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.
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:
Once more issues of race and class are central to the American story.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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.