The Politics of Incoherence

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 08:35 By Cary Fraser, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The Politics of Incoherence
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Andrew Feinberg, zen Sutherland)

"When creative statesmanship wanes, irrational militarism increases." [1]

The decision by Barack Obama to run for the Presidency in the United States in 2007 has unleashed a crisis of cultural illiteracy that has swept some sectors of American society into a frenzy triggered by the deep currents of xenophobia and racism that have regularly coursed through the society. The rants of the "birther" movement, the tea party acolytes, those who view Obama as a Muslim, and others who seek to "reclaim their country" are a reflection of the intellectual incoherence that currently defines American political life and debates. While there is an argument that can be advanced that the contemporary hysteria is reminiscent of the McCarthy era and other episodes of demagoguery married to social unease, the current intellectual incoherence that has resulted from the social hysteria seems to have acquired a momentum triggered by a deeper malaise - the declining commitment of American elites to the cultivation of a civil discourse in public life.

The coarsening of American public life and public discourse displayed during the 1988 presidential election campaign when the Republican party mounted the Willie Horton ad campaign against the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, has had long-term consequences for the quality of American political debate. [2] In 1990, the Republican Senator Jesse Helms used the "Hands" ad that attacked affirmative action in a tight re-election campaign in North Carolina against the African American Democratic candidate, Harvey Gantt, who lost that election after gaining an early lead over Helms. In 1992, Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for President, was the target of a whisper campaign that alleged he was the father of a "black" child, but he proved resilient enough to exploit the Bush campaign's inability to guide the country out of the recession that followed the first Gulf War. John McCain suffered a similar indignity during the Republican primary campaign in 2000, which led to George W. Bush's selection as the Republican candidate that year. Barack Obama was an inevitable target for this intellectual chicanery and innuendo simply because of the origins of his father - an African and the scion of a Muslim family in Kenya. In effect, the use of anti-black stigma as a device for polarizing public sentiment in elections - a technique which Southern demagogues like George Wallace had perfected in the 1960s - has become a staple of contemporary American politics, and not only in the South. [3]

After Obama's victory in 2008, the Democrats replaced an intellectually bankrupt and deeply compromised Republican administration led by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, one that had steered the United States into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is perhaps not an accident that the debates over Obama's birth and citizenship have become a major focus of concern among the disgruntled Republicans and other malcontents who perceived the political utility of these non-issues. The inordinate attention given to these topics has deflected any serious public examination and debate about the strategic incompetence and fiscal recklessness that defined the Bush-Cheney administration. After the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the Republicans were reduced to minority party status, and the party's only significant success prior to 1968 was the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency from 1952-1960. The Great Depression is such a powerful reminder of consummate failure that the current Republican Party is desperate to find any issue that will lead public attention away from an intelligent discussion of the ideological and policy failures that has resulted from the bankruptcy that is the Bush-Cheney legacy.

The current Republican strategy of targeting Obama personally and refusing to cooperate in developing a bipartisan economic recovery program is undoubtedly aimed at ensuring that Obama does not become successful in dealing with the economic crisis. Success for Obama will create an opportunity for the Democrats to repeat the accomplishment of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only President to have been elected for four terms, and whose tenure laid the foundations of the New Deal state that defined American life until the closing years of the century. For the Republicans, if Obama were to repeat the success of FDR, the future of their party will be very bleak.

Even more important, Obama's success will erode the currency of white supremacy as the inspiration of current American conservatism and the ideological glue that has bound the ranks of the Republican Party in recent decades. Obama showed in the 2008 presidential election campaign that the future of American politics will increasingly be shaped by effective coalition-building among the increasingly diverse constituencies that now define the demographic landscape in America. That multicultural sensibility is at odds with the detritus of white supremacy that brought people like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and their heirs into the Republican party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s. The disaffection among conservative Southern Democrats with Lyndon Johnson's decision to bring an end to Jim Crow as a legal system led them to join ranks with the Republican Party in 1968, and their support gave Richard Nixon a decisive edge in his victory in the Presidential campaign. Obama's victory in 2008 served notice that white supremacy now has a limited shelf-life in the future of American politics, and the Republican party is facing the challenge of constructing a new and viable political coalition if it plans to remain competitive over the longer term as a national political force.

