How a Cultural Phony War Can Become Very Real

The central idea of Thomas Frank's fine book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, is that the modern right wing is powered by a contradiction: the grassroots, the ground troops of the movement, are recruited on the basis of a culture war against liberalism; but the politicians they put in power are concerned first and foremost to implement a right-wing economic agenda. A cultural "phony war" ensues, year after year, over abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution...but, with few exceptions, little changes on these fronts. The myth of an all-powerful liberalism that always frustrates "real" Americans fuels constant outrage, a self-sustaining rebellion that keeps the troops (and their opponents) busy while the real business of undoing the New Deal, cutting taxes, and gutting regulations can go on largely unhindered. A "fake" culture war underwrites the "real" economic one.

And in the meantime liberals, having abandoned economic populism and severed important connections to their natural constituency in the working class, have nowhere left to fight but on cultural grounds.

Frank's argument is about Kansas, but is probably even more relevant in the South, where politics can sometimes seem like a battle of symbols. The dynamics of phony culture war seem especially suited to the white South's Lost Cause mythology and its rebel mystique, to Southern suspicion of Yankees, "elites," and cultural others in general.

The trouble with Frank's argument is, you really can't fake this sort of thing, not in the long run. Passions are inflamed, and eventually the grassroots will demand their due. Frank assumes that, on the whole, progress is never made on the cultural front; that's the perpetual-motion machine that powers hard-right politics. But it's important to keep in mind that, in fact, conservatives have made, and continue to make, important gains on cultural issues.

Take abortion rights, one of Frank's main culture-war examples. Conservative activists haven't yet succeeded in overturning Roe v Wade(though they are closer now than ever) - but they have steadily, incrementally chipped away at women's right to choose, state by state, while beginning to demand a bolder stance from their leaders. And now there are signs that the center is caving, despite polls showing that the general public's support for abortion rights has remained consistent since the 1970s. Liberals are advised to abandon their "intolerance" and "defiance" on abortion, to stop speaking in terms of rights and instead to seek some sort of "common ground."

Of course, abortion rights is also an issue of economic justice - you can't always make clear-cut distinctions between "economic" and "cultural." Those categories make a lot of sense when you're talking about symbolic battles, over (for instance) the Confederate battle flag, or the public display of the Ten Commandments -- but not so much when the issue is, literally, the control of women's bodies.