POLITICS JUNE 25, 2001
New York representative Peter King likes to tell a story about his friend, the cabletelevision talk-show host Chris Matthews. Last May, King was a guest on Matthews's show. Rudy Giuliani had just hinted that he was about to drop out of the New York Senate race, and King's colleague, Rick Lazio, was preparing to step in as his replacement. King, who had once eyed the nomination himself, wasn't especially keen on the upstart from Long Island. But Matthews was even more dismissive. At one point in their banter, Matthews briefly sized up Lazio's chances: "He said he knew Lazio was going to lose the first day he wore that prep school outfit," King recalls.
When I ask him about the anecdote, Matthews disputes both the syntax ("I said, 'You don't get elected senator with khakis on.' Not preppy clothes--khakis") and the implication ("I was just saying the guy's got to grow up. He's running in the New York Senate race; the guy should put a suit on"). But then Matthews betrays himself. Before we can move on, he insists, with his trademark manic laugh: "I don't have any class resentment. Why? Because Lazio went to Vassar? You know, give me a break... My son wanted to go there till we straightened him out."The episode is standard fare for anyone familiar with Matthews's show. In the course of a typical hour of "Hardball," which he hosts five nights per week on cnbc, Matthews denigrates Ivy League elitists, scolds politicians who forget they serve real working people, and bristles at the suggestion that anyone is entitled to public office. It's an appealing shtick--so appealing, in fact, that Matthews's brand of class-based populism is becoming the reigning ideological stance on the political talk-show circuit. In the same nightly time slot, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly strikes a similar note on "The O'Reilly Factor," now cable's top-rated news show. This winter, msnbc hired regular "Hardball" guest Mike Barnicle to carry on the tradition two hours before Matthews. And, though he editorializes less, you can even detect a similar tone in Tim Russert's weekly inquisitions on NBC's "Meet the Press."
There's a lot to be said for Matthews's and O'Reilly's populism. It implicitly justifies aggressive questioning, which provokes more revealing answers than the deferential style of, say, "Face the Nation." And when politicians evade a question, Matthews and O'Reilly don't meekly move on; they jump in with answers of their own, answers that are blunt, entertaining, sometimes infuriating, and--in Matthews's case, at least--informed by an impressive grasp of American political history.
But there's something odd about the Matthews-O'Reilly worldview: For them, the term "working class"--the group both men consider their primary constituency--is defined not by income but by cultural values such as hard work, devotion to family, and respect for authority and tradition. And these value questions do explain a lot about American politics: why Bill and Hillary Clinton aroused so much hostility, why Al Gore fared poorly among blue-collar men, why Americans resented welfare. What they don't explain is why Democrats ever win. If working-class Americans have distinct cultural preferences that lean to the right, they also have distinct economic preferences that lean to the left. And it's these working-class economic interests that Matthews and O'Reilly--despite their in-your-face populism--generally ignore.
Matthews and o'reilly are in some senses heirs to--and in some senses rebels against--a political tradition that has maintained at least a subterranean presence in the United States for 100 years. It is largely a white-ethnic, Catholic tradition--forged in turn-of-the-century immigrant neighborhoods that responded to the neglect and disdain of nativist Protestant elites by building their own churches, labor unions, and political machines. The tradition of Fiorello LaGuardia and Tip O'Neill, it is also the tradition of Richard Nixon's silent majority, the Reagan Democrats, and, to some degree, Pat Buchanan. Its defining feature isn't populism, which also plays a role in Protestant and Jewish American political traditions. Its defining feature is its emphasis on solidarity. Protestant populism--think of the Christian right--also reveres tradition and resents cultural elites, but it is more individualistic and less suspicious of profit as a motivating force in society. Jewish populism has traditionally manifested itself as socialism or social democracy, focusing on economic issues to the exclusion of cultural ones. Only the Catholic tradition has historically emphasized solidarity as a value in both economic and cultural spheres. Thus it was that, in the 1930s, Catholic journals like Commonweal and America denounced "government by plutocracy" and lamented an income distribution that left "so many as owners of nothing," while the powerful Cardinal Dennis Dougherty of Philadelphia railed against Hollywood's exploitation of "sex and crime" as a "vicious and insidious attack ... on the very foundations of our Christian civilization."
