Media

Reactionary Running Mates

Susan Faludi sounds like Pat Buchanan.

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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.

These ideas make for impassioned prose, but they're lame as historical analysis. The very reason that cultural, economic, and social changes are so hard to control in a free society is that they emerge through the uncoordinated choices of millions of people. The world we live in is the product not of elite conspiracies but of dispersed, often highly personal, decisions.

The fatal flaw in the Faludi-Buchanan message becomes apparent when you consider the issue on which the two writers would seem most to disagree: the role of women in American life, and most particularly in the economy. Buchanan attributes the rise of working women to–what else?–lower tariffs. Once John Kennedy started reducing trade barriers, the '50s family was doomed.

"The social costs?" writes Buchanan, "As workers' wages stagnated and fell, wives and mothers entered the job market in record numbers to maintain the family standard of living. In 1960 fewer than one-fifth of women with children under the age of six were in the labor force; today almost two-thirds are.…The price is paid in falling birthrates and rising delinquency, in teenage drug abuse, alcohol abuse, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and abortions–and in the high divorce rate among working parents. The American family is paying a hellish price for the good things down at the mall." (Emphasis in the original.)

For Faludi, meanwhile, feminism has nothing to do with work. It is a form of rebellion against consumer culture. Feminists threw out their Clairol and ignored the siren's song of snazzy appliances. Stiffed barely mentions women in the workplace, except to pooh-pooh the concerns of men in traditionally masculine occupations.

This emphasis is just plain weird–but telling. The feminism that most American women, and most American men, have embraced over the past three decades is the feminism that says women can and should fully participate in economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is not an ideal that rejects participation in the marketplace, either as consumers or as producers, but rather one that gives women an equal shot. It doesn't declare women victims of their hair coloring. It simply encourages them to find the identity, hair and all, that suits them.

The feminism that most Americans embrace (while often rejecting that label) is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for women as well as men. Women went into the workforce in part to make money for their families, particularly in the inflation-ravaged 1970s, but also to address their own desires for stimulation, independence, dignity, and, yes, personal consumption.

The social and economic changes that followed were a product of those myriad, dispersed, undirected personal choices. "Nobody knows who is in charge" because no one is, in fact, in charge. The dynamism that Faludi and Buchanan oppose comes from the unplanned pursuit of happiness–the personal search, by trial and error, for better ways of living.

If everything was wonderful in the good old days, the feminist story makes no sense. Women should have been happy with the world as it was. They might have rebelled against advertising, Faludi-style, simply by buying less stuff. They didn't have to go to work and buy even more.

Similarly, if everything was wonderful in the good old days of anonymous corporate cogs, nobody would have bought The Organization Man, let alone In Search of Excellence. There would have been no late-'70s enthusiasm for "entrepreneurship," extending to the present day. There would have been no stories about the rage of the depersonalized, alienated factory worker, the bored and angry man on the assembly line. Faludi and Buchanan are both old enough to remember a time when factory work was portrayed as hellish subjugation or mind-numbing routine, not the stuff of nostalgia.

The static world of postwar ideals changed partly because of "outside" pressures–from foreign competition, from upstart companies, from social critics who hit a nerve–and partly because it was in many ways to many people unsatisfactory. Today, Buchanan acts as though only grueling physical labor, preferably in a noisy factory, is valuable and real. Anything else–selling photocopiers, managing health insurance claims, delivering packages, answering phone banks, providing emergency medicine, remodeling houses, repairing computers–anything with a modicum of independence, a clean office environment, ongoing public contact, or technical requirements is no damned good. The Middle Americans who hold those jobs are not his people.

Buchanan's anti-elitism excludes most Americans. So does Faludi's. She tries to justify her focus on the dysfunctional fringe of American life by declaring these outliers indicative of the future mainstream. "Every human being who has lived a life has something important to say," she told the Chicago Sun-Times. Every human being, that is, who fits the story Susan Faludi wants to tell.

In an interview with The Gazette in Montreal, she encountered the inevitable question about why Silicon Valley has no place in her book. Isn't it full of men? "I suppose I could have done a chapter on the perils of basing manhood on being an Internet whiz kid," she said. "It's hardly the same experience as learning something that's been handed down, a feeling that you're contributing to a purpose."

So much for every human being having a valuable story. In fact, Faludi avoids testosterone-drenched Silicon Valley, a place of great purpose and little "ornament," for the same reason Buchanan never mentions steel minimills. Their vision of the good life as static and shaped by collective, political decisions depends on excluding any hint that there might be winners in a world that has changed, that those winners might be sympathetic, or that those changes might have come simply from people trying to do things better.

The "elite" Buchanan hates so much is not primarily a privileged hereditary class but rather Middle Americans, male and female, who want the freedom to be themselves and the opportunity to find a better life. The good old days were bad for many people: for free spirits who didn't want to live through "service to an organization made up of equally anonymous men"; for people who valued creativity over playing by the rules; for people of the wrong background, color, or region; for people who wanted not "the world we grew up in" but a better world. The Buchanan-Faludi ticket is a ticket not to a happier, or even safer, future, but only to a future where somebody else is in control.