Historically, movements for social change have often been instruments of status groups that felt an intense need to assert and legitimize their identities. Right wing populism, here in the form of the New Right and abroad, usually is fed by the bitterness and frustration of people facing status loss. These people do not want to be like people in the so-called "blue" states; they are simply intent upon expressing their identity as "decent" people and their anger over being mistreated because of that decency. Their status group anger has been framed in terms of authenticity. They are the real Americans as opposed to the phoneys.
Economic stagnation and the breakdown of welfare capitalism in the United States disoriented millions of people, who sought answers and affirmation of their identities. One might expect them to drift into a political movement that clearly and directly addressed their situation. However, cultural arguments touch people more deeply, and they were to accept an ideology that somewhat tangentially offered them some economic relief. Economic historian Alexander Cershenkron noted that even nations with long democratic traditions can become democracies without democrats. It is not so difficult to have a generous view of fellow citizens when living standards are rising. Economic growth makes the expansion of democracy possible. When people's ecopnomic prospects are declining, it is so much easier to be less inclusive, less trusting, and more inclined to accept views that place blame on a nation's woes on others.
The 2004 US election provides clear evidence of the extent to which anxiety rooted in economic concerns was displaced to
cultural matters. Sixty one percent of white voters refused to support John Kerry. In 1991, Stanley Greenberg wrote that "unless thre are some limits to the [ Democratic] party's moral agnosticism," it will not win over the averagfe family.
In Europe, those who lost their jobs, faced great insecurity or had to accept less income and benefits are loosely called the "abandoned workers." In the United States, there is a very broad definition of middle class, and the New Right here is considered a middle class phenomenon. Among the recruits to
right-wing populism were many Reagan Democrats, who faced great economic insecurity but also believed their cultural and religious values were under assault.
What has emerged in the last thirty years, is a self-conscious status group in the United States, the members of which would not object to the descriptive term "Middle America." Over time, this vast status group became desperate and anxious, believing their social and economic positions were slipping or in danger of slipping.. These middle class Americans developed a sub-culture or collective consciousness made up of orientations that guide their actions, particularly at election time. These orientations represent a form of conservative populism. Invariably, conservative populists identified their own fates with that of the nation, which also faced very grave threats. They, like their nation, were virtuous and deserved primacy among other people and nations. Their opponents were not just somewhat wrong, they were "evil."
Max Weber argued that there is a strong need for psychic comfort or a feeling of established worthiness. He thought that class consciousness was essentially "psychological thoughts of men about their lives. " In this instance, we are not dealing with a class. Status groups also a very similar form of consciousness, and in the late Twentieth Century marketing and other techniques that make it possible to frame information and arguments in such a way as to shape the content of that consciousness. Weber believed the most compelling ideologies developed when a powerful set of ideas were taken up by the disadvantaged. That is why it was so important to persuade a vast slice of middle Americans, regardless of their economic status, that they are somehow disadvantaged.
Today, the party of the right-wing populists controls every branch of the national government state governments. Nevertheless, the anger of the right-wing populists has not abated because they believe that the media, press, universities, and entertainment are still dominated by liberals who are committed to destroying American culture. To some degree the belief that they are conspired against victims is a tonic and confers upon them special identities. They cannot congratulate themselves on their political success or the fact that the press largely has been intimidated into soft-pedalling or ignoring stories that would offend conservatives. Their radio and television shockmeisters continually remind them that they are not safe as long as there is a Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy in the Senate or as long as The New York Times or Washington Post remain in print.
Cultural crusades have been powered by anxiety rooted in economic and status tensions. Concern over economic and status questions is redirected to cultural quests where the chances of success seem greater. At work is an historical process that somehow displaced feelings of deep economic anxieties, which reappeared as cultural resentments. The "somehow" means we cannot explain how or why it happened other than to note that these occurrences from Roman times forward can best be seen as examples of the irrational and unconscious in history. What can be called psycho-cultural climates exist in history, as the great Lucien Febvre suggested, but the followers of Clio have made little progress in deciphering t hem. Intense stress and fear that one was losing control of ones destiny generates the emotional energy that drives these psycho-historical situations. Going back even farther than the Romans, we find examples of oppressed peoples becoming somehow "Gods’s elect." Arguably this occurred in the case of the ancient Jews. Historians have developed the formula "oppressed people, elect people." Elect, of course, meant chosen. In the modern American setting, the word "elect" is both an adjective and a verb.
The rise of the New Right had some of the characteristics of a half-political, half-religious revival. A psychohistorian would say that revivalism is sometimes "a symptom of incipient regression in a life of a community under conditions of stress." The revival need not always take a religious form, for example contemporary Rumania seems to be going through a period of great anxiety that is producing a revival of old songs, ballads, and dances, and interest in imaginary heroes of the past. In the contemporary American case, the religious revivals of the 19th Century are being reenacted in modern form and the laissez faire economics of the robber baron heroes are recast as the essentials of American tradition. Of course, the United States is very different from Romania. Yet both have entered periods when radical cultural reorganization, when the corporate spirit has declined and many have not quite figured out how to cope with the fre4edom and individualism that came with it. Some experience an intense need to belong which adherence to the New Right satisfies. ( In fourth century BCE Athens, a similar period of anxiety and transition occurred and many reacted by joining the new mystery cults while others embraced a greater degree of secularism.)
In the case of contemporary America, economic anxiety occurred after a period of great abundance and what seemed to be the promise of continued affluence– fulfillment of the American Dream. It occurred simultaneously with the emergence of postmodern culture, which brought in its wake ambiguity and contradiction in respect to values. A great majority of the same people experiencing economic anxiety were also troubled by new threats to their values. Perhaps some found the new mental freedom an invitation to inner anarchy, as Adorno noted half a century ago. In any event, they lacked the mental structures to address the cultural disorientation of the period and its potential threats in matters of conscience. Some probably found that their central cultural and religious beliefs were not as strong as they had though and that they craved a consistent and rigorous way of thinking. They were unprepared for a pluralistic culture and moral ambiguities. The crusade of the New Right seemed to resolve these inner conflicts and allowed them to cope with the anxieties of these times.
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
Thursday, April 28, 2005
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!