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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rick Perlstein's Analysis of A Fear-Based American Electorate

Rick Perlstein declares that there are "two major axes upon which major national elections get fought [in the USA]. Sometimes they become battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer. Other times they are showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails. Normally, in the former sort of election, Republicans win. In the latter, Democrats do[.]" This framing feels very ugly and depressing to me, which gives it the ring of truth, I suppose.

What concerns me most is that Perlstein's formulation seems to re-enact a key feature of the discourse he is presumably analyzing. For example, it is crucial to grasp how often "battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer" -- the sorts of battles he says Republicans tend to win -- are first of all battles over what is denoted by the term "ordinary." When Republicans win these battles it is not because they are more in tune with prevailing cultural and social anxieties, but despite the fact that they are not (perhaps because embattled minorities tend to be defensive and disciplined in ways that are ripe for partisan exploitation).

What Republicans mean by "ordinary Americans" is exactly the same thing they mean by "real Americans" and meant by "the Silent Majority," "the moral majority," "Family Values," and "values voters" and on and on and on -- they always mean straight, white, Christian, working class Americans. But it is important to realize that non-white non-straight non-Christian working class Americans are actually ordinary in exactly the same ways that straight, white, Christian, working class Americans are.

This has always been true, but it is dramatically relevant in an America that is demographically barreling toward what is sometimes picturesquely mischaracterized as a "majority minority country," a country in which those who are construed as "white" or "straight" or "Christian" (designations which are the furthest thing from natural ones, but each one whose historical attribution bears witness to extreme and fraught vicissitudes) are not the majority of the population -- even if such people continue for a time to hold a majority of positions of public authority and wealth. To believe that it is "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianity" that makes such people ordinary, rather than the shared socioeconomic and geophysical interests and problems they all have, and most of which are indifferent to the presence of absence of "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness" is, as a matter of fact, to believe a lie. In that case, what matters most is not the reality and force of the anxiety but the deception through which that anxiety is channeled into concerns over "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness."

As Rachel Maddow says in a promotional spot for her show, when Republicans got elected in the catastrophic 2010 mid-term wave elections by promising to focus on jobs, but then in office they immediately pivoted to extreme Culture War issues like abortion, gay marriage, and Sharia Law, this was not the complete change in focus from mass unemployment that it might seem to be but instead a capitalization on the misery and anxiety mass unemployment brings in tow, deployed to divide working class people from one another, to blame and fear and resent one another rather than organize and vote on the basis of their shared interests.

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When Perlstein refers to the "showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails" he risks indulging in precisely the same sort of fundamental mis-characterization as before. Embedded in his formulation is the assumption that what the middle-class experiences as "free market fail[ure]" are inequitable distributions of cost, risk, and benefit in whatever happens to pass as a "free market system" at the moment. Again, it is relevant to point out that many different configurations of customs, regulations, treaties, institutions, and so on have historically designated "free markets" and so it is important not to pretend that this is a natural attribution rather than an endlessly contested designation, especially since those who benefit from particular normative and institutional configurations inevitably champion them as "natural" or "inevitable" or even as "spontaneous orders" rather than tissues of contingent, artificial agreements and infrastructural abilities they always actually are.

To many of those who benefit from a particular configuration of "free market" norms and forms the inequities that result from the system will not represent failures but precisely the signs of its success, and many who do not actually benefit from the distribution of costs, risks, and benefits a particular "free market" configuration yields may still support that configuration if they believe they benefit even when they do not, if they believe they would suffer more from a different configuration even if they would not, if they identify with those who benefit even when they have few grounds for such identification, or if they aspire to benefit even if their chances of arriving at this outcome or slim to none.

It is a fact that elite-incumbent minorities of hitherto largely apolitical Big Businessmen and hitherto largely anti-political Christian fundamentalists organized politically in the aftermath of the New Deal, often under the shared ideological assumptions and rhetorical frames (eg, feudal hierarchies recast as "spontaneous orders," demolition of the Rooseveltian Four Freedoms recast as the clearing of a space for "open societies," democracy recast as "free men in free markets," plutocratic planned economy stealthed as "defense spending," market discipline recast as virtue, secular pluralism recast as nihilism, and so on) originating in the Mont Pelerin society of right-wing market fundamentalist ideologues, and disseminated through the creation and maintenance of an alternative-reality anti-Academy of think-tanks (and sometimes within the Academy, as in the neoliberal ascendancy over freshwater economics departments) peddling their frames through Establishment media outlets to Washington Consensus policy-makers with both short-term profit-taking and long-term oligarchic ends in view.

