Sarah Palin, Fauxpulism, and Right-Wing Identity Politics

by matttbastard

(Image: Tacoma Urbanist, Flickr)

Sarah Palin is back — and, seemingly, everywhere, as she launches a book tour (and, perhaps, a run at the White House in 2012).

Max Blumenthal:

In a Republican Party hoping to rebound in 2010 on the strength of a newly energized and ideologically aroused conservative grassroots, Palin’s influence is now unparalleled. Through her Facebook page, she was the one who pushed the rumor of “death panels” into the national healthcare debate, prompting the White House to issue a series of defensive responses. Unfazed by its absurdity, she repeated the charge in her recent speech in Wisconsin. In a special congressional election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, Palin’s endorsement of Doug Hoffman, an unknown far-right third-party candidate, helped force a popular moderate Republican politician, Dede Scozzafava, from the race. In the end, Palin’s ideological purge in upstate New York led to an improbable Democratic victory, the first in that GOP-heavy district in more than 100 years.

Though the ideological purge may have backfired, Palin’s participation in it magnified her influence in the party. In a telling sign of this, Congressman Mark Kirk, a pro-choice Republican from the posh suburban North Shore of Chicago, running for the Senate in Illinois, issued an anxious call for Palin’s support while she campaigned for Hoffman. According to a Kirk campaign memo, the candidate was terrified that Palin would be asked about his candidacy during her scheduled appearance on the Chicago-based Oprah Winfrey Show later this month — the kick-off for her book tour — and would not react enthusiastically. With $2.3 million in campaign cash and no viable primary challengers, Kirk was still desperate to avoid Palin-backed attacks from his right flank, however hypothetical they might be.

“She’s gangbusters!” a leading conservative radio host exclaimed to me. “There is nobody in the Republican Party who can raise money like her or top her name recognition.”

In contemporary politics, money + brand recognition = power –period. For a Republican party scrambling to maintain its ever-shrinking base, that makes Sarah Palin its most influential personality. And with the Democratic Party and the White House being seen, rightly or wrongly, as the party of Goldman Sachs, an avowed fauxpulist like Palin (she’s ‘one of us!’) driving the tone and tenor of conservative politics in an age of economic instability is not something to airily discount.

Tim Egan:

Right now, a time when only 20 percent of Americans call themselves Republicans and Democrats are shrinking as well, the independents are disgusted with both parties. In large part, it’s because neither one seems to be on their side.

The early warning shots came on Nov. 3, against an ineffective former Wall Street executive, ousted New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, and the billionaire mayor who barely bought himself a third term, Michael Bloomberg of New York. Both felt the back hand of an electorate that feels as if the system is rigged against them.

A year ago, most people were open-minded about the ground-shaking changes 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 were not only against the bailouts, but in favor of curbing pay on Wall Street, and tightening government regulation of same.

The continuous drip of perceived unfairness continues. One day it’s news that Goldman Sachs seems to have stepped ahead of the line of those waiting to receive H1N1 vaccines, prompting questions about why investment bankers were getting doses rather than children or pregnant women. This week, Gallup found one in five parents saying they were unable to get swine flu vaccine for their children.

Another day brings a report that the top banks are raising credit card interest rates – some as high as 29 percent, which would shame a Mob extortionist — even against people who have always paid on time. This is the thanks we get?

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. Proof, just recently, came from a Center for Responsive Politics report that 237 members of Congress — 44 percent — are millionaires, compared to just 1 percent for the country as whole.

It’s difficult to take the clumsy rhetorical and symbolic excesses of the so-called Tea Party protest movement seriously. The ham-fisted polyester populism employed by some of the more exuberant adherants seems designed to drive a stake through the barely-beating heart of parody. But the (partly manufactured) rage that is driving teabaggers to target moderate Republicans like Dede Scozzafava or burn Speaker Pelosi in effigy isn’t simply fodder for mockery by progressive bloggers and #p2 snarkmeisters; it’s a bellwhether for a burgeoning class divide that threatens to leave the Congressional millionaire elite behind — and give a boost to any political movement that figures out how to tap that rage, regardless of where that movement lies on the ideological spectrum.

