A few years ago, I read Thomas Frank’s 2005 book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas? In this volume, Frank explores the idea that an elite exploits masses of voters in the lower and middle classes to vote against their economic self-interest through the use of fearmongering, or specifically by creating an appeal to common moral values—values shared by the elite and these masses in opposition to the “other,” whether that other happened to be an atheist, a brown person, or a gay depended on the particular nature of the audience.
It’s a fascinating idea and something I thought about again while watching Saving Africa’s Witch Children on HBO the other day. It seems that a strong cultural belief in spirits and the power of witchcraft in Nigeria (and other parts of that continent) has seamlessly melded with Pentecostal Christianity to give rise to the idea that most any misfortune that befalls a family or village can be attributed to children possessed by evil spirits. Such children are routinely abused in ways that would get parents locked up for the rest of their natural lives here. Many are abandoned. Some parents pay religious figures (Nigeria’s equivalent of televangelists, apparently) exorbitant sums of money for bizarre rituals claimed to exorcise their demons. Meanwhile, a class of “haves” in cities appears to receive all of the benefits of Nigeria’s vast oil resources, while dirt-poor people who live on the equivalent of less than one US dollar per day fish off coasts that have seen millions of gallons of oil spilled in previous decades.
There seems to be a powerfully ironic analogy to be drawn here to Louisiana’s grim situation. People here, in this state so red it bleeds, vote routinely for people who promise to protect the unborn, keep the gays from tainting their marriages, keep the government from taking all of their money and guns, et cetera. These are not necessarily dumb people but I can’t help but think that we are reaping the whirlwind (to coin a phrase) from having a populace that gets most of its news from the internet and by and large makes no serious effort to stay informed about issues that impact their daily lives.
Generations ago, there were genuine distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. Now it seems we simply have three major competing political philosophies: liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. The conservatives and libertarians have done their damnedest over the last thirty years to gradually dismantle or at least render ineffective the regulatory agencies, rules, and structures in place to protect real people from fictitious people (i.e., corporations). The result is what you see before you: government agencies literally in bed with the industry they are supposed to regulate, Wall Street billionaires who shatter our economy as a result of lax oversight and pay no price, corporate behemoths who locate their factories in “emerging markets” (i.e., China and India, where labor costs are far cheaper due to lack of worker and environmental safeguards), ecological disasters of unprecedented magnitude.
Who is to blame? We are. Didn’t you step into that voting booth and vote for that handsome fellow who goes to your church and prays to your god, while his kids go to better schools than yours and he uses his influence to “give your money back to you” (deregulate industry)? That guy and that gal, the ones who said they share your values—they don’t give two halves of a rat’s ass about you. When they go home to their mansions at night, they’re laughing at you. Sure, they’ll make a smaller government and they’ll pass laws that protect babies and keep gays from getting married and brown people from moving into your country or your neighborhood, but they won’t tell you the truth, which is this: none of those things will help you. Not one. You’ll still be unemployed or underemployed, your kids will still drink dirty water and breathe dirty air, and you’ll still struggle to get by as your economic prospects dwindle and the notion that you’ll be able to provide a future for your children that is better than the life you led becomes a distant, foolish dream. You’ll be fishing oily waters for marine life that is no longer there and watching mudslides cover your home (hopefully from the outside) as the strip mining operation known by the benign moniker of “mountaintop removal” denudes the area around it of trees. While you are watching the witch-children, the nice people you voted into office are stealing the money from your back pocket.