranks among middle and lower white-collar managers, a longtime redoubt of the white working stiff. The great majority of Americans now 25 to 54 years old are making out less well than their parents did, a gulf they seek to bridge by working longer hours at more jobs per household and by taking on impossible levels of consumer debt. Their jobs not only pay less but have been broadly "reengineered" to involve skills that are more limited and more fungible, and to skirt the necessity of offering employee benefits where possible: the temp-labor racket.

Yet in all this time, the crisis of average working Americans has never become a great political issue, and their image and outlook are no longer part of the American identity beamed back at us through media. Throughout the years of Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton, the country cultivated a boom-time mythology that exalted winners and rewarded them more lavishly than at any time in American history. From Reagan onward, market values routed all others; whatever the logic of maximum accumulation dictated was the way things had to go. When Bill Clinton and the Democrats came to power after 12 years of Republican rule in 1993, they offered the restive masses--lectures about personal responsibility. Eight more years of The New Normal made it seem a natural fact that you were a winner or a nobody, and in either case you were very much on your own. Mass culture followed the changes in political culture; the mundane, the merely life-sized, gave way to the glittering and fabulous. As for those other people--well, what other people? We don't see any other people around here. Thinking about the welfare of others became déclassé, no to mention dangerous to one's own standing.

To be an average, struggling white American in these years has been to feel untethered and neglected, dispossessed from your country's lavish success stories--gains that, according to the old rules of economics and skin caste, you should have been enjoying as well. White working people did not have it as bad as nonwhite working people, but they felt their marginality much more keenly because they thought they had been promised it would never happen to them. (Left Behind indeed.) As the Bush campaign demonstrated, their sense of exclusion and of betrayal by "the elites" is never far from the surface. This may sound like a blow-for-blow description of the Christian right, but it's bigger than that, and it is better understood as a class revolt. The chattering class has failed to notice that the religious fundamentalists are joined by a secular version of similar shape and vehemence, its sensibility honed not in the pulpit but at the sports desk. You can hear it on the radio every day.

Do you realize how much Rush Limbaugh and his progeny have done to reshape the way people think and talk about politics? It's fairly staggering. Limbaugh had two seminal insights; they were not his alone, but he brought them to market. The first was that class resentment simmered in the land, and could be harnessed to the purposes of the right by naming "liberals" as the stifling, oppressive elite in their path. It worked because it conjured images of the usual suspects in white working-class dislocation--uppity women, people of other colors or national origins, the highfalutin and out-of-touch in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. The second was to change the rules of political chatter so as to give the folks a better show. Limbaugh's forum was not a political talk show in the usual sense; there was no pretense to equal time or to respect for opposing views. Calls were screened meticulously, and Limbaugh did not venture into public to debate others in uncontrolled settings. Though it pretended to be spontaneous, his closed stage was part sporting ring and part theater, or, in other words, a drama not unlike professional wrestling. His métier was ridicule, the get-outta-here-with-that-nonsense! rhetorical body slam, a style that has come to define most of the radio and TV talk shows that are supposed to embody the urgent debates of the day. In Limbaugh's wake, talking about politics has become a lot more like talking about sports, one consequence being that anything done in the name of winning, or harassing the opponent, tends to become its own justification. (So what if Bush lied to secure the invasion of Iraq? a letter writer scolded me shortly after the war's start--it worked, didn't it?)

But if the secular, talk-radio right is not really synonymous with the Christian conservative crowd, there is one encompassing sentiment they share: that the world has been hijacked from beneath their feet, taken from them contrary to God's plan or the founding fathers' promise (choose one). They intend to take it back, and they are in an exceptionally nasty mood regarding terms of surrender.

"In your reelection," the Rev. Bob Jones wrote to Bush on November 3, "God has graciously granted America--though she doesn't deserve it--a reprieve from the agenda of paganism.... Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ." A former major league pitcher turned radio evangelist named Frank Pastore wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed, "In the weeks and months to come, we will hear the voices of well-meaning people beseeching the victor to compromise with the vanquished. This would be a mistake. Conservatives must not compromise with the left."

In other words, the appointed villains of the uprising (be they liberals, minions of Satan, or both) can expect the same Manichean justice visited on the mass of average working folk for a couple of decades now: You'll be one of us, or nobody at all.

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