Thursday, October 15, 2009

Opposition to Obama: Is It Racism or Populist Anti-Elitism? Isn't It Quite a Bit of Both?

On August 13th, decrying the fascist, racist tactics being used at town hall meetings in an attempt to bring down health care reform, I posted It's Time to Tell the Fascists: This Was Never Your Country, and You Can't Have It Back.

By now, of course, the town halls are history, and the tactics have largely disappeared from the daily news. Given the depth of hostility that was on display, it would be fool-hearty to think the right-wing has had a change of heart. But at least health care proponents had the good sense to stop providing them public venues to publicize their hate. After President Obama's national address on health care, Senator Baucus largely succeeded in moving the debate behind closed doors. The next opportunity for the tactics to resume will probably be during the floor debate, coming soon.

In the meantime, there have been a couple thoughtful analyses of the primary issue I raised, namely, efforts by the right to keep other Americans from speaking their minds on health care.

An exception was some feedback I received here. Typical was a gentleman who resented my condemnation of the people who painted swastikas on the office sign of a Georgia member of Congress who is black and who shouted down others at several town halls. His gripe? My accurate description of hate speech was--drum roll please--hate speech! The profundity was breath-taking. I saw no need to share it with a wider audience.

One of the the analyses worth listening to was published September 17th by New York Times op-end columnist David Brooks. In a column entitled No, It's Not about Race, Brooks argued that the passions of the health care debate were a replay of the early American disagreement between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians--the former characterized by "urbanism, industrialism and federal power," while the latter "were suspicious of urban elites and financial concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government."

Brooks says the Jeffersonian view spawned the populism of Andrew Jackson, which has had both right-wing and left-wing descendants in the decades since. But the populism of the moment is very right-wing, and it was already apparent in the presidential primaries that it would be at odds with anyone its proponents found elitist. Brooks says those who stir up the right-wing populists have been very successful in painting Obama and his administration as elitists, which "guaranteed that he would spark a populist backlash, regardless of his skin color."

The analysis is somewhat helpful. It reminds us that race is not the only emotion the right-wing is channeling at the moment. But it does not quite succeed in removing race from the equation. If it is accurate that right-wing populists hate elitists, it is also accurate that right-wing populists have a special, more vitriolic hatred for highly educated black elitists. Brooks is right to situate the current acrimony in the populist-elitist tension that has always characterized the United States. But he may not leave out the racist hatred of blacks and especially black intellectuals that has always been part of right-wing populism.

Another thoughtful analysis came from Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, in a September 16th piece that covered the Fiery rhetoric of Obama's critics. Page said it was good politics for the White House to contend that racism had nothing to do with Tea Party protests and loud protests against health care reform. But in practice, said Page, "Race still matters, although it's not always easy to say how much."

Page noted some indicators that others have pointed out. Like the sign photographed by the TV networks at the Tea Party protest on the Washington Mall: "The zoo has an African lion. The US has a lyin' African." Or other signs that said "that Obama is not really a naturally born citizen or that maybe he should just die."

But what Page found most telling were the pre-printed signs the organizers distributed that read, "Not a race issue, not a party issue, just an old American freedom issue." Page's response: "Dear sign carriers: I'm sure you mean well, but every time a black American of my generation hears someone say, "It's not a race issue," I immediately think, yup, it's a race issue."

I found Page's concluding remarks quite accurate:

"In judging Obama's performance it would be wrong to make too much of the role played by race, although it would be foolish to make too little of it... How do you separate the racial backlash against him as the first black president from the political backlash against his taking on so many problems on Day One?

"Still, I am amused by the conservatives like Rush Limbaugh who insist that racism has absolutely nothing to do with Obama's problems. Only a few months ago they were blaming white guilt for his success. Folks, you can't have it both ways."

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