False dichotomy

David Brooks says teabagging is populism, not racism. Why can’t it be both? Racist populism is surely not a new phenomenon.

David Brooks argues that the teabagger phenomenon, with all its craziness, isn’t fundamentally “about” race.  Instead, he says, it’s an instance of the eternal populist protest against the “elites.”

Why is this an either/or?  Yes, the teabaggers have much in common with previous revolts of the ignorant.   But racial animus is no stranger to those revolts, and Glenn Beck (for example) has made Obama’s supposed hostility toward whites a significant theme; those Obama-as-witch-doctor posters  didn’t come out of nowhere.

Other than the racial element, what’s new this time is the willingness of a big chunk of the ruling elite, including the leadership of one of the two great political parties, to align itself with the lunatic fringe.   The GOP of the 30s got pretty rabid about Roosevelt, but GOP electeds never adopted the Liberty Lobby/Father Coughlin accusations about FDR and the world Jewish conspiracy.   Contemporary Republican leaders are willing to join the folks with pitchforks as they worry about the President’s birth certificate.

That’s change, but not the kind we voted for.

I admit to having been wrong; I was convinced that Obama’s self-evident excellence as a human being would reconcile whites to being ruled by him, and thought that his race might even mitigate his superiority.   Maybe that would have been true, in better economic times.  And it still may become true.  Or it could be that his Presidency will put a deeper devide between white racists and the rest of us palefaces.  But so far, not so good.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “False dichotomy”

  1. I'm just wondering when since, say, 1950, any American politician's "self-evident excellence as human being" has reconciled white Americans to anything true, good or beautiful… Maybe it's the late hour that prevents my from remembering…

  2. A spokes-entity for the teabaggers was basically saying on TV the other day that the movement is made up of working stiffs who are sick and tired of having to support the hoity-toity elites, who always get over on them. They resent people who always seem to have it made while they toil away at crummy jobs and never stay far ahead of the debt collectors. They went to the College of Hard Knocks while the beneficiaries of government bailouts went to Ivy League professional schools on trust fund proceeds, and now run hedge funds and collect billions of tax dollars from the folks who gain their bread from the sweat of their brows.

    This creates a certain tension in conservatism. If you think of Jonathan Chait’s book reviews about two new Ayn Rand biographies (mentioned here the other day), it is clear that her acolytes and the teabaggers are not a match made in Heaven. The Randroids think themselves superior to the “common man” and believe that the working stiffs are the beneficiaries of their superior productive intellects. Think of that quote from Ludwig von Mises, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.” The teabaggers are not the ones who are preparing to go Galt. From the point of view of the would-be fugitives to Galt’s Gulch, they are where they deserve to be; they have “no outstanding abilities, no outstanding virtues, no outstanding intelligence.”

    A house divided against itself cannot stand. It must eventually fall. Those who despise the notion of a common good cannot long make common cause with their fellow citizens. The house is rotten and does not deserve to stand. But it may stand longer than it rightly should if no one drives a wedge into the crack in its foundation. Driving that wedge will take political skills of a very high order. It will need to be driven in a spirit of respect for those who are worthy of these sentiments. I do not know anyone offhand who has those skills and that spirit. But the task of driving the wedge needs to be performed.

  3. The tea-peoples' anti-elitism is diffuse & confused, but hardly an undifferentiated protest against all elites; nor are elites the only people they despise. Many, no doubt, resent & are disoriented by the measures taken by both Administrations to stabilize the economy & financial system, partly because they think that they wrongly benefit economic elites. But the bigger targets of their anger aren't so much economic as cultural & esp. political elites, particularly Democratic ones. (I say the "main" targets; even Republican elites who're inured to the social cost of careers built on cultivating the basest human impulses might be forgiven for becoming wary at some point, on purely selfish grounds, of handling such volatile material.) It was Democratic politicians (& non-Murdoch media), not Republicans, who were singled out by name for abuse by speakers & marchers on Sept 12. Where criticism of private economic elites was expressed or implied – as, arguably, in John Tate’s Pauline criticism of the Fed – it was for breaking the (imagined) rules of the American system by using privileged access to the government to enrich themselves at the protesters' expense. But the free-market capitalist system, & by extension the elites who rise in it, are what they saw themselves as defending. There was more energy & less room for ambivalence in their anger at the prospect that certain (partly racially marked) non-elites – the so-called unproductive classes, non-citizens, unionized workers, etc – will be empowered or advantaged by Democrats, again at the protesters' expense. None of this is remotely novel in our politics.

    Of course one seldom sees racism unmodified. Its targets are usually also negatively evaluated on other grounds, & it can be hard to sort out how the various evaluations are related. A standard example: historically some anti-Semites have also been anti-leftists, & have associated the 2 negatively evaluated traits, Jewishness & leftism, in various ways (e.g., through the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism). But we don't normally identify the 2 attitudes w/ each other, or reduce one to the other. We don't say these bigots are merely anti-leftists, or not really anti-Semites. Likewise, it's possible to be inimical to (some forms of) public provision, & also to African Americans, & also to think African Americans benefit from (those forms of) public provision, & also to negatively evaluate them for that reason, among others. The various relationships here may be hard to untangle, but it's just a mistake to conclude at the outset that, just because such a person is ideologically opposed to the welfare state, he can’t also harbor adverse racial attitudes, & be influenced in his political behavior by them. It's another question why intelligent people should be so confused about all this.

