Monday, September 14, 2009

Making Sense of the Paradox in the Protests

There have been a couple of good posts that I have read recently on the topic of the opposition to President Obama and all of the protests that have popped up since his election to the Presidency. It can be difficult to make sense of some of the mixed messages that we have seen out of these protests and when you take into consideration the support of national figures like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc. it really is a pretty weird scenario.

While there are some who are claiming that this rage and adamant opposition to Obama is unprecedented, Glenn Greenwald points out that this is merely standard operation procedure:

To see that, just look at what that movement's leading figures said and did during the Clinton years. In 1994, Jesse Helms, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed that "just about every military man" believes Clinton is unqualified to be Commander-in-Chief and then warned/threatened him not to venture onto military bases in the South: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He better have a bodyguard."

The Wall St. Journal called for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the possible "murder" of Vince Foster. Clinton was relentlessly accused by leading right-wing voices of being a murderer, a serial rapist, and a drug trafficker. Tens of millions of dollars and barrels of media ink were expended investigating "Whitewater," a "scandal" which, to this day, virtually nobody can even define. When Clinton tried to kill Osama bin Laden, they accused him of "wagging the dog" -- trying to distract the country from the truly important matters at hand (his sex scandal).

And, of course, the GOP ultimately impeached him over that sex scandal -- in the process issuing a lengthy legal brief with footnotes detailing his sex acts (cigars and sex talk), publicly speculating about (and demanding examinations of) the unique "distinguishing" spots on his penis, and using leading right-wing organs to disseminate innuendo that he had an abandoned, out-of-wedlock child. More intense and constant attacks on a President's "legitimacy" are difficult to imagine.


Nothing that the GOP is doing to Obama should be the slightest bit surprising because this is the true face of the American Right -- and that's been true for a very long time now. It didn't just become true in the last few months or in the last two years. Recent months is just the time period when the media began noticing and acknowledging what they are: a pack of crazed, primitive radicals who don't really believe in the country's core founding values and don't merely disagree with, but contest the legitimacy of, any elected political officials who aren't part of their movement. Before the last year or so, the media pretended that this was a serious, adult, substantive political movement, but it wasn't any truer then than it is now.

Frankly, it is hard to argue with these points. I think one of the main differences that we are seeing today is how much this strategy is being amplified by certain figures within the media. I am talking about the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world who have embraced the opposition to Obama and to government in general. What was once political opposition driven by political figures of the 90's, has now morphed into that same opposition being embraced by national media figures as well as their viewers/listeners thus these views are presented as a genuine populist uprising. What happened between the terms of President Clinton and Obama that allowed for the evolution of these tactics? 9/11 happened and the Bush Administration's strategy to politicize 9/11 happened. driftglass over at Crooks and Liars tries to offer some insight:

By selling 9/11 for a mess of wingnut pottage, the Right bought itself an anti-Liberal free-fire zone and two Presidential terms-worth of blank checks. Two terms of an alternately supportive and supine media. Two terms of catastrophe, corruption and treason protected from scrutiny by an ablative shield made out of solid "Why do you hate America?", and a promise that they could go on barebacking diseased monsters in the alley all night long, every night, forever and wake up each morning miraculously clean, virginal and still beloved in the eyes of God.

But they forgot that tempus just keeps fugiting along. And as time passed, the Right got so accustomed to butt-scooting their depravity all over the public square and never being called on it they simply stopped noticing that they were amassing a whole new post-9/11 public record so despicable and overflowing with Conservative atrocities that it positively dwarfed their antics during the Clinton Years.


In the few, short months since they lost, they have emptied out their entire store of raving invective and delusion.

Losing has left them insisting that that the legally elected President of the United States somehow isn't really the President. That he is a secret enemy. A Communist. A Hitler. A Muslim sleeper cell. A Chicago gangster.

Has left them swearing that "their country" has been stolen and that somewhere hidden in secret code in a 1,000 health care bill is a plan to murder senior citizens.

To understand how deep and relentless their addiction goes, you need only consider the recent example of Mrs. Katy Abram, who leaped into microcelebrity and the wingnut pantheon a month ago with her Clown Hall rant of “I don’t want my county to become Russia!” speech.

Mrs. Katy Abram wants the world to believe that, like a wingnut Sleeping Beauty, she somehow slept through 9/11.

Slept through two wars and the two trillion dollar bill they racked up.

Slept through tax cuts for the wealthy that added another few trillion to our debt.

Slept through Katrina.

Slept through Terri Schiavo.