While assimilation has dulled the distinctions among the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish political traditions, those boundaries were still quite clear in the world of Matthews's and O'Reilly's youth. Like the vast majority of children after World War II living in neighborhoods with large Catholic populations, both attended parochial schools from elementary school through high school--Matthews graduated from LaSalle College High School just outside Philadelphia in 1963; O'Reilly, from Chaminade High School in Long Island in 1967. And unlike contemporary parochial schools, which educate a significant number of non-Catholics, in O'Reilly and Matthews's day there was almost no religious diversity. Asked what percentage of his classmates were Catholic, O'Reilly says, "Everybody." Matthews responds: "One hundred percent."
Like most Catholics in the 1950s, the two families attended Mass regularly--Matthews's family at St. Christopher's in the Northeastern Philadelphia neighborhood of Somerton, where he was an altar boy, and O'Reilly's family at St. Brigid's in Westbury, New York. And the local parish had more than just religious significance: In his book American Catholic, Charles Morris describes how, even in the suburbs, "Catholics still instinctively looked to the parish as a social center." As John Blasi, a childhood friend of O'Reilly's, recalls, "You tended to associate with guys you'd know from school. You'd see them at Mass... Your families would socialize. It wouldn't necessarily be church-affiliated, but it was people with common backgrounds."
To some degree, Catholics kept to themselves in the postwar years for the same reason Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and everyone else did: America was a more segregated, less multicultural, less tolerant place. But there were also specific forces driving Catholic insularity. First, the Church's decision to bolster its system of parochial education in the '20s and '30s--a response to both creeping secularism and widespread anti-Catholic discrimination--kept many Catholic children out of public schools. Second, many Catholics interpreted Al Smith's crushing defeat in the 1928 presidential election as a rejection of Catholic participation in American public life.
The result was what Morris calls a "remarkable emotional withdrawal from secular America" that lasted until John F. Kennedy's presidential victory in 1960. Beginning in the '20s, Catholics began erecting a sort of parallel civil society. Catholic magazines, radio programs, and book clubs proliferated. Catholic professional associations emerged to hand down ethical guidelines--bar associations weighed in on how Catholic lawyers should handle divorce cases; medical associations gave advice on how Catholic doctors should comport themselves in secular hospitals. Academics cultivated distinctly Catholic versions of disciplines such as history (via the American Catholic Historical Association) and sociology (through the American Catholic Sociological Society). The Knights of Columbus served as a network for Catholic businessmen; the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists emerged to protect Catholic labor interests.
As with pre-civil-rights blacks, Catholic ethnic segregation enforced a measure of economic integration: Doctors, teachers, and factory workers lived in the same neighborhoods. Thus, for postwar suburban Catholics like O'Reilly and Matthews, class had not only economic connotations but social and cultural ones as well. "Working-class" didn't just mean someone who worked a blue-collar job but also someone who went to church regularly, paid his bills on time, and drank American beer--regardless of what he happened to do for a living.
Yet by the mid-'60s, median income and education levels for Catholics had met or exceeded those of the nation as a whole. And, as American Catholics grew more affluent in the postwar years, the sense of cultural solidarity began to overshadow economic solidarity, at least for the more prosperous. In his book Parish Boundaries, John McGreevy describes how Connecticut priests in the mid-'60s found it increasingly difficult to fill seats at meetings devoted to labor issues, complaining that their parishioners were preoccupied with vacations and televisions.
Which helps explain why O'Reilly--who grew up in a Long Island Levittown and whose college-educated father worked as an accountant--calls his background working-class. O'Reilly's recent, semiautobiographical book, The O'Reilly Factor, dwells at length on issues of class but conceives of them almost entirely in social terms. In one particularly blunt reminiscence about his undergraduate days at Marist College, O'Reilly describes how "Vassar ... was nearby, but ... the Ivy Leaguers up from Princeton or down from Cornell got the dates; we were treated like hired help." Matthews has expressed similar feelings. Though he admits he didn't grow up poor, he exhibits a certain disdain for the country-club set. "My wife grew up a little better off," he discloses. And then, only half-joking: "She went to a private, Catholic, rich-girl school, with Patty Hearst and that crowd."