  4. "I’m just wondering when since, say, 1950, any American politician’s “self-evident excellence as human being” has reconciled white Americans to anything true, good or beautiful…"

    I'm wondering since when has being good at getting elected constituted "self-evident excellence as a human being". Self evident excellence as a politician, maybe, but that's a rather specialized form of self-evident excellence, which to some extent is actually inconsistent with excellence as a human being, given the extent to which excelling in politics requires the opposite of what's typically regarded as virtue in the rest of life.

  5. Bebel said, "Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools". In our day, perhaps we should add, "Amd racism is the populism of fools."

  6. Mark: "Other than the racial element, what’s new this time is the willingness of a big chunk of the ruling elite, including the leadership of one of the two great political parties, to align itself with the lunatic fringe. "

    Aside from the long history of various political nastiness in the USA, just consider the Goldwater-Nixon Southern Strategy. The highest leadership of the GOP looked at the political divisions within the USA, and moved things around so as to align themselves with the worst factions. They didn't simply inherit certain alignments, they realigned things. And the reason that they did so was that those worst factions were open to new political alignments, because actual flat-out moral progress in our nation was threatening them.

    It might also be relevant to recall the words of Pat Buchanan (from memory): "we should encourage the splitting of the USA into two parts, because we will end up with the biggest part.".

    This is not new, although there are varying degrees of deniability. When a party is on the ropes, the deniability is lower than when it is triumphant.

  7. As for the tea-baggers being against generic 'elites', that's pretty clearly a lie by the right. These people managed to keep any alleged anti-elite resentment bottled up while Bush & Co. screwed this country a new one. This bottle broke on Inauguration Day, 2009. Just like all of this resentment was put into the bottle on Inauguration Day, 2001, and was pulled out previously on Inauguration Day, 1992. The A to not-A to A to not-A switches are far, far too coincident with changes in administration to be, well, coincidental.

  8. I'm still not entirely convinced on your point, Mark. Glenn Greenwald, for example, makes a pretty good argument that we saw a lot of the same type of craziness that's happening now back in the Clinton Administration (only now it's even more omnipresent due to the spread of the Internet). While I have no doubt that there are racists in the Teabag Camp, it's really only part of a crazy phenomena.

  9. Distinguish 2 ways race enters the picture: First, people can dislike a President just because he’s African American. This effect would be the same whatever his ideological or partisan affiliation. Second, people can dislike a President of any race because he’s deemed offensively sympathetic to the claims of African Americans.

    Re 1) I'd guess the number of people who’d be identically unreservedly hostile to any African African President, regardless of his party or politics, is small. There may be others who’d be at least faintly skeptical of any African American President, even if he shared their politics – who might, say, have voted for Colin Powell over a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless harbored some sort of unconscious racially-colored reservation about him. In any case, we can at a minimum agree that any such people would at least have reacted less strongly against Powell than they have against Obama.

    Re 2) Every Democratic candidate for President in the 40 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was white, but nobody says w/ a straight face that this proves that racial politics weren’t used, & successfully, against Democrats during this period. A lot of white voters, esp. but not only in the South, turned hostile to Democrats at least in part because they thought Democratic politicians, though mostly white, took the interests of African Americans into account in offensive ways. Part of the narrative of Clinton's Presidency is how he worked, well or badly, to get Democrats out of this box. No one imagines that race lies behind the whole story of Clinton hatred, or even most of it, but it’s a real part of its context.

    In Obama, the 2 factors come together for the first time (& maybe not just additively). Obama is both African American himself & also seen to be a liberal Democrat (or worse) sympathetic to the interests of other African Americans. This doesn't account for the entire tea-people phenomenon, but it's part of it.

  10. If President Condoleezza Rice were continuing the policies of the previous administration, running a Permanent War on Terror and adopting a policy of All Power to the Insurance Companies, I suspect that most of these teabagger people would be happy as clams.

  11. I sure dislike the phrase "ruled by him" in "I was convinced that Obama’s self-evident excellence as a human being would reconcile whites to being ruled by him."

    I become more disappointed with Obama every day — every day that he becomes Son-of-Son-of-Bush in Af-Pak and Iraq; every day that he adopts Cheney's positions on human rights and the disappeareds in the CIA Gulag; every day that he kowtows to the GOP on health care and moves further and further from anything that might even resemble a progressive position. Except for the Sotomeyer appointment, I think Hopey has been pretty hopeless so far, little but more Clintonism (which was little but Gingrichism with a human face.)

    But thank God we're not "ruled" by him . . . he's not a ruler, he's a president, and if you're a corporate conservative, he's a pretty wonderful one at that.

  12. The health care bill itself has a huge racial element to it.

    Correct me if I'm wrong here, but the major costs will be imposed on Medicare recipients, business owners, and high-income workers with "gold plated" insurance plans. These are all disproportionately white groups. The beneficiaries will be the uninsured, a disproportionately non-white group.

    Not expecting a white reaction to a program that redistributes on a very large scale from whites to non-whites strikes me as foolish.

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