Slept through the screams of the Constitution as Bush Administration fed it an inch at a time through the wood chipper (the same Constitution she is now so deeply concerned about that she has somehow become, virtually overnight, an “original intent” quote-spewing expert) only to be awakened in a sudden, patriotic fury by the sound of a Black Democrat taking the oath of office.

One of the points that driftglass is getting at is a question that I have often found myself muttering allowed as I watch these town hall meetings and protests. Where were all of these people during the last eight years? This is precisely what makes this situation so odd and so puzzling when you look at this issue from the surface. We now have a group within the population who are suddenly concerned about the expansion of federal power, concerned about the Constitution, and concerned about spending. There were not any tea-parties over the last eight years and those who did raise questions about the actions of the Bush Administration were laughed at and viewed as traitors. 9/11 was used as a rationale for supporting the government then, just as Glenn Beck is using 9/11 as a rationale for opposing the government now.

Glenn Greenwald breaks down this seemingly odd behavior (emphasis mine):

Just as was true for the 1994 crime bill, the right-wing fury over health care reform is motivated by the fear that middle-class Americans will have their money taken away by Obama while -- all together now, euphemistically -- "having someone else benefit." And this "someone else" are, as always, the poor minorities and other undeserving deadbeats who, in right-wing lore, somehow (despite their sorry state) exert immensely powerful influence over the U.S. Government and are thus the beneficiaries of endless, undeserved largesse: people too lazy to work, illegal immigrants, those living below the poverty line. That's why Joe Wilson's outburst resonated so forcefully among the Right and why he became an immediate folk hero: he was voicing the core right-wing fear that their money was being stolen from them by Obama in order to lavish the Undeserving and the Others -- in this case illegal immigrants -- with ill-gotten gains.

This is the paradox of the tea-party movement and other right-wing protests fueled by genuine citizen anger and fear. It is true that the federal government embraces redistributive policies and that middle-class income is seized in order that "someone else benefits." But so obviously, that "someone else" who is benefiting is not the poor and lower classes -- who continue to get poorer as the numbers living below the poverty line expand and the rich-poor gap grows in the U.S. to unprecedented proportions. The "someone else" that is benefiting from Washington policies are -- as usual -- the super-rich, the tiny number of huge corporations which literally own and control the Government. The premise of these citizen protests is not wrong: Washington politicians are in thrall to special interests and are, in essence, corruptly stealing the country's economic security in order to provide increasing benefits to a small and undeserving minority. But the "minority" here isn't what Fox News means by that term, but is the tiny sliver of corporate power which literally writes our laws and, in every case, ends up benefiting.


This is what is so strange and remarkable about these tea-party protests. The people who win when government acts aren't the poor, minorities or illegal immigrants -- the prime targets of these protesters' resentment. Their plight only worsens by the day. In Washington, members of those groups are even more powerless than "middle-income Americans." That's so obvious. The people who win whenever the federal government expands its power are the ones who, through their massive resources and lobbyists armies, control what the government does: the richest and most powerful corporations. And yet -- in an extreme paradox -- those are the people who are venerated by the Right: they simultaneously spew rage at what's happening in Washington while revering and defending the interests of the oligarchs who are most responsible.

What's really happening with these protests is that the genuine rage and not unreasonable economic insecurity of these citizens is being stoked, exploited, distorted and manipulated by movement leaders for entirely different ends. The people who are leading them -- Rush Limbaugh, the Murdoch-owned Fox News, Glenn Beck, business-dominated organizations of the type led by Dick Armey -- are cultural warriors above everything else. They're all in a far different socioeconomic position than the "middle-income Americans" whose anger they're ostensibly representing. Their principal preoccupation is their cultural contempt for various groups (illegal immigrants, the "undeserving" poor, liberals) and their desire to preserve the status quo whereby the prime beneficiaries of government policies remain themselves: the super rich and the interests that control Washington. It's certainly true that many of these protesters are driven by the standard right-wing cultural issues which have long shaped that movement -- social issues, religious fears, cultural and racial divisions, and hatred for "liberals" as Communist-Muslim-Terrorist-lovers. For many, all of that is intensified by the humiliation of being completely thrown out of power, at the hands of the first black President. But much of it is fueled by the pillaging of the corporations and Wall St. interests which own their government.

That's what accounts for the gaping paradox of these protests movements: genuine anger (over the core corruption of Washington and the eroding economic security for virtually everyone other than a tiny minority) is being bizarrely directed at those who never benefit (the poorest and most downtrodden), while those who are most responsible (the wealthiest and largest corporations) are depicted as the victims who need defending (they want to seize Wall St. bonuses and soak the rich!!).