Politically, one might have thought Matthews's and O'Reilly's resentment of wasp social snobbery would have pushed them to the left. But in the '60s the Ivy League elite that O'Reilly so resented was rapidly moving left itself--leading him and many of his peers to associate its social snobbery with its cultural libertinism. In the '60s and '70s Catholic colleges were havens for traditional values, a far cry from the radicalism of U.C. Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, and the Ivy League. While their counterparts were burning bras and flags, Matthews's classmates at Holy Cross were "much more respectful of authority." "The anti-American thing, where you actually burned a flag and cheered Ho Chi Minh, was alien to me," he recalls. Similarly, O'Reilly remembers that, at Marist, "there were a lot of conservative kids who didn't buy into that 'Let's overthrow everything' idea." Students were also conservative in their attitudes toward religion. According to the Catholic academic Father Andrew Greeley, whose book Religion and Career analyzed 1961 college graduates, Catholic students stood apart from their peers because of "their church attendance and their valuation of religion as a source of life satisfaction." All of which led people like Matthews and O'Reilly to take a rather dim view of their more bohemian peers. Says King of Matthews: "He sees boomers as much more self-centered than the previous generation. That generation does not have definite principles. It's much more egocentric."
Whis is not to say the traditional Catholic emphasis on economic justice has died. It persists in the Church itself, which has bitterly and eloquently denounced the gap between rich and poor. And despite Catholics' increased willingness to vote Republican in recent decades, it also defines the politics of numerous Catholic politicians, particularly those with working-class constituencies. From Tip O'Neill to Joe Moakley to David Bonior, many Catholic politicians have subordinated conservative cultural instincts to a left-leaning economic agenda they believed was more integral to the Catholic tradition.
But Matthews and O'Reilly have largely done the opposite, retaining the language of Catholic class consciousness while divesting it of economic meaning. Both men claim working stiffs as their natural constituents--"people who basically are not entrepreneurial ... who get to work on time and work hard and take care of their family," according to Matthews; in O'Reilly's words, they're the "80 percent of Americans ... who get up in the morning and try to do the best they can for not a lot of money." But despite the allusions to class, the economic content of these statements is negligible. Instead, the emphasis is on values: getting to work on time, working hard, taking care of your family. (With the nation's eightieth income percentile for families at around $90,000, it's tough to pity those earning O'Reilly's definition of "not a lot of money.")
The tendency to see working-class interests entirely through the prism of values is a recurring theme on both shows. Matthews's main beef with Bill Clinton's health care plan wasn't so much its substance as its failure to distinguish between those who deserved health care and those who didn't. "He didn't say 'for people who work hard and play by the rules,'" Matthews told a guest in 1999. "He said, 'I'm gonna give it to everybody, and you're going to thank me for it.' That's socialist, old Democrat." O'Reilly regularly defends the interests of "working Americans" against the encroachments of the immoral poor ("What do the citizens who go to work every day owe people who are ill-educated and irresponsible?") and the homeless ("You're almost insulting working Americans ... if these people are not willing to go out and sell candy for ten hours a week to help pay for their shelter"). But rarely against the selfish rich: "If you die tomorrow," O'Reilly lectured one wealthy opponent of the estate tax, "the government's going to come in and take a fairly substantial piece of whatever you leave your heirs. And you don't have any problem with that?"
Occasionally, Matthews's and O'Reilly's class consciousness even leads to comic misunderstandings, as during a 1999 exchange between O'Reilly and Kevin Keating of the "Yuppie Eradication Project." Keating said he was organizing residents of San Francisco's Mission District in opposition to the neighborhood's rapid gentrification, which was driving up property values and, consequently, rents paid by the neighborhood's working-class residents. O'Reilly was sympathetic: "I understand what you're saying. My father was raised in Brooklyn, and they did the same thing in his neighborhood." So far, so good. But as Keating began to describe his group's tactics--explaining at one point that "sabotage has always played a vital role in working-class response to life under capitalism"--O'Reilly grew apoplectic: "Opposition to capitalism. Now you sound like ... you're a Communist. Are you?" Scorn yuppies culturally, and you have good values; scorn them economically, and you're a dangerous radical.
And scorning political elites who lack solid values is something Matthews and O'Reilly do a lot. Take the recent New York Senate campaign. While reasonable people can disagree about the merits of Hillary's candidacy, Matthews and O'Reilly described the then-first lady as a corrupt member of some hated ruling class. As Matthews put it in a particularly memorable episode of "Hardball," "I look at this woman as a person who has, for whatever reason, a deep sense of entitlement ... expecting the peasants to bring her bouquets of flowers... Where did she get the idea the public should worship her as almost a goddess?" The sentiment was echoed by O'Reilly, who, amid the early Hillary speculation, declared: "Her demeanor is one of elitism, that she's a Yale-educated, very liberal, lives-in-her-mind-rather-than-in-the-real-world person."
