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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Sciences politiques L’Amérique tombée à droite

by Marianne Debouzy

Political Science: The U.S. Falls to the Right

Translated Monday 17 March 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

A book review by the historian Marianne Debouzy

De l’inégalité en Amérique,
by Godfrey Hodgson. Published by: Éditions Gallimard, 2008. Price: 26 euros.
Pourquoi les pauvres votent à droite,
by Thomas Frank. Published by: Éditions Agone, 2008, Price: 22 euros.

These two very different and complementary books on the United States have just been published in French. Godfrey Hodgson, a British journalist, is the author of De l’inégalité en Amérique (On Inequality in America). He is a keen observer who paints a vast fresco of political developments over the last quarter of the 20th century, which was characterized by the spread of conservatism and growing inequality. Thomas Frank, a left-wing Democrat and American journalist, is the author of Pourquoi les pauvres votent à droite (English title: What’s the Matter with Kansas?). He analyses his home state of Kansas, where a local phenomenon has become a national trend: a large number of ordinary people, rather poor than rich, have jumped on the conservative bandwagon and voted for George W. Bush, against their own interests.

The two authors dig into the reasons why the consecration of the free market, the withdrawal of the federal government, and the dismantling of social security have replaced the liberal consensus, that is the say the belief that the federal government has a role to play in economic and social life in order to ensure a certain amount of social justice.

For Thomas Frank, the answer to this question lies essentially in the strategy used by the conservatives to win over voters. They have eliminated any reference to economic problems (jobs, wages, unemployment, or medical insurance) and have instead focused on “values” that appeal to religious, anti-elitist and anti-intellectual prejudices. The conservatives’ activist practice consists in maintaining and renewing, through all kinds of actions (religious meetings, anti-abortion demonstrations...) a feeling of indignation about subjects that distract from the main problems that make life difficult.

For Godfrey Hodgson, the answer is more complex and is due to multitudinous factors. He draws attention to the three great changes that have marked American society since the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement that resulted in the civil rights act (1964) instituting affirmative action and the voting rights act (1965) which, by giving Southern blacks the right to vote, led to Southern whites voting for the Republican Party. A second change was the feminist movement and the massive entry of women on the labor market, which challenged traditional family values. The third change was the renewal of immigration following the 1965 act, which sharpened labor market competition between new immigrants and the most vulnerable native-born workers.

The black liberation and women’s liberation movements – not to mention the counter-culture and opposition to the Vietnam War – drew a backlash that fed the spread of conservatism among the poor and the working class. Both Thomas Frank (briefly) and Godfrey Hodgson (in greater detail) also blame the changes in the Democratic Party. Following Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory, the “New Democrats,” one of whom was Bill Clinton, pushed their party towards the political center. One may even speak of a right-wing drift. They agreed to dismantling welfare and to reducing the health and education budgets, and came out in favor of increased repression against crime. Clinton sought to woo the billionaires of the new economy rather than back the faltering trade unions, which nonetheless continued to finance Clinton’s election campaigns. “Free market populism” became the orthodox doctrine of the 1990s and the Republican and Democratic parties resembled Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum more than ever before.

These two books go beyond an analysis of today’s dominant conservatism. They attack some of the deeply-rooted myths of American society, such as the belief that everyone has an equal chance and the attitude of moral superiority assumed by a nation that is persuaded that its political choices are determined by its democratic ideals.

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