The paradox that we are seeing is exactly as Greenwald describes and it helps to explain why everything seems like it is flipped on its head.


trey said...

Lot of odd reasoning here, I'll point out a few.

"adamant opposition to Obama is (not) unprecedented". I haven't been terribly interested in politics all of my 25 adult years but I've read the news and stuff and can't recall a sustained protest movement as big as this one. But then again I hadn't witnessed as an impassioned a following as Obama's during the campaign. Probably has something to do with the organizational power of new media.

"a pack of crazed primitive radicals." I don't want to spoil the fun that some find in colorfully denouncing the political opposition but I feel a duty to point out that any fair comparison between a typical GOP voter and a typical Dem voter would reveal the GOP voter tends to be better educated and more law abiding. Let me repose a question I asked in a prior post and add another to illustrate this: which party would be utterly, completely, and even violently oppossed to the introduction of a modern, fair literacy test (one that even took into account differences in educational spending) and which party is adamantly in favor of voting rights for felons?

"as well as their viewers/listeners thus their views are presented as a genuine populous uprising." This passage meant of course to depict right-wingers as being mindless sheep who repeat what their media heroes say. Amazingly, this is followed with a passage by someone named driftglass which is an almost word-for-word repeat of Larry O'Donnel's televised brow-beating of Katy Abram. What great originality.

"the people who win when government acts aren't the poor, (etc.)" "The people who win when the federal government expands its power are the ones who,through their massive resources and lobbyist armies, control what the government does." I, nor most right-wingers, couldn't have said it better myself. This is so confusing its hard to respond to. I'll take it that Mr. Greenwald was trying to establish some common ground with middle class GOPers and then showing that the left is just a little bit smarter and more moral that they avoid going after the cheap victimized minorities and instead go after the big dogs who are keeping everyone down. Nice sentiment but remember when the country's farthest left Senator became Prez and had the chance to radically alter the rules of the big money guys on Wall Street (like every lefty always talks about)and he blinked and allowed biz to continue pretty much as usual. The sad fact is that the average Joe does not really know what Wall Street does and thus there can't really be any greater meaningful populist-political opposition generated than idle rhetoric. (The right probably has Wall Street at #1 on their shit list just like the left.) However, the average Joe comes into contact with many of the underclass daily and probably has a general sense of the almost insurmountable difficultly in bringing him/her to a middle class education/economic position and sees the political-ethnic unity that forms around these issues among the rapidly growing minority (soon to be majority?)groups and realizes our Constitution awards power to raw numbers (I really don't understand all this talk about powerlessness when each person gets but one vote. OK, I get it that rich people have great influence through ads and lobbying, etc. but in the end its one vote per person)and thus an honest and not a romantic political thinker would be wary of upsetting the balance of what appears to be the central voting determinant of the electorate (ethnicity).

Chris Johnson said...


You can't recall a sustained protest movement as big as the current tea-party protests? What about the civil-rights movement? The anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?

You make the point that "any fair comparison between a typical GOP voter and a typical Dem voter would reveal that the GOP voter tends to be better educated and more law abiding". Where did you get a factual basis for this claim? I also have not seen any recent news claiming that we should institute a literacy test for voting. I know that I have not made this claim.

Regarding your comments in the third paragraph...Glenn Beck went on television and asked people to form local chapters of his "9/12 Project" and this has happened all over the country. FreedomWorks is an organization (who Dick Armey has a heavy hand in) that has been fueling some of the tea-party protests around the country. What I am saying is that these organizations and media outlets like Fox News are telling people that these gatherings are expressive of a spontaneous populist outrage. It is more complicated than this as elements of conservative talk radio and Fox News have been fueling this fire and promoting these events all summer long.

The criticisms of Katy Abram are meant to be an example of some of the people who are involved within this movement. Abram herself said that she did not pay attention to politics until her recent opposition to Obama. These protests are largely in opposition to Obama, the government in general, and against giving money to people who "don't deserve it". Did these protesters sleep through the last eight years? Why are they only suddenly complaining about the importance of the Constitution and expansion of federal power?

To your last paragraph, Obama is not a progressive liberal, he is a centrist and his actions as a Senator and currently show that he is a centrist. He was never going to radically change anything and the special interests and lobbyists are just as powerful as they have ever been. Yes, every person gets one vote, but are you seriously going to tell me that that negates the massive influence of lobbyists, corporate donations, etc? The way you phrase it makes it seem like you think that someone like myself is just as powerful as the head of Goldman Sachs simply because we each have one vote. That is a naive view of how things work in this country.