ONE MONTH before more than 200,000 people mobilized themselves to Washington for the National Equality March, another mass demonstration had already taken Washington. This one, on September 12, brought out the thousands of conservatives responding to a call from Fox News’s self-described “rodeo clown” Glenn Beck to “take their country back.”
Estimates of the protest size varied, but most independent commentators put the crowd at somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000—a respectable turnout to Washington under any criterion.1
The September 12 event followed a series of August town hall meetings in congressional districts in which conservatives, operating under the direction of right-wing Washington-based lobbying outfits like Freedom Works and Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, protested—and in some cases, disrupted—Congress members’ attempts to explain their support for health care reform legislation.
In the November 3 off-year elections, Republicans swept the top state offices in Virginia, a state President Obama won by six points in 2008, and ousted Democratic governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey. Meanwhile, voters in Maine repealed a state law granting marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.
In less than a year, it seemed, the American right appeared to be on the comeback trail. This was remarkable, given that the right defended the free-market ideology that underpinned the economy’s meltdown, championed unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and appeared to be more concerned with religious zealotry than with the interests of ordinary Americans.
The reasons for the right’s rehabilitation aren’t hard to discern. Official unemployment reached 10.2 percent in November 2009, up from 6.1 percent on Election Day 2008. The Obama administration has spent tremendous amounts of money since taking office, but that hasn’t countered unemployment’s upward climb. Meanwhile, Obama is presiding over two unpopular wars and in December announced that it planned to stoke the one in Afghanistan into a multi-year disaster. The administration’s main domestic priority—passing health care reform—is alive, but may yet go down to defeat.
And finally, there is the perception—grounded heavily in reality—that Obama’s economic team is in thrall to Wall Street. As the liberal Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told Reuters, “I think there’s a growing consensus in the (House Democratic) caucus we need a new economic team that cares more about jobs, Main Street and the American people than it does about Wall Street and huge (executive) bonuses.”2
Who is the Right?
If you read or listen to a lot of pro-Obama, liberal commentary, you’d think that this notion that the American right can recapture significant popular support is laughable. For example, liberal MSNBC hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, while often criticizing Obama, save most of their barbs for the right.3 To judge by their regular takedowns of the right, they assume that no one in their right mind takes Sarah Palin seriously, that Fox News is a joke, and that the GOP is about to tear itself up in a “civil war” between tea party kooks and moderates.
To be sure, the most vociferous representatives of the right today—the people who make up the September 12 tea party constituency that overlaps heavily with the Republican “base”—are a minority of a minority.
A recent study by the liberal Democratic group Democracy Corps backed this up. From focus groups conducted with several dozen Republican base voters from Georgia, Democracy Corps constructed a picture of this group. It believes that Obama is advancing a “secret” socialist agenda, it thinks that Fox’s conspiracy-mongering Glenn Beck is a courageous truth teller in a lying (and liberal) mainstream media, and it loves Palin while disdaining most elected Republicans.
Democracy Corps concluded that these conservatives “stand a world apart from the rest of America,” yet it also points out that people like them represent about one out of five members of the electorate, and about two-thirds of Republicans.4 This is more than enough of a base to inject into the country’s political bloodstream such toxic notions as the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. or that health care reform will promote euthanasia of the elderly.
So it’s important to keep a proper perspective. The people who believe the hoariest of conservative notions remain a minority of the population, yet that minority represents millions of people. Pollster.com’s average of opinion surveys showed that only about 25 percent of voters identified themselves as Republicans, while equal numbers (about 35 percent each) called themselves Democrats and Independents. Nevertheless, less than a year from the 2010 congressional midterm elections, voters said they were equally likely to vote for a Republican as for a Democrat, after two consecutive elections that Democrats won in landslides.5
Despite their isolation from the mainstream and their through-the-looking-glass worldview, the forces of the right seem to recognize one thing that professional Obama defenders don’t: there is a deep anger and frustration in the population against a “liberal” government that seems willing to spend billions for bankers while counseling patience to workers. It’s worth noting that the conservatives are mostly agitating around economic issues, such as the deficit, taxes, and health care, rather than around social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. At least they’re not fools when it comes to figuring out what is really making millions of people anxious today.
Even if many of the people who took part in local tea party protests or who traveled to Washington on September 12 represent more self-conscious conservative activists or even lower level Republican officials, they can gain a wider hearing because their appeals are tailored to sections of the population who are feeling economic anxiety most acutely.
