United States: `Birthers', `deathers' and haters -- Right-wing populism and liberal retreat

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By Malik Miah, San Francisco

October 11, 2009 — The heat is on the administration of US President Barack Obama. The energised conservative base has taken over town hall meetings on health care. There are “birthers” (those who claim Obama is not a US citizen and ineligible to be president), “deathers” (those who claim Obama’s health care reform is a plan to kill old people) and just pure haters. Obama has been personally attacked as a racist, socialist, communist, Stalinist, fascist, Nazi, Pol Potist, foreigner and every other name the right finds in its vocabulary.

When Obama led the US delegation to Copenhagen to get his home town of Chicago the 2016 Olympics — and failed — he was attacked as “out of touch” by the right. When Chicago was knocked out in the first round of voting, the right gleefully cheered! The “country first” crowd forgot that a Chicago Olympics would be in the United States, not “Obama Land”.

Two weeks later the Nobel Prize for Peace was given to a surprised Obama. Again the conservatives attacked Obama saying his “peace prize” would deepen polarisation in the country. It was as though Obama arranged the award. The world, of course, sees Obama’s move away from the unilateralism of the Bush-Cheney regime as a step forward even though Obama continues Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senior citizens are panicked by accusations that Obama’s attempt to bring about near universal heath coverage as a threat to their own government-runMedicare program. Some veterans under a single-payer Veteran Administration program are complaining that “socialism” is behind Obama’s health plans.

Tinge of racism

Former US President Jimmy Carter called these right-wing attacks “predominantly racist” in nature. Since the base of the Republican Party is strongest in the old Confederate states of the Deep South — Carter is a former governor of Georgia — he tends to know what he’s talking about.

Others reject this, claiming that former US President George W. Bush was demonised too. But no previous president was ever attacked because of his race and had lawsuits filed asserting he was not born as a US citizen. Obama, for his part, has downplayed the issue, quipping to a late-night TV host, “I was Black before the election" when a majority of Americans elected him as president.

Of course, as the first US president who is African American, Barack Obama has had to play down his race even when discussing racism and discrimination -- while never denying that history. His July speech to the 100th anniversary convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest civil rights organisation, was a strong defence of the civil rights movement and pointed to the United States’ long history of slavery and racism. Yet the speech was barely covered by the mainstream media, which has a habit of downplaying the issue of race except when it is used as a slander by the right.

The shrill attacks on Obama by the right have a strong tinge of racism. It is not just a repeat of the Clinton years or when other “centrist Democrats” have come under assault. The United States’ long history of racism — and institutional discrimination is the hardest to uproot — and the refusal of the government to ever apologise or reject that past of slavery and legal segregation shows the deep-rooted problem of race in US politics. (It is typical of the ruling elite to say the past is the past, we must look forward.)

The issues the right is using to attack Obama is the deep world recession and the current debate about health care and insurance industry reform, and weaving in race to play off white anxieties.

Van Jones and ACORN

The viciousness of the rightwing forces is most evident when the demagogues go after Black activists like Van Jones of San Francisco. Jones was forced out of his environmental advisory job for the White House in September after being attacked for derogatory comments about Republicans, and signing a petition in 2004 questioning why the September 11 terrorist attack took place.

The community organising group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was targeted by the Republicans in 2008 for its voter registration efforts in poor communities. Slanders and lies of voter fraud were played up by the right and then picked up by the mainstream media. The right has been after ACORN, even falsely claiming Obama worked for the group. One would think ACORN had committed torture and other crimes against humanity.

The assault led to ACORN’s entrapment by conservative activists in September that caused most liberals to drop their support for the organisation. Congress, banks and others that had been working with ACORN on housing and voter issues broke ties, and Congress, including most Democrats, voted to “defund” the organisation in September.

Formed in 1970 in Little Rock, Arkansas, ACORN has registered more than 1 million poor, mostly African American, voters over the years. It has helped thousands facing mortgage foreclosures. Neither Van Jones nor ACORN have ever been convicted of crimes like those committed by the war contractors such as the private security firm BlackWater that is still in the employ of the State Department and Pentagon.

Yet most liberals quickly capitulated to the right instead of standing against these smears and attacks. What’s common — and outrageous — about these slanders is the failure of the Obama administration and mainstream liberal allies to stand up for those being demonised.

The real crime of Van Jones was not his comments, but his history of militant activism. ACORN’s rap sheet is that it fights for the poor.

Roots of anger

It is important to recognise that the superheated attacks on Obama are not primarily due to conscious, thought-out Klan-type bigotry. An undercurrent of deep racism does exist because of institutional racism, yet it would be a mistake to read all the anti-government supporters as racists.

