Reactionary Running Mates

Susan Faludi sounds like Pat Buchanan.

If Pat Buchanan is going to run for president, he’ll need a running mate. And with the Reform Party a shambles, he needs to get creative, to find someone who can attract positive attention and reach out to a different base.

I suggest feminist-of-the-moment Susan Faludi, star of Newsweek covers and myriad newspaper puff pieces. She’s tiny and soft-spoken, an unlikely combination for a political crusader. But like Buchanan, she uses an unthreatening manner to deliver a radical message. Faludi and Buchanan are perfect for each other.

Both are clever wordsmiths, able to combine anecdotes and abstractions in a compelling form. Both are adept at manipulating their media images, putting the publicity-maximizing spin on their ideas, and turning up on the covers of news magazines. Both are well-connected insiders who adeptly portray themselves as populists. Both decline to let statistical truth get in the way of a good story. Both have emotional styles that stress empathy for the common man. And both share a general worldview.

It sounds absurd, of course. Buchanan is a man of the hard right, Faludi a woman of the hard left. His 1940s hero is Charles Lindbergh; hers is Henry Wallace. They travel in different circles, and they obviously disagree about abortion. In her latest book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Faludi even zings Buchanan for abandoning his followers at the 1996 Republican convention.

But political tickets don’t depend on complete agreement or personal harmony. They are alliances created to advance a common cause. And while Buchanan and Faludi have many differences, they are both prominent advocates of a particular understanding of what’s wrong with contemporary American life.

Both Buchanan and Faludi believe that Americans in general, and American men in particular, have been betrayed–that the institutions, habits, and attitudes of our time represent broken promises. They both look back on a better day, during and after World War II, when American men could find meaning in job stability and collective endeavors. Current social and economic arrangements, they suggest, have been foisted on the good people of America by a cold system that cares nothing for their needs or aspirations.

After World War II, writes Faludi in the highly touted Stiffed, "The promise was that wartime masculinity, with its common mission, common enemy, and clear frontier, would continue in peacetime.… Like GI Joe, [each American man] would be judged not on his personal dominance but on his sense of duty, his voluntary service to an organization made up of equally anonymous men. The dog soldier would continue to have his day."

But, she says, that didn’t happen: "Where we once lived in a society in which men in particular participated by being useful in public life, we now are surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional public roles, only decorative or consumer ones."

Buchanan, in last year’s The Great Betrayal, anticipates the same theme of wistful anger: "We are losing the country we grew up in. The times when we all sacrificed together, as in World War II, and when we all prospered together, as in the 1950s, are gone. America is no longer one nation indivisible."

Like Faludi, Buchanan is filled with nostalgia for the world of anonymous industrial labor and stable social roles. "People know in their hearts that America will never again be the country they grew up in," he writes. "The years slide by, family incomes stagnate, wives go to work to make sure their children have the same things as other kids at the public school do. For Middle America, something went wrong. They played by the rules, but the promise was unfulfilled."

America has undoubtedly changed significantly over the past 50 years. But Faludi and Buchanan never honestly examine the sources of the changes that so disturb them. For his part, Buchanan tries to blame everything on international trade, as though there were no other forces in American economic or social life. (For a more thorough consideration of the trade argument, see Brink Lindsey’s review, "The Great Contradiction," July 1998.)

The great thing about the trade story is that it offers a simple solution–high taxes on imported goods–and easy-to-understand villains: foreigners and "Third Wave America–the bankers, lawyers, diplomats, investors, lobbyists, academics, journalists, executives, professionals, high-tech entrepreneurs–prospering beyond their dreams." Buchanan plays to his imagined audience’s paranoia and envy. A presidential run will test the appeal of that message and, if historical patterns continue, will find it lacking.

Faludi, on the other hand, attacks impersonal historical forces, not evil elites. The baby boomers’ World War II-generation fathers, the Great Betrayers of her book, are themselves declared victims of "consumerism," the "celebrity culture," and the "ornamental culture." They couldn’t help letting down their sons–the market and the media made them do it. Unable to blame someone in particular, she winds up saying things like, "The betrayer has no face."

In her book and in interviews to promote it, Faludi stresses the crying need for "control," even telling one feature writer that she takes notes on her book tour to maintain her own sense of control. She doesn’t approve of the definition of masculinity that depends on control, but neither can she accept a society where things change without someone in charge. "These days," she complains in an interview with Mother Jones, "everything changes overnight. Nobody knows who is in charge. No one knows who to appeal to." The political action that could end men’s betrayal is without a leverage point.

To both Buchanan and Faludi, the changes in American life over the past 50 years have nothing to do with the desires or dissatisfactions of real, sympathetic Americans. Those changes were either created by the privileged classes, disloyal to their nation and contemptuous of its people, or by a de facto conspiracy between the media and the "marketplace," neither of which has anything to do with real life. In either case, the answer lies in "rebellion" through political activism.

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