For instance, one of the most noteworthy factors of the current Great Recession is the fact that the unemployment rate among male workers is about two to three percentage points higher than the unemployment rate among female workers. This “gender gap” has the potential to increase conservative appeals to men, who opinion polls show are more predisposed to conservative ideas than are women. In fact, a right-wing political analyst made just this point in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.6
When mixed with the mélange of right-wing ideology that appeals to traditionalism (anti-gay marriage), nativism (anti-immigration), and racism (against a Black president)—and amplified by the existing conservative network Fox News exemplifies—the conservative appeal to economic anxiety can tap into broader currents who “want their country back.” This helps to explain the profile of conservatives who form what Democracy Corps identified as the Republican base: older, male, pious, and white voters—groups that were the most likely to vote against Obama in 2008.
The “center” can’t hold
The Obama administration’s own “centrist” approach to policy hasn’t done itself any favors either. The administration’s and Democrats’ insistence on targeting Medicare for more than $500 billion in cuts over ten years to finance their plans for health care reform has provided an opening to conservatives and the Republicans to appeal to the elderly. These opportunistic defenders of Medicare—political co-religionists of the people who opposed Medicare as “socialized medicine” in 1965—feel that they can ride a senior citizen backlash against health reform.
It doesn’t matter that conservatives are opportunists or that their proposed solutions, like canceling government stimulus to pay down the deficit, will actually worsen the situation. They are gaining a hearing for two reasons: first, the administration hasn’t been able to improve the employment picture in any way that’s tangible to the majority; and, second, the liberal groups who could be kicking up a ruckus to push for genuine health reform or a real jobs program are instead playing the role of loyal soldiers to the White House’s agenda.
Politico writer Ben Smith highlighted this second factor:
While President Barack Obama has struggled to keep the center together, he’s had one unquestioned political success: Keeping the left at bay. A battle-tested Democratic infrastructure fell into line behind the White House, with regular meetings and conference calls to coordinate strategy and preempt any breach of message discipline—easy on the Tim Geithner!—or what chief of staff Rahm Emanuel might regard as obstructionist behavior.7
The liberal groups in question, led by the Democracy Alliance and the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, are hardly the stuff of radicalism. But they represent a liberal infrastructure that, in exchange for regular meetings with White House officials, has neutered itself.
Meanwhile, existing right-wing networks have gone into full battle mode. That has left the field open to the conservatives, as liberal blogger Jane Hamsher said in reference to the Wall Street bailout passed on the eve of the 2008 election. As the economy sunk further and the bailout became more unpopular,
The natural people who would have been organizing at that point in time were the liberal groups. The bankers came to the White House and said, “We want you to ratchet down the rhetoric” and that’s what happened. The word went out at those meetings, “Don’t criticize the bankers, don’t criticize Geithner and Summers.”8
Is it any wonder, then, that most of the opposition to Obama’s program is coming from the right? As the radical commentator Paul Street put it on Znet recently,
In the absence of meaningful anger and protest on the left, the dodgy Republican right wing and its still-potent “noise machine” is absurdly left to soak up and express much of the legitimate “populist rage” that ordinary Americans quite naturally feel over Washington’s continuing captivity to concentrated wealth, corporate-direction, and the military-industrial complex in the Age of Obama.
Resentment abhors a vacuum.9
If the resentment Street references were merely mobilized to bring the GOP back to parity with the Democrats in the next election, that wouldn’t merit much more commentary. But in a time of sharp political polarization stemming from the worst recession since at least the Second World War, resentment could give way to much more sinister developments. The nonsense associated with “birthers” and “deathers,”10 that mainstream politicians either tolerate or promote contributes to a “toxic atmosphere of rage in America,” according to a recent Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report on the American right.11 This not only poisons the political atmosphere, but, as the ADL points out, it provides a medium in which the far right can grow.
One example of this is the resurgence of the militia movement, “paramilitary groups of varying sizes that organize and train in preparation for possible future armed resistance to an encroaching ‘New World Order’ conspiracy that seeks to render the American people disarmed, defenseless slaves.”12 These organizations grew in the mid-1990s, during the last “jobless recovery” under a Democratic president. They went into decline following the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, for which a militia sympathizer, Timothy McVeigh, was convicted and later executed. They have recently revived. The ADL notes that the number of militias has grown from about fifty in 2007 to about two hundred today.
Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report that monitors hate groups, drew parallels between today’s political climate and that of 1995:
The last time the political scene seemed this overheated was in 1995, when years of antigovernment rhetoric culminated in the bombing carried out by right-wing antigovernment extremists in Oklahoma City. In the days after the deaths of 168 people there, a USA Today poll found that fully 39 percent of Americans agreed with the proposition that the federal government had become “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”
Whether or not today’s rage on the right is motivated chiefly by racism, it seems obvious that violent rhetoric leads to violent action. Words have consequences.13
A clear example of what an unhinged right is capable of is the murder, in May of 2009, of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, by an anti-abortion fanatic.
It would be wrong to point to these examples of far-right activity and conclude that, after a brief moment on Election Night 2008, the U.S. has shifted inexorably back to the right. Nor is it the case that these far-right groups represent more than a subculture of Americans. But recent European experience, where “center-left” governments carrying out neoliberal programs opened the door to support for conservative and far-right parties, should inform us.14
Winning hearts and minds?
Can the conservatives put the Republicans back in the congressional majority next year? In a volatile political climate where millions will continue to feel economic pain, it’s not an outlandish thought, however improbable it might seem today. Opinion polls are registering levels of anti-incumbent sentiment last seen in 2006 and 1994, when voters tossed out congressional majorities.15 But there’s a difference between the GOP electing more representatives and ordinary Americans accepting the right’s ideology and program as their own. As Timothy Egan wrote in his New York Times blog November 11:
that came with the economic collapse. Polls found a slim majority in favor of Wall Street bailouts to save the economy. They would listen, watch, wait.
By this fall, the majority was not only against the bailouts, but in favor of curbing pay on Wall Street, and tightening government regulation of same….
If Congress steers through the Great Recession without responding to the thousand points of pain among average Americans, people will see them for what they are in bottom-line terms: an insulated club.16
Note that Egan points out the public supports plenty of demands like tighter regulation and capping Wall Street’s pay that the economic right does not. But when the Democratic administration is a bulwark holding back tighter regulation and pay caps, the right can reap support on other grounds, such as opposing the bailouts.
Likewise, popular views toward health care reform are similarly split. On particular aspects of health care reform, strong majorities line up decidedly against the conservatives and for progressive measures: requiring insurance companies to cover everyone, taxing the rich to pay for it, and providing a public insurance option. Yet, at the same time, the right has succeeded in sowing enough doubts about reform that more people oppose the enterprise of “health care reform” than support it.17 And because the Democrats have crafted a health plan that is largely an economic boon to the insurance industry, with dubious benefits for the majority, they may succeed in discrediting “government health care” without even trying to enact it.
While opposition to so-called health care reform would seem to reinforce the conservative, anti-government narrative, clear public preferences for a simple, publicly funded health care system aren’t even registered in the current health care reform debate. And Democrats, as the congressional majority, are more to blame for that fact than are the Republicans. Hence, the leftward shift on a number of economic and social questions that opinion polls have registered for years remains intact, even if the Democrats have allowed conservatives to recover lost ground on some questions.
The Obama administration’s performance will go a long way to determining the extent of the right’s advance. Salon’s Joan Walsh noted November 16:
So while I’m not worried about President Palin, I remain worried about President Obama. I’m particularly concerned that his increasingly triangulating, anti-deficit administration will do the wrong thing, morally and politically, and move to the right, without understanding that some right-wing rage could be rechanneled by acknowledging its roots: That the economic system seems rigged for the have-a-lots v. the have-a-littles, and despite their promises, the Democrats haven’t done enough to change that. Palin can’t change any of that, but Obama can. There’s still time for him to do so, but the clock is ticking.18
Obama’s 2008 campaign mobilized young and minority voters, and attracted independent voters, because it convinced them that they were voting for “change you can believe in” and breaking with the “old ways” and “conventional wisdom” of Washington.
Yet in less than one year in office, Obama has proven to be much more a captive of Washington conventional wisdom, and much slower to deliver on “change,” than the people who voted for him expected. After tailoring his 2008 appeal to a “middle class” fed up with Washington self-dealers and Wall Street fatcats whose recklessness helped wreck the economy, he and the Democrats have shown themselves to be quite cozy with lobbyists and banksters. Moreover, Obama’s attempts to stress political consensus, that is, to appease conservatives, has had a similar effect to throwing bloody bait to a school of sharks—they simply clamor for more.
If Obama and the Democrats continue down this path, they are setting themselves up for a shellacking in 2010. Even if the tentative economic recovery takes hold over the next year, economists predict that unemployment will still hover around 10 percent. If voters aren’t seeing real relief in their own lives—and even worse, seeing the government handing over billions to Wall Street fraudsters—they will be in an even fouler mood than they are this year.
