In Kansas and other states in the American heartland, economic class conflict (poor farmers and blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) has been transposed into an opposition between honest, hard-working, Christian Americans on the one hand, and decadent latte-drinking liberals who drive foreign cars, mock patriotism and advocate abortion and homosexuality on the other: so Thomas Frank argues in What’s the Matter with America? The main economic interest of populist conservatism is to get rid of the strong state, which taxes the population in order to finance regulatory interventions, and to introduce an economic programme whose slogan might be ‘less tax, fewer regulations’. From the standard perspective which holds that economic agency is based on the rational pursuit of self-interest, the inconsistency of this stance is obvious: populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and increased deregulation means more freedom for the corporations that are driving impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help for small farmers, and so on. In the eyes of the evangelical populists, however, the state is an alien power and, together with the UN, an agent of the Antichrist: it relieves the Christian believer of the responsibility of stewardship, and thus undermines the need for individual morality that makes each of us the architect of our own salvation.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on November 4th 2004.]