The fall of social democracy in Europe may provide clues as to how this could play out if progressives fail to heed the mood of the electorate. In a piece for Red Pepper published in June of 2008, Magnus Marsdal tried to explain how and why the populist right has been ascendant in Europe over the past decade, using the Norwegian Freedom Party (FrP) as an example:

Talking to people who voted for the Norwegian populist right offers useful insights for anyone trying to fight radical right-wing populism elsewhere in Europe, particularly when it comes to what I call ‘identity politics’.

How does the FrP make the worker-voter identify with a party that is positioned so far to the right? Hostility towards foreigners and mobilisation of ‘white’ or ‘Norwegian’ identity plays a big part. So does the male- orientated FrP’s anti- feminism, which mobilises identity among male voters.

The right-wing populists also play with a particular type of consumer identity that sets the population as consumer individuals against the state, the tax system and the elite. These are the obvious side of the FrP’s identity politics.

There are two other elements that are less apparent but even more important to consider, both in Norway and in other countries where right-wing populism is on the rise.

Worker identity
First, the FrP’s rhetoric offers its own worker-identity. This is not the worker as opposed to bosses and owners. It is the worker contrasted to the lazy and dole abusers ‘below’ and ‘posh’, cultured people ‘above’.

It is quite normal for people to imagine society as if it were split into three different sections, with themselves in the middle. Moral values determine who is worthy, and who is unworthy, both ‘up there’, ‘down below’ and among ‘proper working people’. The unworthy ‘up there’ include all those who represent the state, the Labour Party, the government and everybody else who ‘lies and steals money from common workers’, as Hans Erling Willersrud, the car worker who is the main character in The FrP Code, puts it.

Among people ‘down there’, the worthy are those who, through no fault of their own, have become ill, disabled or been made redundant. Everyone else is unworthy, including those who don’t do their jobs properly. For many workers worthiness equals skills – you are worth something because you have skills and you do something. This way of measuring worth and dignity is an alternative to measuring by income or education. On this essentially moral scale, the ‘honest worker’ comes out on the same level as, or above, the rich person or the leading politician.

The unworthy also include the dishonest: those who turn with the wind, pay lip service to all, who are not ‘solid wood’, as Norwegians say. The worst are probably those who suck up to ‘posh’ people and intellectuals one moment, only to denounce them among workers the next. Not being perceived as ‘solid wood’ has created quite a few problems for politicians, especially for the Labour Party, which needs to present itself favourably to different groups at the same time.

From my interviews with working-class FrP voters, I made a simple model to show how those ‘up there’ and ‘down there’ stand in relation to the ‘proper working people’. The elite ‘up there’ are divided into three different types:

  • the ‘know-it-alls’ linked to the education system and the state;
  • the greedy, found at the top of the economy; and
  • the politically powerful (often connected to the ‘know-it- alls’ and the greedy).

[…]

A second element to the FrP’s identity politics is that of aggrieved identity. ‘I’m just an ordinary worker, I have no fucking say,’ says Hans Erling Willersrud. He knows what it means to be at the boss’s beck and call and he’s had enough of the condescending attitude of Labour politicians who ‘can’t be bothered to listen to what [he’s] got to say’.He had some contact with the social security office when he was sick, and ‘has had it up to here with the system’. ‘They wouldn’t even believe he was in pain,’ says his mother Eli.

Hans Erling thinks politicians and bureaucrats are driving his country into the ground. He believes the social democratic elite has arranged things so the rich, the shrewd and the sleazy can take advantage of the system at the expense of the common man. He’s at the bottom of the pile at work. He’s at the bottom of the pile at the dole office. He’s at the bottom of the pile in the trade union (as an FrP voter) and in politics in general. He sees himself as a ‘political underdog’.

This doesn’t mean he is weak. On the contrary: being an underdog is not about lacking personal strengths, but finding that they don’t count for anything. More powerful people, regardless of their competence, are lording it over theunderdog, without recognising his skills or paying attention to what he actually knows, thinks or wants. It’s humiliating. He feels aggrieved.

And how does a political party like the FrP exploit the popular mood? It uses political language and images to touch a nerve with people who feel ignored, trampled on and overruled.

