Tuesday, February 14, 2012

White Tea Party U.S.A.: We Want to Suckle at the Government Tit, But There is No Space for People Like You



Politics is complicated. Human beings use scripts, phrases, mnemonics, shorthand, and catchy phrases with which to make sense of the world. In American politics, there are a litany of such devices that work as heuristics, decision rules, and guides for voting and making political decisions.

For example, "what have you done for me lately?" Or, "the personal is political." "Not in my backyard," is another good one. I have also been partial to the classic "it's not what you say in politics, it's how you say it."

Professional students of politics have had the following drilled into their heads: "congressman are single minded seekers of reelection," and "politics is who gets what, when, and why."

Stories are also useful for thinking through how individuals navigate their partisanship, ideology, and voting decisions. My favorite metaphor for this process has long been that "a Democratic is someone who was robbed; a Republican is someone who lost their job."


In the era of the resurgent Right, where the combination of a black man who is President, changing demographics, a type of practical cultism, and a crisis in confidence and vision by rank and file Conservatives has brought out the worst varieties of reactionary populism, the lexicon of political catch phrases needs to be expanded.

If the New York Times' recent piece on the Tea Party, Red State America, and Right-wing hypocrisy is any guide, we need to add a phrase akin to the following: "I want mine, you can't get yours, and I will be damned if any of 'you people' try to suck on this government tit along with me!"

[I know that is a long turn of phrase. Any suggestions will be dutifully followed through on, and my ugly language amended.]

The NY Times continues:
And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.

They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.
This ought to not come as a surprise. The American people are notoriously non-ideological. While they may get big ideas in the aggregate, political scientists and students of public opinion have repeatedly found that the masses are indeed asses. Part of this is cultivated by failing schools, a failed mass media, and a Right-wing echo chamber which cultivates an "irreality" of alternative facts, not grounded in empirical reality, and where "faith" takes precedence over fact.

The other component is a combination of political personality types, where the tendency of conservatives to be binary, simple minded, and fear oriented thinkers, makes a nuanced understanding of political matters increasingly difficult if not impossible:
But the reality of life here is that Mr. Gulbranson and many of his neighbors continue to take as much help from the government as they can get.

When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs. He paused again, unable to resolve the dilemma.

“I feel bad for my children.”
Once more issues of race and class are central to the American story.

The "white working class," and oftentimes poor whites, have historically supported policies which are to their economic disadvantage because white elites offer the wages of whiteness as part of a bargain in which upward mobility has been dangled like a carrot on a stick. Ultimately, it was easy to climb up when you had a black, brown, or other person of color to use as a step stool, and where the State intervened by offering "affirmative action" to anyone judged to be nominally "white."

Class matters too. White elites are interested in contracting the State and continuing maldistributive economic policies that are to the detriment of the American people. Just as the white middle class was created after World War 2 in order to maintain domestic tranquility through consumerist democracy and citizenship, that model of the public sphere is now obsolete. Economic elites have decided that the rest of us are all surplus labor and excess population--color is coincidental to this process, and if the latter can be used to confuse white conservative populists, and by doing so encourage them to act against their own material interests, then all the better.

In 2012, I promised to clarify my terms here on We Are Respectable Negroes. At times, I use technical language and then embed a link for those who want to dig deeper. Going forward, I want to be more transparent--especially when the concepts are potent and potentially useful to all of you.

Thus, I offer two concepts to make sense of why Red State, Tea Party populist types hate the government, want more of it, resent people of color and those "urban types" who "abuse" the system, and then in turn feel horribly guilty that the type of conservative rugged individualism that
Fox News et al. preaches is a lie--one that the Tea Party Red State rank and file "get" instinctively, but don't have the ethical, moral, or personal courage to reconcile with more sophisticated and self-interested political decision-making.

Students of race have long suggested that white racism hurts white people. Moreover, we have long suggested that white racism is a mental illness and pathology. The ways in which conservatives have been able to mobilize white racial resentment to mobilize white poor, working class, and middle class people to act against their interests in proof positive of this hypothesis:
But Dean P. Lacy, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, has identified a twist on that theme in American politics over the last generation. Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Professor Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.

