Friday, 18 July 2008

Rightwing victimhood

I'm reading Terry Frank's book, What's the Matter With America: the Resistable Rise of the American Right (1).

A couple of points he makes struck me as relevant to the New Zealand election. He describes how the ultra-right managed to seize control of the moderately conservative Republican Party by engendering a sense of rightwing victimhood, persuading American voters to vote against their own interests in the name of combating 'liberal' elitism.

I've always been bemused - in a nervous, slightly queasy sort of way - by the speed that the party of Dwight Eisenhower became the party of Reagan and Bush. Hell, even Richard Nixon would feel uncomfortable at a 21st century Republican convention - apart from the venality (a trait not limited to Republicans, of course) he'd find little in common.

Franks argues that the takeover was facilitated by focusing not on economic issues - there is no overlap of interest between blue collar conservatism and the tax cutting supply-siders/neo-cons for whom inheritance tax was abolished - but on cultural ones. The radical right of the Republican party politicised issues like abortion, opposition to teaching of evolution, race and homosexuality, which had previously been bi-partisan. This allowed them to demonise their opponents - whether Democrats or moderate Republicans - as shiftless, baby killing, unAmerican elitist liberals who didn't give a damn about ordinary Americans and their values.

For all the rhetoric and the pro-life rallying and shrilling about Darwin, hardly anything has been achieved:
Nevertheless, the leaders of the backlash ... have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers' feelings of powerlessness wll be dramatised and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monumnet, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which can not be put to rest without a supreme court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. (2)
So it's a phoney war, and deliberately so, because the object of the leaders of the backlash isn't to achieve those cultural goals, but to create and maintain a continual sense of greaivance. In fact, their goal is to innculcate in their supporters the sense of victimhood and need for special treatment that they claim to despise in ... gosh, pretty much everyone else.

(Cue the old whinge about how white, middle class heterosexual males are the only minority it is okay to pick on. I tick all those boxes, but do not feel very oppressed. Certainly not by fruits getting hitched or Maori getting compensated for the theft of their land and the dismemberment of their culture.)

The reason for fighting this war-without-end is because it is a diversion. An uneasy truce has been struck in the Republican party betwen the religious fundamentalists and the supply-sider/neo-cons carpet-baggers, much to the detriment of the third, moderate faction. The religious faction gets to promulgate its cultural war, dreaming of longed for day when abortion, sodomy and Darwin will all be banished (religious types are, after all, good at envisioning some paradisical future that never quite arrives). Meanwhile, the supply-sider/neo-con faction has quietly taken cotrol of the actual business of changing stuff, using the indigantion generated by the cultural crusade (converted handily into Republican votes at the ballot box) to gain power and pursue their own interest. These, as pointed out earlier, are entirely contrary to the interests of the majority voters who put them there. The voters might notie this, except they are being constantly exhorted to rail against liberalism, elitism feminism, environmentalism, political correctness, the government, social security, everything, other than the stuff that really matters - the money stuff.

What has all this got to do with New Zealand? It should be pretty obvious. I think we are seeing the same sort of thing afoot here. The religious element may not be present here, which is probably why it hasn't taken an extreme form, but the pattern is very similar. The continual chorus about nanny-state, government interference, red-tape, political correctness, law and order, ciminals having 'more rights than their victims' and so on - it is all designed to create and maintain a sense of greivance in voters and swing them away from Labour, towards National. Never mind that there is no evidence that National will do anything about any of it. That isn't the point.

This is not a brand-new thing - skimming through The Hollow Men, I spotted this comment by Peter Keenan, apparently quoting Michael Horowitz:
Politics is a war of emotions. For the great mass of the public, casting a vote is not an intellectual choice, but a gut decision, based on impressions that may be superficial and premises that could be misguided. Politcal war is about evoking emotions that favour one's goals. It is the ability to manipulate the public's feelings in support of your agenda, while mobilising passions of fear and resentment against your opponent. (3)
This is ignoble stuff. At best it is trying to legitimize deception, at worst it is advocating exploiting voters fears, prejudices and resentments to gain power. And without even sharing these fears, prejudices and resentments. It reminds me of another anecdoe I readonce, many moons again, comparing BillClinton to FDR. It went something like this - FDR would go out into the country to talk to people, to find out what they thought, to tell them what he thought, and to convince them of that he was right. He usually succeeded. Clinton, on the otherhand, when out into the country to talk to people to find out what they thought and to tell them that was what he thought. He usually succeeded.

It is a cynical strategy to win power by any means - because "Being in government is worth everything" (4). But it has real world consequences beyond who sits where in the Beehive, because a sense of greivance or injustice, once provoked, can be dismissed simply by telling the proles to go home and to stop worrying about things until next time they are needed. Telling people, over and over, that they are down-trodden, ignored, victimised or forgotten will alienate them from the democratic process and weaken our already riven society.

And that isn't even considering the impact of the legislation National will seek to enact once it is secure in office. The carpte-baggers, negligent of their duty to the whole country, will focus on rewarding and enriching the small, elite group to whom they truly owe allegiance - the super-rich. Because that is who they are.

In fact, of course, it is entirely contrary to the interest of the carpet-baggers to let the sense of grievance subside. For if the proles stop feeling indignant for too long, they might notice what their elected champions are doing, and who is profiting from it. To the schisming, the fragmenting, the insularisation of society has to continue - the war on supposed privilege and special interest has to continue to be waged, lest the voters see what is really going on.
1- What's the Matter with America: the Resistable Rise of the American Right, by Terry Frank. Published by Seeker & Warburg, London, 2004.
2 - ibid, page 121.
3 - Peter Keenan, quoting Michael Horowitz, quoted in turn by Nicky Hager in The Hollow Men, published in 2006 by Craig Potton Publishing. Page 65.
4 - ibid, page 68. The quote originates with Ruth Richardson.

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