The late E.P. Thompson is not a man I would imagine finds much favor in these pages. The reformist Communist who needed the Soviet invasion of Hungary to give up the Party; the founding editor New Left Review, who fell out with that sodality after an arcane spat with its younger generation; the loser in a major intellectual debate with the great Polish anatomist of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski. Yet Thompson is also remembered for a phrase which conservatives might consider stealing: “the enormous condescension of posterity.” The context of this cutting remark is seldom given. It occurs in the preface of Thompson’s seminal history, The Making of the English Working Class:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite, the cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.

Every historian should have as his guiding principle so generous an estimation of his subject. Note that Thompson neither stoops to flatter his with hagiography (“deluded,” “foolhardy,” “backward-looking”), nor assail it with the easy benefit of hindsight. Part of the reason for this is that he understood intuitively what the Left routinely forgets: in order to represent the working-class one must first take it seriously. Here is how not to take it seriously:

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Thus in one fell swoop does Barack Obama label a good portion of the electorate (those “small towns” are not confined to Pennsylvania) resentful, racist, gun-toting Bible nuts—misguided souls in need of someone like himself to shepherd them out of their miserable condition. The liberal fear of sounding smug or elitist is tantamount to German war guilt, yet how frequently liberals have to atone. Noemie Emery in the Weekly Standard reminds us of Gary Hart’s joke in 1984 that while campaigning in New Jersey he got to hold “samples from a toxic dump." And Hart’s core constituents didn’t learn from that mistake even after he lost the nomination and their party got trounced: “I don’t know how Reagan won,” was said to be the refrain on college campuses that year. “No one I know voted for him.” Obama’s rambling rhetoric was an attempt to paraphrase the sociology of Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a bestselling book that set out to explain how a once radical state had gone overwhelmingly for conservatives in nearly every election since the 80’s (George W. Bush won Kansas twice, the first time by a 21% margin, the second time by a 26% one). In Frank’s thesis, “explosive” cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion have trumped class in voting patterns, and Kansas served as a microcosm for the nation at large. Reagan Democrats persisted well beyond the boom of the Reagan years. It wasn’t the economy, stupid, after all. Frank’s thesis was called into question by sociologists like Andrew Greeley, Michael Hout and Larry Bartels, who chided him for his facts and figures, and for an over-reliance on the backlash theory of American politics. Implicit in this theory, of course, is that the proles are too benighted to know their own interests, and that ultimately unelected left-leaning politicians have these always in mind. There is something self-fulfilling about this prophecy. No one likes to have his grievances explained away as pigheaded ignorance or a failure of personal agency, and the voters of Pennsylvania will likely show Obama just how "bitter" they can be next November. Slate’s Mickey Kaus nicely captures the dialectical whoopsy-daisy of the Kansas mode of analysis: “Frank's theories…are on the verge of convincing millions of average Americans that the Republicans were right, at least about the likely Dem nominee.” However, the success of Frank's book was itself tied to a deeper strain of cultural amnesia because his seemingly original conceit was actually an age-old one that extended far beyond the Dust Bowl. As Robert Conquest writes in Reflections on a Ravaged Century:

Marx’s own attitude to the working class was already that it had its duty to support him. When industrial workers voted Conservative in the British election of 1867, Engels wrote to his colleague, “Once again the English working class has disgraced itself.” It is hard to imagine what he would have thought of the elections of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the skilled proletariat voted heavily Conservative—many years after Capitalism, Conservatism and suchlike were destined to have disappeared.

“Do you want to know something terrible?” asks Max, the Red don of Cambridge in Tom Stoppard's latest play Rock n' Roll. “I thought about voting for Thatcher...To keep the issues in plain sight. Sharp enough to cut. Draw blood. Widen the gap and rub the workers’ faces in it, reward the fat and the smug. Anything to wake the buggers up—anything—anything better than five years of amelioration and accommodation calling itself the Party of Labour. But I voted for them.” Or consider Henrik Hertzberg’s marvelous performance in the New Yorker immediately following the 2004 presidential election:

In voting for Bush, as eighty per cent of them did, many of these formerly nonvoting white evangelicals are remaining true to their unworldliness. In voting for a party that wants to tax work rather than wealth, that scorns thrift, that sees the natural world not as a common inheritance but as an object of exploitation, and that equates economic inequality with economic vitality, they have voted against their own material (and, some might imagine, spiritual) well-being.

Or Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog in one of his many fits of manic-depressive epistolary expression:

Dear Governor Stevenson, Herzog wrote, gripping his seat in the hurtling train, Just a word with you, friend. I supported you in 1952. Like many others I thought this country might be ready for its great age in the world and intelligence at last assert itself in public affairs--a little more Emerson's American Scholar, the intellectuals coming into their own. But the instinct of the people was to reject mentality and its images, ideas, perhaps mistrusting them as foreign. It preferred to put its trust in visible goods. So things go on as before with those who think a great deal and effect nothing, and those who think nothing evidently doing it all. You might as well be working for them, I suppose. I am sure the Coriolanus bit was painful, kissing the asses of the voters, especially in cold states like New Hampshire. Perhaps you did contribute something useful in the last decade, showing up the old-fashioned self-intensity of the "humanist," the look of the "intelligent man" grieving at the loss of his private life, sacrificed to public service. Bah! The general won because he expressed low-grade universal potato love.

"True to their unworldliness," "low-grade universal potato love." When disgruntled progressives start talking like that, it beats “moral values” all to hell.

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