Radical media, politics and culture.

Thomas Frank, "American Psyche"

"American Psyche"

Thomas Frank, New York Times


The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America.

By John Sperling, Suzanne Helburn,
Samuel George, John Morris and Carl Hunt. Illustrated.

272 pp. PoliPoint Press. $39.95.

The Uncivil War: How a New Elite Is Destroying Our

By David Lebedoff.
191 pp. Taylor Trade
Publishing. $24.95.

Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the
Twenty-First Century.
By Sam Roberts.
293 pp. Times
Books/ Henry Holt & Company. $27.50.

Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has
By Sherrod Brown.
228 pp. The New Press.

That we are a nation divided is an almost universal
lament of this bitter election year. However, the exact
property that divides us — elemental though it is said
to be — remains a matter of some controversy. One
thing is certain in the search to unravel the mystery
of the ''great divide'': we know for sure the answer
isn't class. We can rule that uncomfortable subject out
from the start.The best-known iteration of the theme is the red-state,
blue-state theory, which won instant currency after the
election of 2000. From the color-coded, state-by-state
results of Bush vs. Gore, it was said, we could
extrapolate the grandest of social conclusions. We
could distinguish two separate civilizations living
side by side in our land: one patriotic and the other
self-loathing; one authentic and the other affected;
one fond of Fords while the other swooned senselessly
for Saabs.

Despite its naked partisanship and its extreme
vulnerability to refutation, the red-blue narrative
held the punditry in such awe that, inevitably, it
generated its precise antithesis: The Great Divide:
Retro vs. Metro America,
in which all the stereotypes
are reversed and all the partisanship flows the other
way; in which the noble heartland red-staters come off
as subsidy-hogging boors while the effete blue-staters
of conservative propaganda are transformed into a
thoughtful, enlightened producer class.

The Great Divide was notable for its clever ad
campaign, which ran in the various national newspapers
in the summer of Bush vs. Kerry and which usually
consisted of two photographs — say, Mel Gibson and
Michael Moore — to illustrate the idea that there are
two Americas with irreconcilable cultures. The book's
design is similarly polished; countless maps, charts
and full-color photos mimic the reassuring pattern of a
high-school social studies textbook (the package
includes as well a CD with graphics and appendixes,
slipped on the inside back cover).

The product, though, has nowhere near the clarity and
simplicity of the packaging. The book was, as
acknowledged on its Web site (www.retrovsmetro.org), a
''team'' effort: its title page lists four authors
(three of them economists), a pollster and two
researchers, all of them led by John Sperling, a
Cambridge-trained economist and the billionaire founder
of the University of Phoenix, among other enterprises.
The style varies so greatly over the course of the text
— the innards dryly parse the problems afflicting the
American workforce, while the first four chapters
polemically lay out the neoregionalist theme — that
the book is best approached as two separate volumes,
riven by a great divide of its own.

The more valuable half is the interior, effectively a
detailed appendix to the barging introductory chapters.
Indeed, its discussion of the disconnect between wage
growth (or the lack of it) and productivity growth, to
choose just one example, ought to be read by all
management theorists, Wall Street gurus and CNBC
pundits before their next pronouncements on the magic
powers of the unfettered free market to enrich us all.
Unfortunately, the insides don't seem to have been read
by the authors of the book's bluster-packed opening
section. Here the goal is to blend together two of the
worst big ideas of recent years — the new economy
fantasy of the 1990's and the red/blue thesis of the
last few years — into a universal narrative that can
simultaneously direct the electoral strategy of the
Democratic Party and inform future scholarship. The
essential cleavage in American life, the authors argue,
is not between left and right or business class and
working class; instead, it is a regional matter, a
cultural divide between the states, polarized and
unbridgeable. One America, to judge from the book's
illustrations, works with lovable robots and lives in
''vibrant'' cities with ballet troupes, super-creative
Frank Gehry buildings and quiet, tasteful religious
ritual; the other relies on contemptible extraction
industries (oil, gas and coal) and inhabits a world of
white supremacy and monster truck shows and religious
ceremonies in which beefy men in cheap clothes scream
incomprehensibly at one another.

A stereotype, to be sure, but a stereotype that we must
not underestimate; versions of it have been floating
around in the new economy and New Democrat literature
for years; and for a large number of centrist
Democratic thinkers, this may be the real deal, a
Rosetta stone to decipher and to win over America.
The Great Divide furnishes them with demographic,
poll-based vindication for the strategy they have been
pursuing all along: forget the focus on class conflict
that defined the party in the old days, and rebrand the
Democrats as the voice of enlightened industry versus
dirty industry; of sensitive, artistic billionaires
versus loathsome, racist billionaires.

