As a number of analysts have observed, and as I argued in my last blog entry, the fundamental values of the US public are remarkably progressive. Even if those values rarely translate into organized, progressive political action, there is a “healthy nucleus” of humane instincts among the public which is evident from dozens of opinion polls in recent decades. Even many members in the “Tea Party” crowd are motivated by an anti-elitism and disaffection with economic injustice and concentrated power that overlap with central concerns of the Left—one reason why we should be taking the Tea Party phenomenon seriously rather than dismissing it.
While the combination of humanist values and economic exploitation might logically be expected to lead to popular demands for a progressive redistribution of wealth and political power, popular politics and culture in the US over the last thirty years have undergone changes far more akin to the course that Germany took following World War I or that some Middle-Eastern countries have taken since the defeat of secular nationalist and Marxist movements in the 1960s and 1970s. How have corporate interests and the Right been able to mobilize so many ordinary people? Why is there often such a stark disjunction between people’s core values and the way those values translate into political attitudes and action? The points of resemblance between right-wing populism and various forms of historical fascism are the second reason why we should take the Tea Party crowd seriously, and inquire into the root causes of their appeal.
The answer must take into account a number of factors. After proposing a few of them, I focus on one in particular: the failure of the putatively-populist Democratic Party to pursue an agenda in line with popular opinion and the current weakness of progressive alternatives. The unresponsiveness of the two major political parties has produced overwhelming cynicism and despair among the electorate, leading to astounding voter abstention rates in recent decades. But among a significant—and probably, increasing—portion of the electorate that cynicism translates into extreme right-wing attitudes and actions. The surge in right-wing populism since Obama took office has deep roots in US society, but one contributing factor that observers often neglect is the failure or absence of progressive alternatives to a status quo that is extremely undesirable.
Revisiting Gramsci and the Concept of Hegemony
During his long years in prison under Mussolini, the Antonio Gramsci famously formulated the concept of “cultural hegemony” to explain the persistence of the capitalist system in Europe. Gramsci emphasized that the consciousness of a given social class depended not just on material conditions but on the relative degree of cultural autonomy and/or subservience of that class. Whereas Marx had tended to focus on the economic sphere, Gramsci argued that “[t]he superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare.” These superstructures included the institutions of government, education, religion, the legal system, the press, political discourse, and the amorphous category of “culture,” all of which helped to shape, and were themselves shaped by, the economic structure . In most societies, these institutions tended to promote “the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes” by inculcating attitudes and values conducive to the continued power of that class, which in modern capitalist societies was the bourgeoisie . Writing in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, Gramsci observed that the rise of industrialization in the late 1800s brought with it unprecedented efforts by the bourgeoisie to “train,” “rationalize,” and otherwise transform the urban worker into a “new type of man” .
Academics and activists of recent decades have often shunned Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, arguing (inaccurately) that it assumes the “active commitment by subordinates to the legitimacy of elite rule” and therefore views economically-subordinate classes as mere dupes of the ruling class . Since the 1960s many have also derided the orthodox Marxist notion of “false consciousness” as elitist and authoritarian, criticizing the notion that people “should” behave in a specific way in line with their purportedly-objective economic interests. And of course, leftists of recent decades have properly devoted closer attention to forms of oppression that are not always direct reflections of class interests, taking seriously oppression based on gender, sexuality, race, and nationality, among other socially-constructed categories .
But while these critiques have raised legitimate concerns, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is still enormously relevant. Most of us—and not just subordinate classes—are heavily influenced by our surrounding culture, we do behave irrationally at times, and we do hold attitudes and opinions which unwittingly justify or obscure oppression, our own and others’. False consciousness does indeed exist, though recognizing its existence does not necessarily imply that there is any single, “proper” consciousness for the exploited. This phenomenon is not limited to the working- and middle-class Tea Partiers, but they certainly present the most obvious example in today’s United States. Many of the white working-class people who have helped serve corporate interests are among the more oppressed segments of US society: over the last thirty-five years they have seen their real wages plummet, their jobs shipped overseas, and the relative comfort and security of previous decades slowly erode. The rate of union membership has fallen to 12 or 13 percent, less if public-sector workers are excluded. These changes, meanwhile, have been accompanied by both rising economic productivity and profits for the capitalists who employ(ed) them. Increasing poverty and inequality have therefore had much more to do with deliberate corporate and government policies than with invisible “market” forces like globalization. Nonetheless, the health care industry, and corporate interests more generally, have successfully mobilized large numbers of workers to oppose the very policies that would improve the material well-being of the working class. There is perhaps no population in the world to which Gramsci’s concept is more relevant.
