Monday, September 21, 2009

Push Back Daily Against the Right: The Real Political Stakes in the Health Care Debate

“Push back daily against the right.” That’s what the sign said, or something close to it in German. Our friends in Hamburg had daughters who were 14 or 15, or thereabouts, when we first visited them in the early 1990s. The sign was on their bedroom door.

That sign—“Push back daily against the right”—sticks in my mind. It does so in part because I can’t imagine teens in the United States having a sign like that on their bedroom door. Let’s be honest: we don’t educate youth to have the political savvy this sign presupposes—certainly not in the early adolescent years.

And the political options, the divisions, in the U.S. aren’t so sharp. Or perhaps more accurately, they don’t seem so sharp to most of us. Talk about the right, the left, the center: it loses most of us. We’re beyond ideology. Or above it.

We don’t have ideologies. So we like to think. Not in the U.S. There’s not a right and a left here. We just have a big middle with slight divergences of opinion among the vast majority of us who live there. We’re all centrists of one sort or another in this land beyond ideology—right-leaning centrists albeit, inhabiting a political and cultural landscape in which the center keeps creeping relentlessly to the right. But centrists nonetheless.

Germans are acutely aware, of course, of right-left options because they have to be aware of them. Blindness about the potential of small but powerful right-leaning political groups to seize control of an entire nation and wreak havoc in that nation’s life—and in the lives of many other nations—had appalling consequences in Germany in the twentieth century. Since then, everyone in Germany—not just intellectuals and political activists, but ordinary citizens—is determined not to forget. And not to be blind again.

And so the determination to push back against the right. Daily. Every time the right shows its face again, whether through menacing marches down city streets, or signs spray-painted on walls informing foreigners they are not welcome, or statements questioning whether the Holocaust really happened, or bashing of immigrants or gays by skinheads.

When hate groups make their presence public in Germany, when they parade and shout, you can be sure of it: there will be a strong, immediate push back. Germans know what these demonstrations portend when they are not countered decisively. They know the boundaries being tested, the weak spots being probed, when hate groups are allowed to grab center stage if only for an evanescent moment. Germans know the political winds these groups are assessing when they seek to stir deep-seated social and ethnic resentments again, to see how much hate their society is prepared to incorporate at the moment. As they did successfully in the 1930s.

We think we are somehow beyond, above, all of that in the U.S. Here, one doesn’t talk about the Holocaust, or the possibility of a neo-fascist resurgence even in the United States. That’s a Godwinian lapse of civil discourse leading nowhere. We don’t talk about race, either. No one is really racist in the U.S., except those unreconstructed Southerners who remain defiantly proud of their commitment to white supremacy. Race is someone else’s problem, not mine.

You don’t find racism north of the Mason-Dixon line. Not in places like Chicago or Boston. Certainly not in Minneapolis or Seattle. Or in the North transferred to the South—in Miami or Orlando. Only in Atlanta, Charleston, Little Rock, and Jackson. It’s not about race, when they rampage against President Obama in those Northern places. Has to be about something else. Racists don't live in Chicago or Boston.

We don’t talk about gender, either. We’ve moved beyond the brief, painful ideological renegotiations of the 1960s and 1970s, in which it appeared we might entertain national conversations about gender and race. We’ve dealt with our problems and moved on. Resorting to those issues as analytical tools for the current political scene is like trying to revive discussion about the Nazis and the Holocaust. It’s not merely a lapse of civility; it’s a waste of time, a diversion from the real issues that ought to be occupying our attention in the post-ideological, post-racial, post-gender world of 21st century America. Issues with nifty technical and non-ideological masculine tags like “triggers.”

And because we believe we are beyond and above ideology—because we believe we have no dominant ideology, and need no tools with which to analyze that non-existent ideology—we are all sitting ducks in the United States for the dominant ideology that controls everything we think and do, insofar as we are unaware that it is even there, pulling our strings. The people whose outlook is most decisively determined by ideological blinders are those who believe they do not have such blinders on as they look at “objective” “reality.”

Our dominant ideology is the ideology of the market. It is the ideology of consumerism—of buying and selling as a moral obligation that holds our society together insofar as we adhere to the obligation to buy and sell. The ideological glue (the unacknowledged and largely unexamined ideological glue) of our culture is commerce. It is our nationwide commitment to consumerism as the one thing that most decisively binds us together as a people.

We believe in the market with a mystic ferocity medieval Europeans reserved to the sacraments. The market solves our problems, when we don’t tamper with it, when we leave it free to do its thing. It automatically generates wealth for all of us, since, in enriching a few of us, it creates resources that trickle down from that top layer to all the rest of us. It does this automatically, with a hidden hand akin to the hand of God stirring people through grace—that is, the market does this when we maximize its freedom and the freedom of those who benefit from it.

Certainly those taking part in the tea party protests in this long, hot summer of hate—most recently in the 9.12 protests—are energized by race. There’s no denying the strong, overt racial currents running through the resistance to the new administration. And it is not illicit and not a diversion to place these significant facts on the table and ask for frank discussion of them.

