Fear and Loathing in Politics

Dog Whistle PoliticsIn an article, 2012 or Never, in New York Magazine, the always interesting and often funny Jonathan Chait discusses the long-term (but not long off) trend away from Republican and toward Democratic dominance. This is not exactly breaking news. What’s more, there is a counter argument (which Chait discusses): political parties are not stagnant. But that’s good news. Over the last forty years, the Republican success has not been their own accomplishments; it is rather the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: the most conservative, free market socialists to ever be elected president. We hope that this demographic change will cause the Republican Party to move to the left.

This will not necessarily happen, however. I do not think the our nation really became more conservative along with our government. Instead, the Republican Party has been really good at getting people who don’t agree with them about policy to vote for them anyway, by distracting them. It is What’s the Matter with Kansas, or, more to the point, political magic: vote about millions of dollars going to the poor while I take billions away from you to give to the rich! Nothing up my sleeve—or even in my conscience!

Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal makes the argument that the Republican hegemony over the last several decades have been due to racism—especially southern racism. But I don’t recall him quoting any studies (but he may have, I lost my copy of his book). Regardless, Chait lays it out very clearly:

But the dominant fact of the new Democratic majority is that it has begun to overturn the racial dynamics that have governed American politics for five decades. Whatever its abstract intellectual roots, conservatism has since at least the sixties drawn its political strength by appealing to heartland identity politics. In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.

The future may indeed be bright. I am certain that this history is correct. But I fear that it will repeat in ways that only the hateful conservative movement can predict.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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