Chisago has shifted over 30 years from dependably Democratic to reliably Republican. Support for the Republican presidential candidate has increased relative to the national vote in each election since 1984. Senator John McCain won 55 percent of the vote here in 2008.
The first concept I would like to offer is "the herrenvolk." This term means "the chosen people" or "master race." In countries such as the United States and South Africa, this historically meant that white people had special rights and privileges which were denied to others.

Specifically, a herrenvolk republic is one where the Racial State dictates that government serves whites as the in-group (through employment, jobs, particular benefits, access to exclusive opportunities, and transfer payments) and these same opportunities are in practice denied on an equal basis to others. This is the natural order of things; there is no cognitive dissonance or confusion on the part of its beneficiaries.

Citizenship is racialized. In the post civil rights moment, citizenship may be "colorblind." But, there remains the expectation that whites as the "middle class," and a protected group, receive certain benefits and protections which are taken for granted as "normal" entitlements.
Here, "those people" are on "welfare," while "people like me paid into the system."

The genius of a herrenvolk society is that even when these accepted norms are under attack, many whites instinctively turn on people of color (as opposed to looking at their brothers and sisters in the elite class who are behind these efforts at retrenchment and austerity). Given the Great Recession and the reality that Red State America will see more of its federal subsidies reduced, there will only be more racial animus and racial resentment towards non-whites as the 2012 elections nears.

The second concept I would like to offer is that of whiteness as a type of possessive investment. As George Lipsitz masterfully outlined some years ago, white skin privilege brings with it certain material, cultural, psychological, financial, and political benefits. These are so commonplace that they remain uncommented upon and uninterrogated. However, white people are keenly aware of these privileges, and in turn, take them as givens.

In turn, most white understand them to be "rights." Consequently, White America will do just about anything to protect these them. In total, Whiteness is an investment that does not like to be threatened with diminishing returns.

Just as Cheryl Harris and others have demonstrated (with their development of the concept that whiteness is a type of property), whites receive any number of benefits from the State--even as the Horatio Alger myth dictates that they deny the existence of such goodies. For example, almost every program associated with the Great Society or the New Deal was either explicitly targeted directly for the gain of white folks or designed to subsidize the white middle class.

In many instances, people of color were excluded by law from participating for equal gain in these programs. In Social Security for example, black people subsidize whites by virtue of the fact that people of color remain in the labor force longer and die younger than their white peers.

Neoliberal and neoconservative political elites sharpened their knives on destroying America's central cities, as well as the black and brown poor and working classes. Now that these surgeons are coming for the white middle and working classes there is panic and crisis. As I have argued elsewhere, there is nothing new in the game. Sadly, the possessive investment in whiteness makes it difficult for white folks to work across lines of race and class with people of color in the shared interests of the common good. At this juncture, it may be too late to correct the toxic habit that comes with being a signatory to whiteness.

The pundits are obsessed with searching for "dog whistles" and other such misunderstood terms. I would suggest that the complementary concepts of the "possessive investment in whiteness" and the "herrenvolk" are much more useful lenses going forward.

I am often misunderstood. I love white people. I tell them the truth when others will not. As such, I echo Daniel Carver when he says, "wake up white people!"

Black and brown Americans, as well as some white folks who are race traitors, political sophisticates, and forward thinkers who are down like Jon Brown, know the score already. Now, you need to bring your brothers and sisters along...if they are able and willing.

2 comments:

fictional eyes said...

On the white side of my family, I've got a Republican, conservative brother, born and raised in Tennessee, had some time in the Navy, etc. He is also overweight in an unhealthy way, has bad knees, is diabetic and wears a mask at night for the sleep apnea. I don't talk to him, because I was not raised with him. I met him a couple of times, and he did not seem that bright. Nice guy, personable, very good to his family. Yet, people like him are actually familially related to the people their party are using as boogeymen, yet they still vote for these assholes.

I don't hold out much hope for a lot of white folks, especially ones who believe that if they vote aspirationally, they'll be allowed at the great table. They are delusional in ways that their scary boogeyman black crackheads on the street are not.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fictional. Many are confused, scared, and sick. Others are down. We can only hope that the latter get their butts in gear, and we need to take care of ourselves financially, mentally, physically, and spiritually.