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However, the recent rise of the Tea Party as a catalyst for resentment against the growing ethnic, racial and religious pluralism that has reshaped American electoral politics has created a serious obstacle for the Republican Party's efforts to reshape itself. The militant conservatism of the Tea Party has usurped the Republican claim to being the guiding light of the conservative movement in the United States. Further, the willingness of Tea Party candidates, some with support from Sarah Palin, to challenge the Republican establishment during the primaries for the 2010 mid-term elections has triggered serious tremors within the conservative establishment. In effect, the Republican Party has been hoisted on its own petard and the party finds itself in a situation that echoes the dilemma it faced in the 1960s. Barry Goldwater and his allies, who controlled the extremist wing of the party, were able to seize control of the party after Nixon's defeat in the 1960 Presidential election. Goldwater went on to win the Republican nomination in 1964 - defeating Nelson Rockefeller in the process, and permanently reducing the influence of the liberal wing thereafter. Goldwater suffered a crushing defeat in 1964 running against Lyndon Johnson, but his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened the way for the creation of a grand coalition of conservatives by bringing the conservative Southern Democrats into the Republican party and paving the way for the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Sarah Palin may be bidding fair to replicate the Goldwater strategy in 2012 if the Tea Party proves adept enough to shift the political balance within the Republican ranks and leadership during the 2010 mid-term election campaign.

The serious threat that the Tea Party insurgency poses for the Republican party has led established conservative leaders - notably, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker and nemesis of Bill Clinton, and Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi and former chair of the Republican National Committee - to enter the fray in an effort to blunt the appeal of Tea Party candidates. By positioning themselves as possible candidates for the Presidency in 2012, they are seeking to take some wind out of the sails of Sarah Palin and her Tea Party supporters. In effect, the Republican party today is torn by an inter-generational conflict between the leaders who rose to prominence during the Reagan era, and younger leaders like Palin who see those leaders as having failed to stop the Democratic resurgence based upon an effective and creative strategy of inter-ethnic politics in 2008. The 2010 elections will be a test of strength of the various factions and coalitions within the ranks of conservatives, and will have a significant bearing upon the choice of the 2012 Presidential candidate and a possible third-party campaign.

This conservative factionalism has been accompanied by a level of intellectual incoherence that is quite striking. The Tea Party has appropriated the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party as a foundation of the anti-colonial narrative of American freedom from oppression to sustain its challenge to the Obama administration. Newt Gingrich has decided to position himself as a critic of Obama's "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview which makes him "a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president." [4] This conception of Obama's worldview was borrowed from the right-wing polemicist, Dinesh D'Souza, who, being an immigrant of Indian origin, considered himself well-qualified to explain to Americans the significance of anticolonialism:

"I know a great deal about anticolonialism, because I am a native of Mumbai, India. I am part of the first Indian generation to be born after my country's independence from the British. Anticolonialism was the rallying cry of Third World politics for much of the second half of the 20th century. To most Americans, however, anticolonialism is an unfamiliar idea, so let me explain it." [5]

An Indian immigrant from postcolonial India seeking to explain the meaning of anticolonialism to Americans who were the first successful rebels to break free permanently from European colonial rule is rich with irony. An American conservative leader who disapproves of Kenyan anticolonialism, and whose doctoral thesis was on colonial education policy in the Belgian Congo [6], does not betray any self-consciousness about decrying anticolonialism in Africa, but apparently accepts it as a necessary condition of life for Americans. He was also apparently unaware that Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, had served as an advisor to the Kenyan nationalists when the country's constitution was being drafted. [7] With such intellectual acumen among their political leadership, is it any wonder that the American people are both confused and afraid?