Indeed, for Matthews and O'Reilly, the Clintons are poster children for the irresponsible liberal elites that working-class Americans despise: "Bill Clinton went to a school just like mine," Matthews tells me. "I always wondered why he didn't have any of it rub off on him." But because it largely ignores economics, the analysis can't explain why so many of those working-class people supported Clinton at the polls. Although many working-class Americans do indeed think the Clintons lack values, a majority have been willing to overlook them because, compared with people like Newt Gingrich, the Clintons seemed to be looking out for their economic interests. In 1996, for example, Bill Clinton captured Macomb County, Michigan, ground zero for Reagan Democrats and a county Democrats had not won since 1968. Hillary Clinton came within three points of carrying culturally conservative but economically depressed upstate New York--almost unheard of for a Democrat.
Yet after President Clinton swung through working-class pockets of Pennsylvania and upstate New York in 1999, O'Reilly was genuinely puzzled by his rock-star reception: "These are regular folks who are shoveling snow and trying to heat their homes... Ronald Reagan was popular, but you didn't see the kind of adulation that people are throwing Clinton's way." When one guest had the audacity to suggest that "a lot of people relate to Bill Clinton," O'Reilly cut her off, snarling, "Most men aren't adulterers. Serial adulterers, I should say. Most men don't lie and put their wife on the 'Today' show to perpetuate the lie, and they don't embarrass their country, as President Clinton has." Maybe not. But what if those men (and women) were relating to the president's support for family and medical leave or a higher minimum wage?
And if their overwhelming focus on values led O'Reilly and Matthews to underestimate the Clintons, it has led them to overestimate President Bush. O'Reilly has opined that "George W. Bush seems like an honest man to me." Matthews has pointed out the contrast with Clinton: "$(Bush$) goes home at night to his wife. He's a good guy. He reads the Bible. He doesn't drink. He doesn't mess around. He works nine to five...." Neither has dwelt on W.'s extensive ties to corporate interests.
In fact, Matthews and O'Reilly have even transformed Bush's tax cut, that most economic of issues, into a debate over cultural values. In February, O'Reilly declared that "a forty percent tax burden on working Americans is abusive" and that "the answer to America's fiscal health, as in everything in life, is discipline: No more hideous public housing, no more stolen education money or bloated Pentagon supply lines." Matthews later underscored the point, advising New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine that "middle-class people don't like rich people telling them they're going to be taxed to pay for poor people" and noting that Republicans were on the right track with a tax cut designed to appeal to the "working stiff." Although the tax cut contradicted Catholic teachings about inequality, Matthews and O'Reilly depicted its opponents as counterculture types, lumping them with opponents of missile defense and dismissing their views as "well-off liberal" or "straight left."
In a column in March, Slate.com editor Michael Kinsley argued that O'Reilly's claim, put forth in a recent Newsweek profile, that he experienced class snobbery at a swank Washington affair couldn't possibly be true. It simply defied credulity, Kinsley insisted, that anyone would have stormed off, mid-conversation, because he or she had taken offense at O'Reilly's rough edges. O'Reilly, who by Kinsley's calculations had grown up solidly middle-class, was simply affecting victimhood to boost ratings and hawk books.
But, in a sense, Kinsley's column misses the point. O'Reilly's insistence that he's an outsider isn't an affectation; it's a delusion. Although his biography offers obvious proof to the contrary, O'Reilly--and, to some extent, Matthews--honestly see themselves as separate from an alien, hostile elite. In fact, it may be precisely because they grew up middle-class that Matthews and O'Reilly feel cultural alienation. In their parents' generation, Catholics really were economically subordinate, but as a result they lived more isolated lives--and thus experienced social snobbery less acutely. Matthews and O'Reilly are members of that generation of American Catholics who escaped the isolation of the old neighborhood. The result is that they experience cultural difference, and cultural condescension, much more keenly, even where it doesn't exist. O'Reilly wasn't lying--for him, cultural alienation fully defines the experience of being working-class.
The problem is that there are many Americans--including many Catholics in places like South Boston, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, not to mention Latino East Los Angeles--who really are working-class. And they need their economic interests defended at least as vociferously as their cultural values. If only the two most popular talk-show hosts in America could distinguish between the two.