Carl Hagen’s most important ploy is to place himself in the role of the underdog. When he rages against the other parties wanting to keep a strong FrP out of government, he says, ‘Our voters will not be treated as second-rate.’ This simple sentence is perfect for connecting with people who on a daily basis, whether at work, at school or in the media, feel that they are treated like second-class citizens. Widening the focus, Hagen implies that what ordinary workers are in the workplace, the FrP is in the party political system. The voters can identify only too readily with what he is saying.

At the same time, Hagen – in the role of the affronted man who refuses to back down – offers the promise of vindication. For more than 30 years he has paid for the conceited sins of others, he tells them. But he turns the other cheek. Unlike the powerful and the arrogant, he is not driven by haughtiness or personal ambition. He is only fighting for what’s fair.

This underdog pose is brilliant because it can be applied to so many different voter groups. Above/below is a relationship that most people can recognise. Because he understands the underdog mentality, Hagen can connect with social-democratic workers as readily as with Christian fundamentalists who feel that their Christian cultural heritage is under threat.

Other subjects that mobilise the affronted population’s sense of themselves as the underdog include the FrP’s attacks on ‘politicians and bureaucrats’, its protest against schemes such as ‘the new opera being paid for by taxpayers’ and accusations that overpaid journalists are ‘persecuting the FrP’.

So where does Sarah Palin and her overwhelming ubiquity fit in all this? Like Barack Obama in 2008, Palin could prove to be a blank canvas on which citizens could project their desires en masse. Only instead of hope and change driving a national popular movement, hate and fear would be the engine of political change in 2012.

Of course, recent polls make the likelihood of a Palin run for the Presidency seem dim for the moment, as Joan Walsh notes.

But that doesn’t mean progressives should exhale:

The main reason not to fear a President Palin can be seen in recent polling among independents and moderates. In a the most current ABC News/Washington Post poll, Greg Sargent drilled down to find that: only 37 percent of independents and 30 percent of self-described moderates think she’s qualified for the presidency, and 58 percent of moderates view her unfavorably. Even more intriguing (but not surprising): Palin’s approval rating with men is higher than with women, 48 percent to 39 percent, and just a third of women believe she’d be qualified to be our first female president. (So much for Palin’s appeal to Hillary Clinton fans!)

So I think the Sarah Palin rehab tour is more about Sarah Palin Inc. than Sarah Palin 2012. She’ll rack up the speaking fees, raise some money for red-state, red-meat Republicans, further polarize the party and live the high life she thinks she deserves. Still, even as I dismiss Palin as a serious GOP threat, increasingly I believe that the faux-populism of the right is something to worry about. It may be fun to mock Sarah Palin, but Democrats shouldn’t laugh at many of the people who admire her – who see a folksy, new kind of self-made mom trying to fight the bad old Eastern elites.

Digby nails it:

I’m not saying that we should panic. These people are politically weak in their own right. But when I see the liberal gasbags on TV blithely dismissing this as if it”s impossible that Americans could ever fall for such lunacy, I feel a little frisson of alarm. I’ve read too many accounts of people who, 80 or so years ago, complacently made the same assumption. And the whole world found out that under the right circumstances even the most civilized nations can throw in with the crazies.

Bottom line: If the ugly momentum of right-wing identity politics carries into 2012, we could see the nastiest, most polarizing Presidential campaign since 1972, regardless of who gets the GOP nomination.

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F*ck Me with a Freshly Sharpened Pitchfork.

by matttbastard

Update 03/23: Make sure to check out Sarah’s post on Spitzer, populism, and The Experts.

On today’s episode of Fareed Zakaria GPS, an ‘expert panel’ was convened to discuss ‘populist’ outrage in the wake of AIG and other recent scandals related to the global economic crisis. Via email, I bet Sarah a dinner at IHOP (because we be keepin’ it real like that in this economy) that the ‘expert panel’ would be tilted towards the Washington media elite–y’know, Broder,  Friedman, maybe some latte-sipping ‘even the’ liberal from TNR.  Sarah very astutely declined to take me up on that bet.

Good thing, too–I knew it was going to be bad, but this so-called ‘expert panel’ went beyond even the previously charted borders of EPIC ESTABLISHMENT FAIL .