In the half of the book making this argument there is
an error or misstatement or indefensible historical
interpretation on nearly every page (and this despite
the formidable research demonstrated by the footnotes,
which I should say include references to my own work).
Some of these can be dismissed as the fault of the
authors, of course, but most are intrinsic to the
argument itself, to the impossible demands of tracing a
cultural cleavage that seems to give Democrats an edge
and that simultaneously denies the significance of
social class.

Take, for example, the authors' fixation on extraction
industries (in which they mysteriously include
farming), to which they return repeatedly to explain
American conservatism. Since states that have large
extraction sectors tended to support Bush, there must
be something retrograde and Republicanizing about those
industries, something beyond the simple facts that Bush
himself came out of the oil industry and that many oil
honchos are on the right. The closest the authors come
to an explanation is the assertion that the extraction
tradition is one of ''plundering the earth'' with the
help of ''poorly educated, low-wage labor.'' Metro
America, on the other hand, is the kind of rosy place
depicted in television commercials for Microsoft, where
lots of ''diverse'' things go on because people have
embraced a ''postindustrial digital economy.''

Economic determinism ordinarily rubs Americans the
wrong way, but for some reason this particularly blunt
variety enjoys extravagant popularity with the
map-and-poll set in Washington. Economics are fate, in
the most sweeping sense, with people of all classes
bearing the political imprint of whatever industry is
statistically dominant in their region. The actual
process by which this imprinting operation takes place,
however, is never explained or even really examined.
The even more glaring question of why poorly educated,
low-wage labor in Retroland would vote for a system
that only benefits its masters is scarcely raised. In
The Great Divide we never find out precisely how it
is that coal mining clouds the minds of the people who
live in coal states; the map is supposed to be
sufficient evidence of the effect. Coal mining is here
and here and here, and these places voted Republican.
Ergo, extraction industries make people ''Retro.''

The mysteries of religion are brushed off even more
abruptly. We can see from electoral maps that the most
Republican areas also tend to be dominated by Southern
Baptists, Methodists or Lutherans; these three
denominations are therefore lumped together as
evangelical churches, a term which is soon upgraded to
evangelical-fundamentalist and then charged by the
authors with inexcusable backwardness. Bringing forward
little evidence other than those maps, they write that
''evangelical/fundamentalist religion . . . leads to:
rejection of scientific method, especially the belief
in evolution; racial/ethnic prejudice and
discriminatory behavior; sexist/discriminatory
attitudes toward women and homosexuals.''

Between extraction and evangelicalism, Sperling and
company conclude, entire regions of the country are
lost to the Democrats. What's more, they assert —
overlooking the inconvenient fact that the explosive
growth in fundamentalism is a relatively recent
phenomenon — these regions have always been backward,
always been lost. Metro versus Retro: the categories
are eternal; they go back to colonial times. The
authors' advice to Democrats is simply to forget about
those racist clods on the other side. Walk away from
them. Don't waste your time trying to figure them out.

As political strategy this is folly; as social theory
it is something even worse. It is not just that the
authors' interpretations are insupportable or that they
get the Methodist and Lutheran traditions wildly,
inexcusably wrong. What I mean is that this way of
judging entire regions, religions and classes by polls
and current electoral maps inevitably does violence to
historical truth. Surely one of the authors' many
researchers could have pointed out that while mine
owners have indeed been reactionaries in the past, mine
workers were once famous for their radicalism — think
of ''Big Bill'' Haywood or the United Mine Workers or
''Harlan County, U.S.A.'' Similarly, it may smooth the
narrative to lump agriculture with extraction
industries, and dismiss farmers as subsidy addicts
irreversibly deaf to the wisdom of Metro America, but
to do so the authors must ignore the innumerable
writers and politicians who have described farming as
an occupation that teaches unforgettable lessons in the
madness of the free market. And naturally they must
downplay the many waves of radicalism that farming has
produced over the years.

The substitution of region for class produces many
distortions, but the worst is the treatment of the
pitched electoral battle of 1896, in which Populists
and Democrats united behind William Jennings Bryan
while eastern industry backed William McKinley. Seen
through the lenses of class conflict, that election was
the precise opposite of today's red-blue contests, with
the South and the Great Plains on fire for reform
rather than conservatism. Viewed through the
Retro-Metro prism, however, there is perfect
continuity. In this view, Bryan was no progressive but
just another fundie who spoke for ''America's major
extraction industry: agriculture,'' while McKinley, by
serving the needs of big business, stood squarely in
the Metro tradition, the line that was to yield ''our
present urban, suburban, eclectic, multiethnic,
multireligious and multigendered society.''