In the United States, wealth disparity has reached levels unprecedented in the modern era, middle class earning power has stagnated or declined, labor conditions and welfare entitlements have grown steadily more informal and precarious, everyday costs and risks of productive enterprise have been externalized onto everyday people to the dramatic benefit of rich profit-taking minorities, and all this in the larger planetary context of the neoliberal/ neoconservative Washington Consensus (the neoliberal/ neoconservative circuit is a radical circumscription of the liberal and conservative political spectrum into the co-dependent terms of corporate-militarism in which postcolonial market libertarian developmentalism whatever its inequities is figured as a neutral progressivism backed, as a last though commonplace resort, by overwhelming military force in the context of a global archipelago of bases) under the prevalence of which wealth concentration in the midst of proliferating weapons and accelerating anthropogenic climate catastrophe has rendered absolutely precarious ever greater numbers of human beings across the planet while ever fewer live lives of disgruntled luxury in what amounts to a state of universal misery.

What I would point out from this rather overheated summary of the present state of things is a mirror-image of what I pointed out before. Just as it turned out that what matters most about the politics from which Republicans tend to benefit is not the reality and force of the anxiety of "ordinary Americans" over "cultural and social issues" but the deception through which that anxiety is channeled into concerns over "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness." Again, what is actually key is not the anxiety but the deception. So too with what Perlstein calls the politics of "middle-class anxieties when the free market fails" from which he says Democrats tend to benefit. These turn out in my view to be less about the reality and force of "anxieties" but the actual factual reality of the ways in which given normative-institutional configurations designated as "free market" orders produce actual, factual inequities suffered in the reality of the lives of the majority of people who work for a living. What is actually key here is not an anxiety, but the actual facts of the matter.

What Perlstein constructs as a kind of meta-historical pendulum between forms of anxiety that benefit sometimes Democrats and sometimes Republicans, is actually far better described as a matter of whether our political system and culture industry manages to peddle a deception about threatened ordinary people which divides them on the basis of race, gender, or religion or whether that deception fails with the consequence that people who work for a living -- whatever communities invest their ethnicity, sexual practices, spiritual beliefs -- recognize their shared interests and problems and agitate and organize to shape the political system and culture industry to reflect and respond to those shared interests and problems.

Just as people tend not to behave very reasonably when they are afraid, neither do I think we grasp actually prevailing historical struggles very clearly when our analyses focus on fear as a force. What looks like a neutral term -- anxiety -- in Perlstein's analysis yields an equivalence (Republicans benefit when anxieties are focused on this sociocultural object, Democrats benefit when anxieties are focused on this socioeconomic object) that obscures the difference between a politics of deception and distraction as against a politics of telling truths to power and solving real problems (Republicans benefit when they manage to divide people from their shared interests, Democrats benefit when they connect to projects to address people's shared interests).

Perlstein might object that this is just a way of preferring a partisan over a disinterested and academic framing of partisan political sparring, but he proposes his own formulation specifically in the context of recommending President Obama grasp the partisan stakes in this historical moment to the benefit of Democratic priorities (and I daresay Perlstein would want to Obama to focus on the same issues and testify to the same aspirations I would myself). Whatever the discomfort to academics, I do not think it is possible to testify to these struggles in substantive ways without attesting to the organized deceptions of the right, nor do I think it is possible to facilitate progress in these struggles without admitting the good and evil we find in them when we do.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

Thinking a bit more about this -- I guess what I worry about most here is that the ascension to the level of analysis focusing on "axieties" evacuates too much of the substance of the differences that make a difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties both in terms of election outcomes and ethos.

Perlstein no more wants to do this than I do, so I think I'm warning him that his analytic focus might not yield the outcomes he means for it to. at least as readily as he might want it to do -- even if his analysis has more to recommend it than the more usual more facile equivalency theses one hears about the parties both from Villagers forever pining after a phantom middle or from Teavangelical or Third Party lefties declaring a plague on both their houses and so on.

As a rhetorician, however, I can easily imagine contexts in which Perlstein's framing might be useful -- for example among actually independent minded Republicans of an Eisenhower bent thinking of voting for or with FDR Democrats toward practical public investments. But of course, these sorts of Republicans don't really exist anymore, nor are there Independents like this outside of fleeting fancies arising out of Villager circle-jerks.

I don't think Perstein's frame is a useful way to draw the contrast in today's political context -- I don't think it is even that useful as a tool to bring about a marginally more sane context in which it could become more useful.

I still like Perlstein, though, and I couldn't recommend Nixonland or his Goldwater book Before the Storm more enthusiastically.