No, today’s culture warriors are more reminiscent of another famous type in recent American politics: the Angry White Male. This was the archetype of the political force that rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency during the 1994 congressional midterm elections, in which Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and Senate. The catchphrase was based on the huge shift by white men to the Republican column in that election; just 39% voted for Democratic House candidates that year, a 10-point dip from the 1992 election. The anger was something more intangible, but also quite real: storm clouds of bile filling the conservative talk radio airwaves. Most memorably, perhaps, in the autumn of 1994, the Watergate-conspirator-turned-talk-radio-host G Gordon Liddy advised a listener worried about intrusions by federal agents to “shoot for the head”.
Today, white men again symbolize the conservative resistance to a Democratic president. And with a black man in the White House, the racial element is even more pronounced. Think of the recent cast of heroes trotted out by the conservative message machine. Last autumn there was Joe Wurzelbacher – better known as “Joe the Plumber”, the Ohio voter who confronted Obama about his tax policies on the campaign trail. It was through this burly, working-class everyman that John McCain was finally able to crystallize a clear campaign theme, one which warned that hard-working, blue-collar Americans were about to be steamrolled by know-it-all elites with visions of a socialist utopia. Implicit in the celebration of Joe the Plumber, whether intentional or not, was also a racial contrast with the African-American Democratic candidate. In this sense, the message was cultural as much as economic, one that reached back to Richard Nixon’s appeals to the Silent Majority.
The working-class white hero resurfaced this spring, with Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of judge Sonia Sotomayor. Conservatives hammered at Sotomayor’s foolish past statement that a “wise Latina” judge should be able to reach a better decision than a white man. And they lionised the white Irish and Italian firefighters who had been denied promotions by a 2008 ruling in which Sotomayor had concurred, arranging to have the firefighters testify in full, noble uniform before the Senate judiciary committee before the national television cameras.
But it was midsummer that brought us the apotheosis of contemporary angry white man politics. On 20 July, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested on the porch of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after breaking through a door that had been jammed, leading a passerby to report a possible burglary. After haranguing the responding police officer, sergeant James Crowley, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. Asked about the incident at a televised press conference, Obama responded that, although he didn’t “know all the facts”, the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly”.
Obama was probably right, but he, too, had acted stupidly. The off-the-cuff comment dominated national politics for days, as Americans debated the precise questions of class and race that Obama most dreads. Crowley, it turned out, was a hardy family man who spent his evenings on the softball field, while it emerged that Gates, a friend of Obama, enjoys riding his shiny red adult tricycle around Martha’s Vineyard. To conservatives, here was an fine example of the president siding with his Ivy League intellectual pal, who also happens to be black, against the blue-collar white man trying to do his job.
It was precisely because Obama recognised this explosive culture-war dynamic that he quickly intervened in the controversy, admirably seeking to turn it into a “teachable moment” by inviting Gates and Crowley to sit down for beers at the White House. But it was also in this context that the inexplicably popular Fox News host Glenn Beck, perhaps the most cynical demagogue of the moment, articulated the venal id of this new moment last month. Obama, Beck explained, “has exposed himself… as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture”.
Beck’s idiotic commentary may have been self-defeatingly crazy. (Several advertisers have since boycotted his show.) But as a general proposition, it’s hard to dismiss the notion that a carefully orchestrated white man’s cri de coeur is at last partly to blame for dragging down Obama’s agenda.
Democrats have traditionally done a lousy job of taking this sort of racially motivated and hate politics head on. The reason is, if you really take these right wing scumbags on head to head, and seriously marginalize them the way they should be…
Then they will, as they have done historically – resort to violence and domestic terrorism.
The issue this go round though – is a lot of this hatred is being corporate sponsored, stealing a page from the 80’s funding of a right wing “movement” by a group of wealthy individuals, who set up foundations to fund various whack groups. Whereas the “5 Sisters” as those funding sources were called, were concerned with creating a sustainable political movement – today’s corporate sponsors are only concerned with short term gain, in defeating Health Care Reform. Funding and promoting the far right by the “5 Sisters” ultimately led to 19 April 1995, when anti-government fanatics bombed the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 fellow Americans – including children in a day care center in the building.
The issue here is that the corporates are going to spin these terrorists up to defeat Health Care Reform, but the impact on America is likely to be blood and tears for the foreseeable future.
Put simply, trying to ameliorate the fears of the groups spun up in this effort through reason is likely to have the same result as taking a tough stance and using every available public opinion making and news machine to jam the irrationality right back down their throats. It wasn’t, and continues not to be reason that got the Tea Baggers and their assorted far right ilk into their respective positions in the first place…
It was and is, racism.
Further, it should be made perfectly clear to the corporate sponsors of this sort of violent radicalism that they will be held fully, and criminally responsible, should these groups they are funding and promoting devolve to their likely conclusion. Ergo, funding opposition to some proposed laws is entirely different than funding terrorism. Laws crammed through Congress by the very same whack job’s last hero, George Bush, provide adequate, if extra-Constitutional legal means to prosecute such, much the same way the RICO statutes gave law enforcement tools to take down the Mafia.
Time to take the gloves off.