Five Factors that Increase the Appeal of Right-Wing Populism
Building mostly upon others’ work, I would propose five interrelated factors that can increase the popular appeal of right-wing populism in particular, and of nationalism, militarism, and exclusionary ideologies in general:
1) Increasing economic exploitation, inequality, and anxiety. The trend in recent decades of falling wages and increasing inequality in the US, with its destructive impact on workers and the poor, is indisputable. In the eight years of the Bush administration alone—prior to the current recession—the number of people living in poverty grew by 5.2 million, or 15.4 percent. Those who have experienced downward mobility or whose livelihood is precarious can often be convinced that scapegoats are responsible. The economic roots of this disillusion are hard to deny. As a prominent white supremacist said recently, “I’m petrified whether I’m working the next day or not. And it’s—this is all we got. This is the last thing we got to stand on, man” .
2) Atomization and depoliticization of the populace. The decline and stagnation of the labor movement—once a locus of politicization, discussion, and community—as well as the lack of other locally-based social and political organizations has coincided with the rise of depoliticizing or politically reactionary alternatives, contributing to a remarkable atomization of the population, especially the white population, and to a far-reaching ignorance about history and current political realities that makes citizens highly susceptible to manipulation and propaganda. The rise of Christian fundamentalism and the expansion of mass consumer culture have played a significant role in this process. (Religion itself is not necessarily a reactionary force; indeed, under some circumstances, when texts like the New Testament are actually taken seriously, religious faith can be a radically progressive, even revolutionary force—but rarely in the US in recent decades .) To the extent that politicization does happen, it tends to occur under the auspices of religious fundamentalism or similarly dogmatic movements. It tends to lack a strong factual grounding and to revolve around scapegoating, blind faith, and conspiracy theories lacking any “systemic, institutional, or structural critique of class oppression” (a pattern also apparent among some segments of the Left) .
3) The encouragement of countervailing values like racism, sexism, nationalism, and individualism, which can neutralize or counteract more humanistic and compassionate impulses. Republicans, and Democrats to a moderately lesser extent, both promote these values, as do a variety of other institutions, interests, and consumer products and pastimes (sports, video games, movies, etc.). More troublesome, perhaps, is that in most societies these values also emanate from non-elite sectors who may or may not perceive their own interests to be advanced through the promotion of racism, sexism, and similar ugly sentiments. A common example is a white worker who is discontent with his economic plight keeping his distance from poor and working-class blacks whom he perceives as lazy and undeserving. All of these countervailing values fall within the category of what Howard Zinn has called “America’s blinders” .
4) The cooptation or channeling of humanistic impulses through lofty rhetoric. Since the “healthy nucleus” cannot be fully eliminated or negated, elites and policymakers must co-opt humane impulses in order to bolster public support for ugly policies. This pattern is perhaps clearest in the realm of foreign policy, where public concern for the safety of family members or the plight of oppressed Muslim women is manipulated to provide support for aggressive military intervention. As prominent hawk Robert Kaplan wrote a few years ago in an article clearly intended for fellow elites, the healthy nucleus requires that “U.S. foreign policy be robed in idealism, so as to garner public support and ultimately be effective” . The cloaking of aggressive militarism in noble rhetoric about “peace and social welfare”—Hitler’s words—is common to all modern regimes, no matter how monstrous .
5) The control over factual information. The maintenance of extreme inequalities on the domestic and global levels, and the perpetration of extreme violence at times, require the suppression of the most basic information: from the actions of the US government overseas, to the plight of the one billion chronically-hungry people on the planet, to the everyday realities faced by workers and the poor here in the United States. In the realm of foreign policy, for example, mainstream discussion promotes what I would term the “fetishism of war,” meaning that the human consequences of military intervention for Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, and even Americans are more or less absent. On numerous other issues there is little to no substantive discussion of basic realities, the result being that naturally-intelligent people can be unaware that Medicare is a government program and be found screaming at politicians to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” The powerful anti-government current in right-wing populism is especially important; as the result of well-crafted rhetoric that appeals both to people’s core values and their economic plight, “big government,” labor unions, and other institutions that can potentially curb the power of corporate capital become the very essence of tyranny, oppression, and fiscal waste. They, not private corporate power, tend to be the focus of angry rhetoric from so-called libertarians and conservatives. The declining economic fortune of the working class is acknowledged, but is blamed on the “liberal elites” who want to raise taxes and convert the hard-earned income of honest working people into affirmative action programs and “hand-outs” for welfare queens and drug addicts in the ghetto (this anti-government/anti-liberal rhetoric at least seems to be the predominant pattern, though over the past year there has actually been some right-wing rage directed at Wall Street, too) .
