Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Wages of Election-Year Rituals

Max Sawicky, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, observes that the Democrats refuse to fight for indexing the minimum wage to inflation: "In my 14 years at EPI, I've just never seen any push for indexing on the Hill from the Dems" (LBO-talk, July 16, 2004). Why? Because, if the minimum wage got indexed to inflation like "Social Security, Veterans benefits, union contracts, and health insurance," both the Democrats and Republicans will lose a vital election year ritual:
All sorts of wages and benefits are indexed to inflation: Social Security, Veterans benefits, union contracts, health insurance. So why not the minimum wage as well? . . .

So why not put an end to all the fighting and lobbying, and just index it to begin with? Here's where the dirty little secret of Washington comes in. Politicians don't want the minimum wage to be indexed because they like to fight over it. Democrats want to show their traditional constituents, like labor, how hard they fight to raise the minimum wage. Republicans want to show their constituents, like small business, how hard they fight to prevent it from rising too much.

These ritualized fights always occur during election years, when Democratic and Republican constituents are paying attention. (emphasis added, Robert B. Reich, "A Better Way to Raise the Minimum Wage," Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1998)
If ritual fights over the minimum wage benefit both the Democrats and Republicans, equally ritualized battles of the Culture War also serve the interests of both parties. Take the Federal Marriage Amendment, for instance:
For three days this week the nation was transfixed by the spectacle of the United States Senate, in all its august majesty, doing precisely the opposite of statesmanlike deliberation. Instead, it was debating the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would not only have discriminated against a large group of citizens, but also was doomed to defeat from the get-go. Everyone knew this harebrained notion would never draw the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment, and yet here were all these conservatives lining up to speak for it, wasting day after day with their meandering remarks about culture while more important business went unattended. What explains this folly? . . .

For more than three decades, the Republican Party has relied on the "culture war" to rescue their chances every four years, from Richard Nixon's campaign against the liberal news media to George H. W. Bush's campaign against the liberal flag-burners. In this culture war, the real divide is between "regular people" and an endlessly scheming "liberal elite." This strategy allows them to depict themselves as friends of the common people even as they gut workplace safety rules and lay plans to turn Social Security over to Wall Street. Most important, it has allowed Republicans to speak the language of populism.

The amendment may have failed as law, but as pseudopopulist theater it was a masterpiece. Each important element of the culture-war narrative was there. Consider first its choice of targets: while the Senate's culture warriors denied feeling any hostility to gay people, they made no secret of their disgust with liberal judges, a tiny, arrogant group that believes it knows best in all things and harbors an unfathomable determination to run down American culture and thus made this measure necessary.

Sam Brownback, senator from my home state, Kansas, may have put it best: "Most Americans believe homosexuals have a right to live as they choose. They do not believe a small group of activists or a tiny judicial elite have a right to redefine marriage and impose a radical social experiment on our entire society." . . .

Of course, as everyone pointed out, the whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the start. It didn't have to be that way; conservatives could have chosen any number of more promising avenues to challenge or limit the Massachusetts ruling. Instead they went with a constitutional amendment, the one method where failure was absolutely guaranteed -- along with front-page coverage.

Then again, what culture war offensive isn't doomed to failure from the start? Indeed, the inevitability of defeat seems to be a critical element of the melodrama, on issues from school prayer to evolution and even abortion.

Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers; it mobilizes the base. Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party's all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat —- especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated —- is the culture warrior's very object.

The issue is all-important; the issue is incapable of being won. Only when the battle is defined this way can it achieve the desired results, have its magical polarizing effect. Only with a proposed constitutional amendment could the legalistic, cavilling Democrats be counted on to vote "no," and only with an offensive so blunt and so sweeping could the universal hostility of the press be secured.

Losing is prima facie evidence that the basic conservative claim is true: that the country is run by liberals; that the world is unfair; that the majority is persecuted by a sinister elite. And that therefore you, my red-state friend, had better get out there and vote as if your civilization depended on it. (Thomas Frank, "Failure Is Not an Option, It's Mandatory," New York Times, July 16, 2004)
Such are the wages of election-year rituals, which the working class of the United States are compelled to pay, every four years.

No comments: