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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 05:10 pm

How to avoid the Great Backlash


The next time you get discouraged about Illinois politics, take a look at Kansas. Or South Dakota, where U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin spent the week before Election Day campaigning for the doomed Tom Daschle.

"South Dakota was the most incredible political scene I have ever witnessed," Durbin recalled as we sat in his Springfield office the day before Thanksgiving. "There were 20 negative ads a day going after Daschle." The ads were saying he no longer shared South Dakota values. They said he lived in a million-dollar house in Washington. (As Durbin noted, it doesn't take much of a house to cost a million dollars in Washington.) They dragged out his 1983 divorce, claiming that he dumped his first wife for a younger, prettier woman.

Durbin plunged into this atmosphere, joining a group of 40 Daschle supporters in Sioux Falls to campaign door to door during the final days. At the group's orientation, one of the volunteers looked familiar to him, but he couldn't place her. After the door-to-door work he attended a closing rally for the canvassers, where he saw the woman again and noticed her resemblance to Daschle's grown daughters. Playing his hunch, he introduced himself to get her name. Sure enough, the campaign volunteer was Laurie Daschle, Tom's first wife. Durbin asked her opinion of the ads about the divorce.

"They're inaccurate," she told him. "First of all, Tom didn't dump me, I dumped him. And second, Linda may be younger, but she's not prettier."

This exchange produced one of the few smiles in a sad South Dakota, where Tom Daschle became yet another casualty of the religious and cultural right wing that is sweeping parts of the Great Plains. The phenomenon is described in Thomas Frank's new book, What's the Matter with Kansas?,in which the author traces the origins of the Great Backlash and how it ruined a state with a proud legacy against slavery and for women's suffrage, the birthplace of progressive populism. The Great Backlash is a style of conservatism that motivates voters with explosive social issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, and busing rather than traditional economic issues such as tax fairness and fiscal responsibility. The result, says Frank, is that candidates elected on the basis of conservative cultural issues end up supporting the economic agenda of corporations and the wealthy while doing nothing about abortion, gay rights, and gun control.

"It is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people," he writes. "Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education."

Could it happen here? "In Chicago and most areas downstate, moderate politics are still holding," Durbin says. "This is a centrist state. I hope it will stay that way." Yet he notes that in pockets of Illinois, the Radical Republicans hold sway. Eight of the 10 counties carried by the anti-abortion U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes are in a part of southeastern Illinois between Effingham and the Wabash River. "These are rural areas struggling to survive," Durbin says. "When they're at the bottom of the heap, people look beyond this life to heaven. They give up hope that government will change their lot in life. They come to believe that government and immorality are the same."

One way to keep the Great Backlash from gaining ground in Illinois is, ironically, to shape a stronger, better-organized, more confident Illinois Republican Party, which would avoid nominating candidates like Alan Keyes. "The Republican Party is ripe for reform," says Durbin. "Somebody is going to step in and be the voice of reform in that party." He likens the collapse of the Illinois Republicans to the collapse of U.S. House Democrats in 1994 after 40 years of control: "Parties can become guilty of arrogance when they're in power for long periods."

Another way is to keep electing leaders like Dick Durbin. It doesn't hurt to say we're proud of him in his new role as Senate Democratic whip. He understands Illinoisans. "There are some we are never going to persuade," Durbin says, "but most of us are aiming at the center line in Illinois politics. We need to work with people trying to resolve these complicated moral issues. You have to engage the middle, or they're likely to move to one extreme or the other."

We'll still urge Durbin to be bolder, to take more political risks, and to be more outspoken on issues of peace and justice. But with our eyes on Kansas and South Dakota, somehow the center has never sounded so good.

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