Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Thomas Frank, "To the Precinct Station"

TO MY MIND, we may have other political analysts as sharp as Thomas Frank around, but we have none sharper, as illustrated by the Edmund Wilson allusion in the title of his piece in Baffler 21. I'm not wholly persuaded by his argument here, though--that the American left wasted the opportunities created by the Occupy movement of 2011.

"OWS has today pretty much fizzled out," he writes, while the impact of its "evil twin," the Tea Party movement is still unfolding:

"... under the urging of this trumped-up protest movement, the Republican Party proceeded to win a majority in the U. S. House of Representatives; in the state legislatures of the nation it took some six hundred seats from the Democrats; as of this writing it is still purging Republican senators and congressmen deemed insufficiently conservative and has even succeeded in having one of its own named as the GOP's vice-presidential candidate." (emphasis Frank's)

Frank blames the dramatically weaker impact of OWS on the talkiness of the American left, more precisely the tendency of its discourse to resemble that of professors talking to students, or of students writing for professors, or, worst of all, professors writing for professors. (He quotes some egregious examples.) He also blames the tendency of leftists to think of the Tea Partiers as an alien breed, beyond redemption, when they are really not that far apart (he finds some striking rhetorical parallels to show this).  These bad habits add up to an inability on the part of the left to communicate with the ordinary people who are, or once were, its natural constituency.

All of which, as Hamlet tells Polonius, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down--for Frank ought to acknowledge that already at its birth-moment (a rant about the victims of predatory lending having only themselves to blame, wasn't it?) the Tea Party movement's message of individual accountability, lower taxes, less regulation, and so on was primed for takeover and re-molding by the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, and other deep-pocketed types who saw its potential as a political machine. 

As one can see in Jill Lepore's book, the Tea Partiers who actually showed up at the rallies, bought the tricorne hats, and got interviewed on the local news were going to be left behind in all of this. They were marginalized just as surely as the OWS stalwarts were marginalized.

I think Frank has a point about the left's clumsy rhetorical practice, but the Tea Party's electoral (as distinct from cultural) impact has less to do with its rhetorical savvy than with the funding it attracted, funding that OWS, for obvious reasons, was never going to attract.

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