Even worse, Haley Barbour has recently offered a revisionist account of Southern American history that has left many readers puzzled. It is reported that:

"Barbour has invented his own sanitized, suburb-friendly version of history - an account that paints the South's shift to the GOP as the product of young, racially inclusive conservatives who had reasons completely separate and apart from racial politics for abandoning their forebears' partisan allegiances. In an interview with Human Events that was posted on Wednesday, Barbour insists that "the people who led the change of parties in the South ... was my generation. My generation who went to integrated schools. I went to integrated college - never thought twice about it." Segregationists in the South, in his telling, were "old Democrats," but "by my time, people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, it wasn't gonna be that way anymore. So the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration." [8]

This narrative of tolerance among Southern Republicans after 1964 is at considerable variance with the activities and agenda of the Southern conservatives who followed the likes of Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Trent Lott among others. It belies the reality of Ronald Reagan launching his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi [9] - the site of the murders of three civil rights activists in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, when Southerners were continuing their rearguard campaign to prevent the end of the Jim Crow regime. It also contradicts the record of Barbour as a Republican leader with a dubious record on the history and politics of the Confederacy and white supremacy in the South. [10]

As the 2010 election campaign gains momentum in its final months and foreshadows the battles to come in 2012, American politics is buffeted by the currents of racism and white supremacy that have emerged as an inevitable reaction to the election of its first African American President. For Barack Obama, the 2010 election campaign has become a referendum on his efforts to reinvigorate the American economy and establish a balance among its foreign and security policies in incremental steps, since a radical shift in priorities may affect both American credibility abroad and create even greater disruption at home. Obama is caught on the horns of the dilemma created by the Bush-Cheney administration, but the haunting legacy of the Republican party's warm embrace of Jim Crow ideology in the 1960s now casts a long shadow over the Obama administration's efforts to move the country into the 21st century. Will Obama and his allies be able to forge an effective strategy to lead American away from the absence of creative statesmanship and irrational militarism that defined the Bush-Cheney administration if the Republicans continue with their reckless pursuit of the demons of race as the path to power in a new millennium?

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[1] Clayborne Carson (ed.), "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.," (New York: Warner Books, 1998) p.345.

[2] Michael Scherer, "Reviving the Ghost of Willie Horton," Time.com, Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

[3] For an account of this phenomenon in 2002 see, Jack White, "Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism," Time Magazine, Dec. 14, 2002.

[4] Robert Costa, "Gingrich: Obama's 'Kenyan, anti-colonial' worldview," National Review Online, Posted on September 11, 2010.

[5] Dinesh D'Souza, "How Obama Thinks," Forbes. com, 09.27.10.

[6] "Newt Gingrich dissertation on Congo sheds light on his jab that Obama is anticolonial," Christian Science Monitor

[7] See Mary Dudziak, "Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[8] Steve Kornacki, "The GOP's new fake racial history," Salon.com, Thursday, Sep 2, 2010.

[9] "As a young congressman, Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for 'states' rights' - a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters." See Jack White, Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism, Time.com, Dec. 14, 2002. Read more.

[10] For an insider account of Haley Barbour by an African American who had been a member of the Republican party, see Sophia Nelson, "Haley Barbour Is the True Face of the New GOP," The Root (online), April 14, 2010.

Cary Fraser

Cary Fraser is a historian of international relations, who teaches the history of American foreign policy, American and Caribbean history in the 20th century and the history of the African Diaspora in the Atlantic world at Penn State University. He is the author of "Ambivalent Anti-Colonialism" (Greenwood Press, 1994), and his essays and articles have been published in Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and the United States. He is currently writing a study of race in American politics and foreign policy in the mid-20th century.

Last modified on Tuesday, 28 September 2010 09:09