The Retro-Metro authors may not have known it, but they
weren't the only ones drawing inspiration from the 1896
presidential contest this year. Karl Rove, too, spoke
often of his admiration for William McKinley, and of
his desire to win the sort of shattering victory over
liberalism that McKinley did. The same weird coming
together can be found in the book's desire to identify
Democrats with the new economy, in apparent ignorance
of the fact that high-profile conservatives — from
Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George Gilder — had
already staked a pretty strong claim to that particular
bit of cultural territory. My own political instinct in
regard to the new economy is: Let the conservatives
have it. And in the aftermath of Enron, WorldCom and
the Nasdaq crash, let them have it good and hard.

Not these authors. What is most disheartening about
The Great Divide, or its first half, anyway, is its
advice to Democrats to present themselves as the true
party of business, and to cast conservatism as a
superstitious doctrine that undermines our
international competitiveness. Combine this longing to
be the political choice of new-economy winners with the
book's thinly veiled contempt for Southerners and most
Midwesterners, and Sperling and company have walked
cluelessly into a familiar stereotype: the ''liberal

The authors of The Great Divide do not much concern
themselves with the thinking of the other side,
preferring to brush it all off as extraction-spawned
hallucination. They would have done well to read 'The
Uncivil War,
a book by David Lebedoff that is in some
ways an eerie mirror image of their own. Both pooh-pooh
traditional notions of social class, insisting that the
conflict of haves and have-nots has been supplanted by
a new social divide. Lebedoff, a lawyer and the author
of four previous books, including Cleaning Up,
considers it a ''new class war'' in which a group
defined by its faith in measured intelligence lords it
over the ''Left Behinds,'' an assortment of
blue-collars and blue-bloods united by a commitment to
traditional society. This book, too, is better read as
an artifact of the current confused moment than as a
persuasive text. Lebedoff writes elegantly but he
scarcely bothers to substantiate his assertions: here
what replaces class is anti-intellectualism, not
regionalism. We are all said to be under the thumb of a
''New Elite,'' an arrogant meritocracy that believes
''the experts know best'' and that, in its hubris,
''hates the idea of majority rule.'' Even if you've
never heard of Lebedoff you've heard this argument
repeated a thousand times on AM radio, on Fox News, in
the pages of conservative magazines — and yet there is
a warning here that Democrats ought to heed as they
regroup for 2008. Suppose what Sperling and company say
is true; suppose the professionals and ''creatives''
really are becoming open to Democratic appeals:
Lebedoff reminds us that becoming the party of an
economic and cultural elite isn't necessarily a winning
move, since it only reinforces conservatives' efforts
to position themselves as the populists in a redefined
class war. ''A new class is growing,'' he writes, ''but
the backlash against it is growing, too, and
potentially involves a larger number of voters.''

After these dizzying theoretical ascensions, these
minute examinations of demographic shadows, it is
refreshing to be reminded of how convincingly the old,
familiar categories can still explain the reality
around us, if we will only bother to pay attention. In
Who We Are Now, his second book making sense of
census and other data, Sam Roberts, a New York Times
editor, offers a quick and brutal snapshot of the
trends in wealth distribution: wages (not adjusted for
inflation) have doubled since 1981, while compensation
for the country's ten top C.E.O.'s has increased 4,300
percent; meanwhile, the top one-tenth of a percent of
the population, who collectively made about 100 times
the average household income in 1970, now make 560
times the average.

Someone who understands the implication of this is
Representative Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from the
steel-producing 13th District of Ohio, and a liberal of
the old school. In Myths of Free Trade he describes
the role that the false religion of unregulated free
trade has had in reopening the class divide, and also
what we might do about it. For him the word ''elite''
refers not to someone who likes books, but to the
industry lobbyists whose planes clogged National
Airport and whose gifts inundated Capitol Hill during
the debate over Nafta. Brown could easily have taken
the anti-intellectual route to populism since, as he
points out, virtually the entire pundit class,
regardless of party, routinely supports free-trade
agreements (and just as routinely depicts opponents as
''selling out the poor'' or Luddites). The real battle
he lays out is not between salt-of-the-earth folks and
effete know-it-alls, or between tolerant Metro and
screeching Retro: it is between all of us and the
corporate power that today bombards labor and
environment from the ideological heights of free trade.
Deregulate, privatize and let the invisible hand have
its way, this power tells us now, and everything will
be just fine for everybody. But of course it has never
been that simple. ''It has been a 100-year battle
between the privileged and the rest of us,'' Brown
reminds us. ''We took on oil and chemical companies to
enact clean air and safe drinking water laws,'' he
adds. ''We fought off Wall Street bankers to create
Social Security. We battled entrenched business
interests to enact women's and civil rights,
protections for the disabled and prohibitions on child
labor. We fought for all of it. Every bit of progress
made in the struggle for economic and social justice
came over the opposition of society's most privileged
and most powerful.'' As this bright new day of the
free-trade faith threatens to take it all apart, Brown
invites us to look where we might just be going.

[Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of What's
the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart
of America.