[R]ight wing populism in our democracy… arguably began with George Wallace's 1968 and 1972 Presidential campaigns, began to flourish when Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves in 1984 and perhaps reached its zenith with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010… Is this a real political movement or is it the most successful disinformation campaign (financed by America's financial elites) in the history of modern politics? I'm guessing the latter…
[E]ver since the Right Wing Populist movement got started, the wages of the top 5% have soared while the wages of the average Rush Limbaugh listener have stayed flat... while in the 1960's and 1970's real hourly wages and median household income tended to rise with productivity, by 1980 most of the gains in productivity were flowing not to workers but to the financial elites.
So what is the role of the Right Wing Populist like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck if it is not to improve the relative economic situation of their listeners? The philosopher Walter Benjamin, trying to explain the appeal of fascism to the German and Italian masses in the 1930's had an idea: "Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves." This, in essence, is the role of talk radio and Fox News. Limbaugh, Beck and Murdoch have no interest in changing the financial status quo that had reigned since the rise of Reagan. But they are aware of the potentially volatile mixture of working class resentment and rising unemployment and so they give the masses "a chance to express themselves."
It's easy to quibble that there are plenty of clear historical precedents for elements of this right wing populism (and some of it under the banner of the Democratic rather than the Republican Party) in Reconstruction, in the Jacksonian era, in the Gilded Age, in the 1920s, in the economic royalists who fought the New Deal, during the Red Scare, in the McCarthy era, and so on, but to do so is to lose track of Taplin's key point, which is focused on a particular mass-mediated phase of that right wing populism.
Of course, during the period Taplin has in mind -- note that his story begins, as so many stories setting the contemporary scene do, in 1968 -- the New Left and the identity politics of its aftermath turned to "cultural issues," which provided a fractious rainbow coalition with our own chances to express ourselves. Usually, this phase in the politics of the left is bemoaned in terms that parallel Taplin's assessment of the opportunism of incumbent-elites providing spaces for the "expression" of the socioeconomic distress of majorities as a way of undermining their capacity to organize and agitate for the substantial amelioration of that socioeconomic distress.
I don't deny the force of this point, but I do think many of us leap to make it all too easily and eagerly in ways that oversimplify our recent history and underestimate our indebtedness to the work of that history. It is much less easy to imagine just how we could have avoided the frustration of this impasse of expressivity over equity given that American capitalism has always actually been white-racist patriarchal capitalism in particular.
I maintain (for instance here and here and here) that the Left won the Culture Wars, even if we don't yet seem quite to grasp the significance of that victory or seem confident enough in our victory to act, as we should, from the position of strength that victory makes available to us. But more to the point, I believe that this victory was well worth winning (I speak as a queer who is a grateful beneficiary of the multiculturalist moment and not at all sure that a reductive socioeconomic perspective would be adequate to give voice to what I have gained, any more than I would ever mistake the politics of expressivity as adequate at all, on its own, to the politics of equity), possibly, too, by the way, it really was the only terrain on which victory was available to the left in a country in which white racism is as deep, intractable, structural as it is here.
As it happens, I believe that the Left's own expressive populism -- the parallel track to the story Taplin tells, but which he omits to discuss -- in winning the Culture Wars laid the indispensable groundwork for a return to the sort of equitable populism Taplin prioritizes (perhaps a bit ungratefully) and which I would have us turn to again just the same. White racism and patriarchy (sexism and heterosexism) have been indispensable to the right wing populism to which Taplin directs our attention, and they are both utterly inapt to the demographic realities of a conspicuously browning, secularizing, planetizing (a word that bespeaks both awareness of supra-international environmental politics and inhabitation of alter-international p2p-network formations) polity.
I maintain -- in a view informed by my reading, possibly misguided, of Paul Gilroy -- that crucial strategies and vocabularies of conviviality emerged out of the multiculturalist phase of left expressive politics and I believe that they provide the groundwork without which the emerging left could not otherwise cope with the opportunity to return to a populist politics of equity afforded by these emerging demographic realities. Because of the left populist politics of expressivity of the multiculturalist moment I suspect that Limbaugh and Beck have considerably less purchase on the "volatile mixture of working class resentment and rising unemployment" than they otherwise would, and in ways that render freshly re-thinkable a turn to a more left populist politics of equity of precisely the kind Taplin, among many others of us, would find congenial and overdue.
While it is right to bemoan any politics of diversity without equity as inadequately democratic (not a bad way to critique so much of the left politics in the aftermath of 1968, and a critique with which I suspect Taplin might sympathize, since he seems to regard the politics of expressivity entirely as "unreal," though I doubt very much, by the way, that Benjamin would) it would also be exactly equally right to bemoan any politics of equity without diversity as inadequately democratic (a point whose force seems to me to be too readily overlooked or at any rate given too little consideration).
Democratic politics, properly so-called, seems to me to be an ongoing, in fact interminable, dynamic experiment in the implementation and expression of equity-in-diversity. The stage is set for the next act in this democratic struggle, and I cannot pretend that we are making the kind of showing that inspires great confidence. Still, it remains to be seen if we are capable of equity-in-diversity, fit for it, equal to it, now, peer to peer, in the face of the unprecedented urgent planetary problems of our own, possibly world-ending, certainly world-changing, moment.