But those involved in these astroturfed protests are also protesting something else, something of which they may very well be only subliminally aware: they are protesting government “interference” with “their” power and privileges, and with the free market that, they imagine, automatically accords them that power and those privileges. A compelling subtext running all summer long through these protests is the mantra, Get your hands off my government. Get your hands off my market.

That subtext is there, and it’s powerfully persuasive, because the protests are being organized, funded, and publicized by those most likely to benefit from blocking any attempt of the government to discipline an out-of-control market that benefits a few exorbitantly at the expense of all the rest of us. The tea-party protesters are doing the dirty work of powerful economic interest groups, whether the protesters know that or not.

They’re doing this by playing the race card, even when that card seems, on the face of it, incidental to the real motives of those astroturfing these demonstrations. So why race, if it’s all ultimately about money? Why the obtrusive stirring of the racial pot, which only a blind person could fail to see, when those stirring that pot intend to slap back at anyone who accuses them of racism, and to tell us that we’re beyond race in all of our political discussions?

To my mind, race is there as a powerful tool in whipping up opposition to the new administration, because it has the potential to siphon off a considerable number of voters who moved to the center in the last election. And who did so primarily for economic reasons. But that tool has to be used cleverly, with sleight of hand, or those using it will provoke a backlash among voters wise to the game, which will ultimately defeat their purposes in using the tool of racial antagonism to gain votes.

The voters for whom these astroturfed events are fighting are not the solid base of Southern whites who will vote Republican at all cost, no matter what the Democrats or Republicans do or say in coming days. The voters being courted by the right-wing noise machine blaring forth the racial slurs are center-right voters who moved away from the Republican party in the last election because things have gotten so bad economically that they took a chance on a new direction for the country, even when their core ideological leanings move to the right.

The voters these demonstrations hope to dislodge and move back to the Republican side of the tally sheet are those in the center still ineluctably prone to a politics of racial resentment that moves them all the more because they believe racism is someone else’s problem. It’s the problem of that solid core of Southern white voters who will vote Republican at all costs. It’s not my problem, not in Chicago or Boston or Seattle or Minneapolis.

And so the race game is played brutally and overtly by those who deny that this game even exists, because it’s their game to play—just as they themselves are being played by economic players who want them to imagine that they are not being manipulated by rhetoric about race and gender to vote against their own economic self-interest. A self-interest they cannot completely fathom because those pulling the strings have been very successful about convincing all of us that race, gender, and class are fictive: they don’t even really exist in an American culture that transcends ideology.

And so we have now in front of us a health care reform bill that is, as Ezra Klein has noted (and see here), essentially a Republican bill, at a moment in which a clear majority of Democrats sits in Congress, and in which the White House is controlled by Democrats. Despite a strong popular mandate in the last election for change we can believe in, despite an overriding popular mandate for a robust health care reform bill that includes a public option, Democrats are offering voters a Republican health care reform bill, and Republicans are rampaging against it—even though it is almost precisely the same as a bill they themselves offered the American public in 1994.

How have we ended up here, in this cul-de-sac in which not even a strong popular majority any longer assures a government responsive to the wishes of its people for change we can believe in? How have we ended up with a vociferous, tiny group of voters rampaging about getting government out of their lives (and, though our mainstream media refuse to admit it, about the half-black man in the White House), and doing so with conspicuous success—though they are a tiny, extreme minority that does not represent even the right-center voters who, we keep being told, are really in the driver’s seat?

How have we ended up in this never-never land in which it’s obviously very much about race, but those shouting the racial epithets louder than anyone else are also the most intent on convincing us that it’s not about race at all (and here and here)?

We’ve ended up here, I believe, because as a nation, we are entirely fatuous about the power of the right to determine our discourse in this land without right or left, without race or gender of ideology. We are entirely deluded about the ability of small groups of extremist activists to determine the future of this nation, even when a clear democratic consensus to disempower that group is on the table.

And we are here because of our blindness about the ideology that dominates our cultural outlook, an ideology rooted in mindless consumerism, in which race and gender play key roles any time they are needed to distract us from the rapacity of those at the top, who ultimately pull all the strings. But who tell us that we are only imagining the strings, and that race and gender don’t even exist as analytical categories to understand how our culture functions.

And who will cynically and ruthlessly move us to the right if it suits their economic self-interest to do so, even as they heap scorn on the idea that powerful subtexts of racism and misogyny determine the direction of our culture. And who will not be resisted by the White House or Congress as they shove us to the right, even when Democrats hold both the White House and Congress.

To the extent that we continue to delude ourselves that we live beyond ideology, and that we have dealt with and put racism and misogyny behind us, to that extent, we will continue to be inexorably controlled by a small minority of citizens for whom those ideas are potent tools. And that minority of citizens becomes more overt every day about their real agenda, which is to subvert the democratic process in this country at all costs, even if doing so spells the end of our democracy.

And they will succeed, until some of us decide to push back daily against them, even when our democratically elected leaders refuse to support us in that push-back process.

The graphic is a breakdown of average incomes by gender and race in the U.S., per data from the 2000 federal census.