By William Deresiewicz
Since its publication in 2004, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? has been a touchstone of liberal political belief. Frank’s thesis wasn’t original, and may not even have been correct, but it has become a commonplace: white working-class people vote against their economic self-interest because Republicans have bamboozled them with hot-button social issues like guns, gays, and abortion.
The idea was on display again not long ago on HBO’s political chat show, Real Time with Bill Maher. Alexandra Pelosi, a documentarian, presented a video she had made in advance of the Mississippi primary. Various residents were interviewed, most apparently working-class, and all avowed their enmity to the government and, at least implicitly, the president. Some were merely comic, like the guy who doesn’t “care for government” but thinks he deserves his food stamps. But another man said this: “We would rather go broke, and die hungry, than to give up our moral beliefs.”
I wouldn’t call that stupid—Maher’s favorite epithet for people who disagree with him, as it is for a lot of educated progressives—I’d call it principled, admirable, and noble. Some of the responses to What’s the Matter with Kansas? pointed out that an analogous argument could be made about the Upper West Side. Well-to-do liberals vote against their economic self-interest just as surely as poor conservatives do (the only difference being that no one on the Upper West Side would go broke before they gave up their moral beliefs). Are only the wealthy entitled to ideals? Are progressive ideals the only authentic ones?
There is a massive failure here: of imagination, empathy, curiosity, humanity. Maher did acknowledge there was something noble about some of the sentiments expressed in the video, but he moved immediately back to the “Kansas” argument (as well as to making fun of poor people). He simply couldn’t take the information in—couldn’t recognize that there are good reasons why working-class white Southerners might be opposed to everything that someone like Bill Maher stands for, that their opinions are just as legitimate as his. Nor could he perceive, in the course of denouncing their inability to “see past their prejudices,” that he is no more able to see past his own—that is, the ones he was directing, at that very moment, toward them.
There is an entirely different conversation going on on the other side of the culture from people like me, away from NPR, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and so forth, one that has its own institutions and organs of discussion, its own heroes of thought and action, its own touchstones of authority and credibility—its own sense of being at the center. I’m not talking about Rush Limbaugh and Fox News; I’m talking about things and people that I’ve mostly never heard of. It may involve a lot of bad ideas and information, but it does not involve bad faith. I don’t think the two sides are equally right, but I am trying to learn to recognize that they are equally real.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.