Republican Cognitive Dissonance and Rep. Joe Barton’s Apology to BP

At Salon today, Gabriel Winant asks a good question:

The right hand of the GOP plays a waltz for the party’s dance with big business; the left hand beats out a populist rhythm. Somehow, the two don’t cancel each other out. How can this be?

Winant then shares, even as he rejects, the standard Left explanation: false consciousness:

The classic treatment given to this question in the modern popular press comes from Thomas Frank. In his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank argued that the GOP’s corporate elite — the Bartons — spent the second half of the 20th century using social issues to misdirect populist anger. It’s more or less an argument for false consciousness, the outmoded but attractively simple idea that working people have failed to recognize that they’re locked in class conflict with their exploiters, and instead have come to believe in some other, false story of how society works.

So if it is not false consciousness that accounts for the seemingly contradictory creature—corporate and populist—that animates the Republican base, what is it? Well, Winant says it’s complicated:

You could fill up a library with books on the question of working-class conservatism. . . . The question to ask here is if you are a white member of the working class — the demographic type around whom this debate swirls — what can you do to gain more control over your life? Because that’s what politics is: people getting organized, or not, to control their lives. What are the weapons of this weak group?

And Winant thinks that the white working class (especially its white males) doesn’t have good options for increasing its power, except by rallying behind either:

  • Unions,
  • the Democratic party, or
  • race and gender resentment politics

Unions, being weak, and the Democratic Party, seemingly given over largely to white-collar and urban interests, leaves option three as a ready alternative—and this, of course, also draws in certain elements of the middle class:

Tea Partiers appear to be mainly small businesspeople and the like — petty bourgeois, as academics say. There’s frankly little use in agonizing over “why they hate us.” The resentments of the passed-by middle-class have always fueled the most right-wing politics in modern democracies. If you go and read a good history of the second Ku Klux Klan – the 1920s movement – you’ll be amazed at how familiar much of the rhetoric is. But spare some sympathy, even for Glenn Beck’s most devoted followers. The democracy of Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart is a tough place for the community bank and local hardware store.

The result is a coalition that could result in Joe Barton-style politicians coming into the majority again in November, 2010:

This is a highly abbreviated summary of some of the issues around the weird dual nature of American conservatism. And as I warned, we’re awfully far now from Barton and BP. But it looks now like the GOP is set for some significant comeback in November. There’s not a bad chance that Barton will end up as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And if he does, don’t groan about those idiot voters out in Texas and Kansas. Working-class voters don’t belong to the Democrats. They have a logic all their own, and liberals can only afford to ignore that for so long before, inevitably, it always finds a way to catch up with them, and sweep in corporate flunkies like Barton along with it.

The dots that Winant doesn’t connect (at least to my mind) is how (or why) working class white males could sweep in “corporate flunkies” like Barton. The cognitive dissonance is still very confusing.

Back to the old-school false consciousness thesis? If you want to lift a man’s wallet, distract his attention away from his pockets. Or, if he’s focusing on his pockets, tell him how you’ll help him put more money there. Assure him that you’re on his side (culturally and otherwise). Then, when you’ve gained his trust, you can lift his wallet and give it to your corporate friends, who then pay you off. That’s Rep. Joe Barton. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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