Racial and ethnic exploitation of economic insecurity

Because the Democrats fail to do anything about real populist rage

Published August 27, 2010 1:28PM (EDT)

FILE - In this May 4, 2010 file photo, Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck attends the TIME 100 gala celebrating the 100 most influential people, at the Time Warner Center in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file) (AP)
FILE - In this May 4, 2010 file photo, Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck attends the TIME 100 gala celebrating the 100 most influential people, at the Time Warner Center in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file) (AP)

Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, today:

Note what connects these issues. In every one, liberals have lost the argument in the court of public opinion. Majorities -- often lopsided majorities -- oppose President Obama's social-democratic agenda (e.g., the stimulus, Obamacare), support the Arizona law, oppose gay marriage and reject a mosque near Ground Zero.

Yahoo! News, August 12, 2010:

A new CNN poll has found that most Americans think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married. . . . As polling-statistics blogger Nate Silver points out, the margin of error [as well as the poll's status as the first to find majority approval] means we can't assume that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, but it is "no longer safe to say that opposition to same-sex marriage is the majority position . . . . "

That particular factual inaccuracy, which I am 100% certain will never be corrected by the Post, is the least of the problems with Krauthammer's column today.  Above all else, he seeks to delegitimize concerns over the Right's intensifying use of racially and ethnically divisive tactics as nothing more than the last refuge of a Democratic Party which, he argues, espouses unpopular policies and thus has no means of winning an election other than by falsely accusing its opponents of bigotry. 

It requires extreme blindness or extreme dishonesty to deny that our politics is more racially and ethnically polarized than it has been in a long time.  Virtually every Fox News/right-wing-talk-radio controversy relies on scaring economically anxious white Americans into ignoring the prime cause of their economic insecurity -- plundering by Wall Street bankers, abetted by the government they own -- and focusing instead on some manufactured menace from powerless racial and ethnic minorities:  black people preventing them from voting (New Black Panthers), stealing their elections (ACORN), and treating them unequally (Shirley Sherrod and Eric Holder's Justice Department); Muslims who want to conquer their country and celebrate over their Christian corpses (the Triumphalist Ground Zero Mosque); invading, marauding Latino armies coming to steal their property and rape their women while their Marxist allies in Government (led by a black Muslim President) disarm the white victims.  Matt Taibbi, in lamenting the takeover of the GOP by the most riled-up of these factions -- the Tea Partiers -- recounts just some of the lowlights here.

Cowardly and opportunistic Democratic politicians have only added to this inflammatory brew.  When the execrable, desperate Harry Reid isn't feeding this majoritarian paranoia by demanding that the Park51 community center move, he's seeking to capitalize on it through explicit advocacy of ethnic-based voting in order to salvage his worthless political career.  The American Right has no hope of recovering from its Bush-era implosion except by aggressively exploiting ethnic and racial resentments -- the most telling statement of the last year was probably Glenn Beck's pronouncement on Fox that Obama is a "racist" who "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" -- but many career Democratic politicians, such as Reid, are so disliked that their only hope for staying in power is to milk those same divisions to their own advantage, often by conflating justifiable, substantive opposition to Democratic rule with the ugly bigotry fueled by the Beck/Palin/Limbaugh circus.  An incumbent Party which has presided over extreme economic suffering has little to offer other than dredging up fear -- much of it well-grounded -- in the alternative (you may despise what we're doing in power, but look at those hateful, bigoted freaks over there). 

The real problem is that much of the anxiety and anger being cynically exploited by the Right are very real and justifiable.  The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, one of the more partisan Democratic boosters in the pundit class, commendably acknowledged that today.  After accurately condemning Glenn Beck's despicable wrapping of himself in the legacy of Martin Luther King -- as though the angry whites he leads of today are the oppressed blacks of yesterday -- Robinson explained:

But many will attend for other reasons, and they're the ones I feel sorry for. As the growth of the Tea Party movement clearly demonstrates, millions of Americans feel alienated from their government, distressed about the economy and frightened of the future. Their concerns deserve to be heard. Instead, their anxieties are exploited by hucksters who see fear and anger as marketing tools.

There's no doubt that this genuine anxiety is being exploited by the ugliest elements on the Right, but that has happened because the Democratic Party has ceded the field to those right-wing "hucksters."  As much as anything else, this is the great failing of the Obama presidency.  Although Obama and his Party are being blamed for the intensifying economic crisis, it is just historical fact that the unraveling took place under the Bush administration.  It seems as though it was decades ago, but it was only in October, 2008 -- when Bush was still President -- that John McCain argued that the economic crisis was so severe that the presidential campaign should be suspended in order to attend to it.  That is the same crisis -- which exploded during the Bush presidency -- from which we still have not recovered, which has progressively worsened.

That crisis presented a huge opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to bring about real change in Washington -- the central promise of his campaign -- by capitalizing on (and becoming the voice of) populist anger and using it to wrestle away control from Wall Street and other financial and corporate elites who control Washington.  Had they done so, they would have been champions of populist rage rather than its prime targets.  But, as John Judis argues in his excellent New Republic piece, they completely squandered that opportunity.  Rather than emphatically stand up to the bankers and other oligarchical thieves, they coddled and served them, and thus became the face of the elite interests oppressing ordinary Americans rather than their foes.  How can an administration represented by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers -- and which specializes in an endless stream of secret deals with corporate lobbyists and sustains itself with Wall Street funding  -- possibly maintain any pretense of populist support or changing how Washington works?  It can't. 

There are few more bitter ironies than watching the Republican Party -- controlled at its core by the very business interests responsible for the country's vast and growing inequality; responsible for massive transfers of wealth to the richest; and which presided over and enabled the economic collapse -- now become the beneficiaries of middle-class and lower-middle-class economic insecurity.  But the Democratic Party's failure/refusal/inability to be anything other than the Party of Tim Geithner -- continuing America's endless, draining Wars while plotting to cut Social Security, one of the few remaining guarantors of a humane standard of living -- renders them unable to offer answers to angry, anxious, resentful Americans.  As has happened countless times in countless places, those answers are now being provided instead by a group of self-serving, hateful extremist leaders eager to exploit that anger for their own twisted financial and political ends.  And it seems to be working. 

It is indeed difficult to believe that the country will so quickly return to power the same Republican Party -- in an even more warped and primitive form -- that virtually destroyed the U.S. over the last decade through a mix of extreme corruption, recklessness and lawlessness.  But nothing is more foolish than underestimating the dangers that come from this potent mix of economic oppression and the aggressive fanning of racial and ethnic resentments.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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