There’s been a lot of buzz recently about how Northeastern liberal elites have driven the average person out of the Democratic Party and into the waiting and willing arms of Republicans who are more sympathetic to their culture and their religion. The latest shot across the bow comes from author Caitlin Flanagan who recently published To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, a book about the joys and agonies of being a stay at home mom. And in this Time Magazine interview, she accuses liberals of angering blue collar white men causing them to leave their traditional Democratic Party home, and taking their wives with them. According to Flanagan, these people feel disrespected by the Democrats.
I don’t buy it. In fact I think it’s manufactured populism put into the service of people who don’t have the interests of working people in mind. These are the real elites and they’ve mastered the language of populism in order to play on the real angers and dissatisfactions of working people. And play it they do, like a finely tuned Stradivarius violin. They have become experts at exploiting the politics of resentment.
Let’s start with Caitlin Flanagan herself. She accuses elitist feminist intellectuals of looking down at the decision that she and countless other women have made to stay home to raise their children in traditional families.
But real feminism has always been about choices. In its truest form, it never dictated that all women had to march in lockstep into the corporate world. All it posited was that women had a right to choose whether to work outside the home. It’s hard to realize in the year 2006, but back in the early 70s when women’s lib first burst on the scene that was a radical and threatening notion. Indeed, in the 50s when recently retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated law school the only job she was offered was to be a legal secretary. Today we would think such a thing absurd and perhaps not even believe it was true. But back in the 50s lots of people barely raised an eyebrow.
Likewise, most people saw nothing wrong with a woman making less than a man for the same job. They reasoned that a working woman had a husband to support her and was just doing it for extra money or because she was bored at home. And perhaps, people thought, she shouldn’t be working at all since she was probably taking a job from a man who really needed it. Except if she was a secretary, a teacher, or a nurse. Those were acceptable jobs for women – jobs no man wanted – but still women were viewed as not needing the same amount of money as a man needed.
We always understood that among men the market was what determined wages not need. That’s the difference between capitalism and socialism. We never did embrace “to each according to his need” over market forces. Except where women were concerned. Then suddenly everybody bagged the free market for just such socialism. Suddenly need became the determinant.
Of course, if the woman was a widow with three kids and she was their sole support, suddenly the need for the same salary as a man who supported a family didn’t factor in. It wasn’t about need or market values. It was the gender, stupid.
And feminists challenged that. They simply had the radical notion that there should be equal pay for equal work. And equal opportunity. Feminists also brought sexual harassment out of the shadows and said that when a woman went to work she should be treated with dignity and not subject to harassment.
Perhaps, though, the single most important achievement of the feminist agenda, one that benefited men and women, was the Family Friendly Leave Act, which permitted employees to use their leave to care for an ill child or any family member in need. Although it’s been proven that women are the primary caregivers of sick children, aging parents, and other relatives in need, the Family Friendly Leave Act has helped anybody who has found him or herself in a situation where there is a need to care for a sick family member.
True feminism has helped to make women’s lives on the job easier. Yes, there are radicals who have taken outrageous positions in the name of feminism, but lumping all feminists together is a lot like accusing all conservatives of being John Birchers. Not true and very unfair.
However, while Caitlin Flanagan finds much fault with feminism by just that tactic, she herself is not a typical stay at home mom at all. She’s a successful writer who happens to be able to work from home. She’s one of those rare people who can have her cake and eat it too. Have a great and satisfying career while wrapping herself in the mantle of traditional values.
By the way, another of feminism’s goals is to get companies to allow telecommuting so that other office workers with less exalted careers than Flanagan’s can also enjoy the same benefit of working from home.
The truth is that most women don’t work for self-fulfillment. Nor do they hold glamorous careers. The average working woman toils at a job that is often physically exhausting, frustrating, boring, and routine. She’s a waitress, hair dresser, secretary or teacher who works long hours for little pay. And she does it because her family needs her salary. Those women are not elitists demanding an arbitrary right in the workforce as Caitlin Flanagan might want you to believe.
Indeed, women who have the means to stay home with their children are often the truly privileged. They are the ones with the money and freedom to do so. But nothing is more elitist and dishonest than a woman who makes a highly successful career out of telling other woman about the joys of staying home and not pursuing a career.
That, however, is one small aspect of the misuse of populist rhetoric. The other is the exploitation of the genuine economic grievances of working class men in the South and Midwest, especially in the rural heartland.
And it’s an old technique too. The truth about the “Northeastern liberal elites” charge is that it was concocted by conservatives in order to harness the anger of or working people and to turn it away from the factories and corporations that were actually exploiting these people and to turn it instead onto unions, blacks, feminists, “outside agitators”, and any other progressive elements that could actually provide genuine relief.
It was a brilliant tactic that in the South, especially, kept white people from joining with blacks to form unions to fight for better wages and improved working conditions. It was a strategy that exploited nativist and racist sentiments and that fed on fear of the “other”. But its real purpose was to channel resentment away from rich factory owners and onto that “other” instead.
By the 70s, the demagogic techniques of the dark underside of populism came to be exploited by Republicans. Kevin Phillips, working for Nixon, was one of the architects of the Republican Southern Strategy. And he has since turned into a real populist, writing major books about the betrayal of working people and the middleclass by the modern day robber barons of the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, many Southerners and Midwesterners bought the phony populism hook, line, and sinker. But it was never an accurate picture of what liberals were. The real picture of liberalism and what it stood for was never elitism. It’s like saying that Civil Rights giants such as John Lewis and Martin Luther King and labor leaders like Lane Kirkland and John Sweeney were the elitists but the Henry Fords, the Ken Lays and the Jeffrey Skillings were the real men of the people. Sure.
It’s especially popular, however, in demagogic circles, to vilify the baby boomer generation. It’s easy to parody the “drugs, sex and rock ’n roll” ethos of the 60s. But it was liberal baby boomers who also rode the buses into Mississippi during Freedom Summer. And three of them died there fighting for the rights of all Americans to be able to register and to vote. And to be able to sit at any lunch counter they wanted to.
Baby boomers also protested the Vietnam War, which was just as wrong as the current war in Iraq is. Some of the ways that they protested were excessive. And, yes, it always was a mistake that too many Americans took out their frustration with a misguided war policy on Vietnam vets instead of on the politicians who got us into the mess. But people, even liberals, learn from their mistakes. You don’t see a similar mistreatment of today’s returning Iraqi veterans. Far from it. No matter which side Americans are on about Iraq, today people understand the incredible sacrifice made by the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces. In fact, it’s frequently the liberals who are out in front protesting that the troops are not being provided with the body armor and equipment they need to protect themselves.
But the baby boomer liberals fought for a better, more just world. Whether it was their embrace of civil rights for African Americans, women’s rights and gay rights, liberals of all generations have always fought for those on the margins of society who often can’t speak for themselves. Hardly elitist.
In fact, the angry rightwing populism of the Republicans was always a slick trick to keep allies divided, using fear, resentment and prejudice as its tools. Genuine liberal populism, though, recognizes the common agonies and common interests of all working people, whether they are women or men, black or white or Latino. It unites us rather than divides us. And it gives voice to the humble so that they may speak truth to power.