Given the two-party setup in American politics, where voters get their chance every two years to ratify the status quo or to “throw the bums out,” it won’t matter that the GOP’s policies and ideology are disastrous for working people. The Democratic bums will get tossed out just the same.
The worst conclusion the Democrats and their supporters can draw from the elections is that they must move to the “center” (i.e., to the right) to placate “swing voters” who went for the Republicans in 2009. The Democrats are already governing from the center, and that certainly didn’t do them much good in mobilizing their base voters in 2009. In an era of sharp political polarization, politicians who try to hew to the center, i.e. to please both “left” and “right,” end up pleasing neither.
Waiting for Obama to do the right thing is a fool’s errand. That’s why politics has to be conceived as something that goes far beyond electoral calculations. What’s needed more than anything is activism and mobilization that blows open the narrow political space where anything progressive is associated with Obama and opposition falls to right-wingers.
Here, there is some good news to report. The National Equality March in October marked the emergence of a new generation of activists who are unwilling to hear lip service from Democratic politicians and unwilling to wait for their rights. The thousands of students up and down California who are protesting the state’s draconian cuts are laying the basis of a network to defend public education. Grad student employees at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana struck and won a victory from an administration determined to impose concessions on them. The Ford workers who voted down a concessionary contract the company and union wanted to foist on them showed that workers don’t just have to take anything despite the recession.
Many of these struggles are fragile, fledgling, and still by-and-large defensive. But they provide the foundations for further organization to pressure the government to respond to the progressive majority instead of to a loud, right- wing minority.
Along with the revival of real resistance comes the urgent need for new politics. Without a political alternative that is independent, and to the left of, the Democratic Party—that is, from both parties of big business—anger at Democrats in office will always mean turning them out for Republicans, and vice versa. Such an alternative to the two-party shuffle won’t be built soon, but it must be built.
- Ted Glick, “Two million at rightwing march?” Dissident Voice, September 14, 2009, http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/09/two-million-at-rightwing-march.
- “Obama’s agenda runs into economic angst in Congress,” Reuters, November 25, 2009.
- For example, on Countdown, Olbermann regularly mocks Fox News, and Maddow includes a semi-regular feature called “GOP in exile.”
- Read the Democracy Corps analysis, “The very separate world of Republican conservatives,” http://www.democracycorps.com/focus/2009/10/the-very-separate-world-of-conservative-republicans/.
- See Pollster.com’s averages on party identification at www.pollster.com/polls/us/party-id.php and their assessment of the “generic ballot” for 2010 congressional elections at http://www.pollster.com/polls/us/10-us-house-genballot.php.
- David Paul Kuhn, “The jobless gender gap,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2009. Although Kuhn makes the preposterous claim that lobbying from feminist groups influenced the Obama administration to limit spending on infrastructure projects, his point that the stimulus package’s weak spending on infrastructure did little to address unemployment in the predominantly male construction and manufacturing sector is well taken.
- Ben Smith, “Hamsher leads left away from WH,” Politico, December 2, 2009.
- Paul Street, “Obama, as predicted,” Znet, November 22, 2009, www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/23196.
- “Birthers” claim that President Obama is an illegitimate president because, they say, he wasn’t born in the U.S. “Deathers” are those like Sarah Palin who claim that health care reform will encourage euthanasia of the elderly through the federal establishment of “death panels.”
- See Anti Defamation League (ADL) special report, “Rage grows in America: Anti-government conspiracies,” http://www.adl.org/special_reports/rage-grows-in-America/default.asp.
- “The resurgence of the militia movement,” in Ibid.
- Mark Potok, “Gathering storm,” Intelligence Report, Winter 2009, Southern Poverty Law Center, http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=1096.
- See, for example, Yurii Colombo, “The return of Berlusconi,” ISR 59 (May–June 2009) or Tariq Ali’s comments about American-style “tweedledee-tweedledum” politics migrating across the Atlantic in “Imperialism and democracy don’t mix,” interview with Sherry Wolf, ISR 57 (January–February 2008).
- See “A year out, widespread anti-incumbent sentiment,” Pew Center for People and the Press, November 11, 2009, http://people-press.org/report/561/anti-incumbent-sentiment.
- Timothy Egan, “The betrayal,” New York Times, November, 11, 2009.
- See “Mixed views of economic policies and health care reform persist,” Pew Center, October 8, 2009.
- Joan Walsh, “I have Palin fatigue already,” Salon, November 16, 2009, www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2009/11/16/sarah_palin/print.htm.