Many independent experts have dissected the phenomenon that famed pundit Walter Lippmann praised as “the manufacturing of consent,” so no further discussion is necessary here (except to note that the process operates quite naturally as a result of “free-market” mechanisms in a society dominated by corporate capital and only occasionally through direct government intervention to suppress information) .
These five factors—to list but five that seem essential—have all played their role in the rise of far-right and fascist regimes throughout modern history. And in times of economic crisis and decline—the situation of the US working class for the last 35 years—these factors become particularly dangerous.
A Sixth Factor: The Absence or Failure of Progressive Alternatives
Yet there is an additional factor that is often neglected, perhaps because progressives do not want to confront the fact that forces with which they sympathize are weak or, in the case of the Democrats, are abject failures. The absence or failure of genuinely responsive progressive political organizations, such as labor unions or political parties oriented toward the needs of working people, can further increase the appeal of radical fringe movements by leaving a “liberal-Left vacuum” of the type Paul Street described in an insightful ZNet article posted earlier today .
We can start with the Party of the People. The Democrats have consistently refused to push the progressive agenda that might win them widespread support among the Tea Partiers as well as rural whites more generally. The Democrats’ refusal to confront corporate power and militarism is not a recent development, but the party has certainly become more corporate-beholden since the late 1970s, for a number of reasons with no space to explore here . The massive financial bail-outs that Obama has wholeheartedly continued since his inauguration are only the most glaring example, and one that has not gone unnoticed among the Tea Partiers (who actually have, in this instance, pointed fingers at the corporate and financial elite as well as at “government”).
Polls demonstrate that most people in this country—many Tea Partiers included—continue to have humane, progressive instincts . With good reason, many working-class whites simply do not see those instincts reflected in the leadership of the Democratic Party, whom they understandably perceive as elitist and unprincipled. While Republicans are even more elitist, and their policies even more harmful to working people, the difference is that they have more successfully painted themselves as populists, in opposition to the “liberal elites” of the Democratic Party; and when the Democrats do so much to favor corporate power at the expense of ordinary people, the epithet is in truth quite appropriate. The Democratic leadership has consistently failed the test of responsiveness to the electorate.
People in this country are keenly aware of this lack of responsiveness. On health care, while the vast majority agree that government should ensure universal access, recent polls have found that between 69 and 75 percent are “dissatisfied” or think “the government is doing a poor job” in this regard . This dissatisfaction has endured despite the Obama administration’s much-touted reform proposals. According to a CBS News poll released on January 11, 43 percent “think the reforms do not do enough” to rein in private health insurance companies, compared to 18 percent who say the legislation is “about right” in this regard; 26 percent of registered Republicans and 48 percent of Independents agreed that the reforms are inadequate. Only 29 percent approve of Congressional Democrats’ handling of health care, only slightly more than the 24 percent who approve of the Republicans’. People’s trust in Obama on the health care issue has steadily declined in recent months while their trust in Republicans has risen, to the point that as of December 2009 only 46 percent trusted Obama while 39 percent trusted Republicans (the differential six months earlier was 55-27). Obama’s overall approval rating has dropped below 50 percent, mainly because of his handling of health care and the economy . And, just this past week, a centrist, uninspiring, and out-of-touch Democratic candidate in one of the most liberal states in the nation lost a Senate race to a reactionary moralist who once posed nude for Cosmo; just prior to the election, a union leader there noted that “I’ve never seen this much anger at the Democrats from union people…It’s worse than NAFTA” .
Disillusion on health care is just a microcosm of the public’s more general view of the US political system. Last week’s Supreme Court ruling permitting unlimited corporate funding to politicians is significant and deeply disquieting, but hardly constitutes the fundamental power shift that some progressives are claiming; in fact, the public has long recognized our political system to be profoundly undemocratic. According to a 2009 Rasmussen poll, two-thirds think that “big business and b