I mean, was that ‘expert panel’ on ‘populist rage’ a joke?  Let’s see: a glibertarian blogger, a former Goldman Sachs greed peddler, and a tainted ex-Merril Lynch exec.

Seriously?

How about next time try featuring some actual, y’know, populists–labour reps, or writers like Barbara Ehrenreich or Bill Fletcher, Jr–people who aren’t stuck in the bubble of establishment Washington, who don’t purse their lips at such vulgar concepts as ‘populism’,  ‘nationalization’ or even (gasp!) ‘socialism.’   Or, as Sarah suggested, someone like our homie Erik Loomis, a Gilded Age historian whose focus is labor history and has studied in depth populist movements in the US. In other words, REAL experts on the matter of ‘populist rage’, not smug apologists for the very system that has PROVOKED the white-hot ire of the general public.

At the end of the segment, Zakaria guilelessly requested that viewers write in if they felt the panel didn’t contain enough populist outrage “and we’ll see what we can do to correct that”. Dude, there was NO populist outrage–period.  Jesus fucking wept — talk about a glib cocktail party sneer from the woefully-out-of-touch establishment.

Pitchforks. Pikes. Tumbrils.

Take action: Contact Fareed Zakaria GPS and (politely but firmly) let them know that you want to see REAL experts on populism represented in any purportedly ‘expert’ panel.

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Quote of the Day: On ‘Populist Chic’

by matttbastard

Back in the ’70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about “radical chic,” the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their “struggles.” But “populist chic” is just the inversion of “radical chic,” and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.

Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives’ “disdain for liberal intellectuals” had slipped into “disdain for the educated class as a whole,” and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn’t care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole.

– Mark Lilla, The Perils of Populist Chic

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What’s the Matter With America’s Progressive Intellectual Backbone?

by matttbastard

Joining in on the dead horse flogging previously initiated by my esteemed co-bloggers Kyle, tas and Dustin, Chet Scoville examines how the reaction in some quarters to, in the words of Joe Gandelman, Senator Obama’s “politically flat-footed” comments re: small town voters exposes the failure of the American liberal intelligentsia to adequately lay down intellectual foundations that progressive politicians can later safely build upon without fear of blowback like what Obama is currently facing:

If the American left were at all functional, and if the American media worked the way a free media is supposed to, [Thomas] Frank’s analysis [of why some people vote against their interests, outlined in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas] would be as well known in the public arena as Grover Norquist’s anti-government paranoia on the other side. And it would have been picked up in liberal journals, discussed, debated, fleshed out, corrected. The Democratic Party would have had analysts examine it, do some polling, some focus-grouping, some framing and marketing. And the analysis, newly corrected, would have found its way in palatable form into the campaigns, in a way that placed the blame squarely where it belongs: on the Republican politicians and their corporate bosses who have crafted the paranoia for their own purposes. This, as Bill Bradley noted three years ago, is essentially what the GOP has been doing for thirty years, to great electoral success.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the candidate has picked up the analysis without any of that other, necessary work being done. Furthermore, he made the capital mistake of deploying this argument during a primary campaign and not the general, thus inadvertently* implying that his fellow Democrats (in this case, Clinton supporters) were paranoid and unthinking.

Scoville points to this post by Bob Somerby, which, though contextually focused on Obama’s race speech, is also (IMO) right on the money in this instance:

It’s dangerous when we put our White House candidate out in front on such issues, making him lead a risky parade (Just as it would have been dangerous to have Candidate Gore deliver those “courageous” speeches about global warming.) But let’s state the obvious: Our “liberal intellectual leaders” don’t lead in any way.

[…]

For better or worse, “courageous” doesn’t typically win elections. “Courageous” is good for liberal thinkers, of whom we have very few.

Fair or unfair, the lack of impact progressive thinkers have had on American political discourse over the past several decades has left Democratic candidates all-too-vulnerable to “gaffes” such as this. Once again, I point to Sara Robinson’s three part series on how the USian liberal left can work to overcome the idea deficit. Until that happens, I’ll grit my teeth in dubious anticipation of future teapot tempests, all-but-guaranteed to be stirred up by a lazy, vacuous press corps wholly contaminated by 30 years of movement conservative propaganda.

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