Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gene Lyons on Why So Many Republicans Hate Obama: A Report from Arkansas

At the National Memo site this morning, my fellow Arkansan Gene Lyon has an important insider report about why so many Southern white evangelicals hate Barack Obama.  As he notes, we Southerners inhabit a landscape in which "a never-ending series of conspiratorial threats and eschatological panics" stalk the land.  Satan worshippers!  Secular humanists!  Barcodes with the Mark of the Beast!  Logos on boxes of laundry detergent with hidden diabolical charms woven into them!  Birth control pills flooding our water supplies!  (No, wait, the latter is from the Catholic world of apocalypto-evangelical urban-legend nutjobbery, isn't it?)

We Southerners live in what Flannery O'Connor famously called a Christ-haunted landscape.  And with its Southern strategy, the GOP has learned precisely how to mash the buttons of ignorance, fundamentalism, and hysterical imaginings of apocalyptic doom (see Fred Clark at Slacktivist on the absurd prophecies of Focus on the Family about Obama's first term) to keep us white Southerners running to the polls and voting for rich white Republican savior figures.  Who, with their voodoo economic theories robbing the poor to make the rich richer, in no shape, form, or fashion represent any kind of meaningful salvation for a region of the country with some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of educational achievement in the entire nation.

And then along comes Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat who begins to unknot what the Republican party regarded as its permanent stranglehold on federal power, and here's what you get in the Christ-haunted South, Lyons notes:

To an awful lot of white Protestant evangelicals across the Deep South especially, President Obama has become no less than a secular stand-in for the Antichrist — a smooth-talking deceiver representing liberal cosmopolitanism in its most treacherous disguise. 
Dislike of Obama has grown to cult-like proportions across the region. Statewide polls show the president losing by thunderous majorities. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute highlighted in The New York Times shows that “among Southern working class whites, Romney leads by 40 points, 62-22, an extraordinary gap.” In the Midwest, Obama leads among the same group. Subtract the African-American precincts, and the president might not win 30 percent of votes in states like Arkansas and Oklahoma — one reason many Republicans suspect that national polls must be skewed.

The recent PRRI poll Lyons mentions in the preceding paragraph is the one I discussed in a previous Bilgrimage posting, in which I note that the poll finds Southern white working-class folks holding views on issues across the board, from gun ownership to welfare programs to marriage equality, strongly at variance with those of white working-class voters in other parts of the country.  And as Lyons points out, the real reason for the hysteria that the Republican party wants to work up among white working-class voters in the current election cycle--notably in the South, where those voters are predisposed to listen to GOP dog whistles--is the following:

Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” will have been dismantled and a new, moderately center-left Democratic coalition built by President Obama. For the first time since 1972, the Rush Limbaugh/Mike Huckabee wing of the GOP will find itself with no clear path to power. (Not that there’s anything remotely holy about Limbaugh; I’m talking demographics here, not theology.) 
The existential shock would be considerable. Not since the 1960s, when successive civil rights laws overcame the region’s “massive resistance” and ended legal segregation, have certain kinds of white Southerners experienced such anger and trepidation. Boo hoo hoo. 
Moreover, should Obama be successful in rebuilding the U.S. economy during a second term, and once voters grasp that “Obamacare” has liberated them from the fear of being driven into bankruptcy by medical emergencies, the new Democratic coalition could prove to have a kind of staying power not seen since FDR and Truman. 
Indeed, it’s been Republican anxiety over that very possibility in the wake of George W. Bush’s spectacular failures that led to the GOP’s Washington version of massive resistance during Obama’s first-term. 
Or, to put it another way, if President Obama can win in this economy, how could any talented Democratic candidate lose?

Obama's success in the 2012 elections will, in other words, strongly assist the dismantling of the power bloc created by the Southern strategy, in which white Southern evangelical working-class voters along with "social conservatives" in other parts of the country--notably, the U.S. Catholic bishops and Catholics who still listen to them--have been able to control the nation's future by acting as a brake on progressive social changes including healthcare for all citizens.  Changes that a majority of the nation's citizens favor . . . . 

The re-election of Barack Obama, and Democratic gains in Congress, would seal the doom of that coalition by revealing it as, essentially, a minority coalition seeking to control the future of a majority of the citizens of a pluralistic, secular democracy through bogus appeals to religion and religious freedom.  By employing apocalpytic scare tactics and overblown religious rhetoric (Obama attacking Catholics!  Obama making us pay for abortions!  Free birth control for teens!  Obama the Muslim anti-Christ!) to keep "religious" voters in line and voting Republican. . . .

While the real agenda of the Republican party--Ayn Rand all the way, all the time--is veiled by apocalpyticism and snake-oil religion.  The real Randian agenda that's the ultimate driving force of the Republican party, no matter how many bibles GOP operatives wave as they preach their Randian gospel while claiming they're walking in Christ's footsteps.

Does this stuff and nonsense still mash white Southerners' buttons?  You'd better believe it does.  In the past two weeks, my Facebook page and email inbox have been flooded with lurid appeals from distant relatives of one sort or another to pray--please, please pray!--and fast for the salvation of the U.S. as the 2012 elections near.  Pray that the Muslim anti-Christ be expelled from our holiest of holy places, the White House! Save the nation!

Distant relatives who may be good enough people and who are my people, my flesh and blood, but who are being played for fools.  Because they don't know better and don't intend to learn better.  Because the dog whistles about race and waning white Protestant hegemony and Muslim-Communist conspiracy and evil gay this or that--you name it--still powerfully resonate for these undereducated, frightened, reactionary people who imagine that they once controlled everything and are now those susceptible to control by the very folks they once subjugated.

And they don't like it one little bit.  Not any more than they did when a former slave told old Massah after he was emancipated, "Bottom rail on top now, Massah!"

This is the history that white Southerners still carry on their shoulders--history as colossal grudge--and it's the history they intend for the entire nation to carry, as long as the nation will permit this burden of racial resentment and religious vaporing to be shifted onto its shoulders.  This is the history that Catholics who are infatuated with the alliance the U.S. bishops have made with the Southern-based religious right ignore to their peril and the peril of the Catholic church in the U.S.--as I argued recently when I critiqued Phyllis Zagano's claim that "the electorate" agrees on our need to lift up the poor.

It's a history about which Gene Lyons has an important critical optic as an Irish Catholic raised in New Jersey who married an Arkansas woman and now lives on a farm in rural Arkansas.  And it's too bad that, as they crafted their alliance with the Southern evangelical religious right in the final decades of the 20th century, the U.S. Catholic bishops didn't listen to the testimony of more Catholics like Gene Lyons who really do understand the South and what makes it tick--and how different the Southern evangelical tick is from the tock Catholics claim to like with their teachings about socioeconomic justice and the preferential option for the poor.

(Later in the day: I'm just now seeing that Gene Lyons's essay also appears in this week's edition of the newspaper Arkansas Times).

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