The main issue motivating the anger is the “liberal agenda” (support for more government intervention) promoted by Obama and most liberals. For some 30 years, Republicans, beginning with former US President Ronald Reagan and the Democrats afterwards, have denounced “big government”. The ideological shift to the right on this issue allows the conservative extremists to confuse most Americans, particularly whites, to believe the government is the problem. (Many middle-class minorities hold the same view of government.)

There is a fundamental difference, however, between right and left populism. Rightist critics of capitalist inequities see the government, independent of class, as the real enemy, stealing hard-earned money from working people to redistribute to the undeserving and shiftless poor (read: undocumented immigrants, Blacks and Latinos).

That demagoguery taps into the bigotry of an extreme white racist minority — a smaller proportion of US society than ever in history. The Republicans in 2008 also used the race card and called Obama “the other” and “paling around with terrorists”. But it didn’t work.

The bulk of opposition is aimed at the greed and corporate welfare programs (millions to Wall Street and corporate America) as the working class suffers home foreclosures and loss of jobs. The right has been able to tie Wall Street and fear of government together, and seize centrestage.

At the infamous town hall meetings in August, the so-called non-profit conservative foundations (e.g. Freedom Works) effectively tapped the misguided anti-government sentiment. They were able to mobilise many white working and middle-class Americans to attend these meetings. The theme at all the events was simple: “Stop a government takeover” of everything.

Fox News, owned by Australian-born billionaire Rupert Murdoch, has been a promoter of the “tea party” revolt, including a large September 12 march on Washington. Glenn Beck, a Fox talk show host with a best-selling book, summarises this sentiment as “Wall Street owns our government. Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged”.

Michael Moore’s new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, hits on many of the same populist themes. Moore — an ardent and genuine liberal —- directs his criticism at both the Republicans and Democrats. He fingers all those who have been bought and paid for by the banks, insurance companies, drug cartels and other wealthy corporate types. The difference is that Moore sees government playing a positive role in health care and for society as a whole.

Recognising the contradictions

Another source of white anxiety (a ``circling the wagons’’ mentality) is the changing demographics of the US. The trend is not new but in times of economic uncertainty it becomes an easy target of rightist demagogues.

In 1970 whites made up 87.5 per cent of the US population. Some 30 years later in 2000 whites were 77.5 per cent of the population and the percentage decline continues as the African-American, Latino and Asian-American populations grow.

The African-American population in 2000 was 36.7 million and the Latino population was 44.3 million. In 1969 there were 9.6 million residents who were foreign born. In 2006 the figure had rose to 37 million. By 2050 whites will fall below 50 per cent.

The conservatives take these statistics and twist them (classic scare-mongering) to warn white Americans that they are “losing their country”. It is a “fact” to older whites that to be an American means to be white with a Eurocentric outlook. Everyone else is a hyphenated American.

The Obama election showed how much that view of the world is an outdated assumption. The younger generations reject that narrow-minded pre-civil rights attitude about race and who is an American. Most young whites see Americans as an ethnic rainbow — based primarily on citizenship.

Unfortunately, the left has failed to effectively tap the “middle-class” anger and focus it against the system and push for progressive causes. The reason is because the left itself is divided, between the socialist left and the much larger liberal left. The liberal left basically looks to the Democratic Party to lead the fightback and have responded meekly to the organised right’s campaign against universal health care, women’s rights, gay rights and many other issues of concern to Blacks and other minorities, and to society as a whole.

Liberalism versus left populism

The ideology of left liberalism (historically and today) cannot stand up to conservative extremism. Liberalism, like conservatism, supports the free market system and the “right” of Wall Street to make a decent profit. Liberalism, philosophically, supports a “fairer” market system. It is very difficult to build left-wing populism that concedes the “goodness” of capitalism.

Genuine leftwing populism cannot be rooted in liberal ideology. Left-wing (or socialist) populism must be based on the working class, the labour and progressive forces, seeking to take control of the economy, the government and crucial institutions for the good of society as a whole.

The illusions in Obama and his neoliberal-centrist ideology and philosophy have made the once energised liberal left (when Bush was in power) take a wait and see approach to how the legislative process plays out, conceding the streets and town hall meetings to the right.

While there continue to be important protests against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, demanding immediate withdrawal, and supporting single payer healthcare, much of the effort is lobbying and hoping that Congress will stand up to the right. The weakness of labour and the lack of a viable independent third political party make it difficult to provide a political alternative to the Democrats.

The impasse of Obama's brand of liberalism is not a surprise. He’s doing basically what he promised to do — protect and defend the interests of the US political and economic system and its imperial foreign policy.

A leftwing populist movement marching for its issues and against the right is well overdue. Unless that begins to develop, the rightist forces, including those with incipient fascist ideology, will continue to make political gains no matter how nutty their “birthers” and “deathers” views may seem. History teaches us the perils of underestimating reactionary forces.

[Malik Miah is an editor of US socialist magazine Against The Current and a supporter of the US socialist organisation.]