demographic change as political fuel
Rod Dreher links to and quotes Arnold Kling, who says something very useful for our conversation about the Glen Beck movement– and, incidentally, something that our media insists I am not allowed to say myself: “I come back to my view that this is white, small-town America making its last stand.”
There are legitimate political differences that the members of these movements represent; there are differences that they have been misled about, such as death panels, that nevertheless represent real and important fears and tensions; there are simply illegitimate concerns that are a facet of certain misleading media outlets, and fear of the other, such as the Birthers; and there are the actual extremist fringes, such as the white racists carrying Confederate flags to protest a black president. There is a lot of the first two, a little of the third, and even less of the fourth, if my handle on this movement is correct. There is another element, though, and it is essential. We cannot understand this phenomenon without being honest about fundamental motivating effect of fear in the face of the loss of white rural conservative Christian political dominance. Full stop. If we aren’t willing to engage in the anger that this class of people, traditionally this country’s power base, feels in the face of demographic changes that challenge their political dominance, we are not having an adult conversation about the state of American politics. We simply are not.
As a commenter on another blog said, it reminds me of nothing so much as the complaints as the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, a minority in Iraq but in control of the country for the better part of a century. I’m not referring to the Sunni insurgency, of course, but rather to the Sunni street, who react with incredulity and anger to the idea that theirs is no longer the ruling political demographic of their country. I have sympathy for a group of people who were conditioned through a period of dictatorship and the bizarre nationalist Baathist ideology to believe that they have a right to lead the country, no matter what the demographic realities of Iraq were. This has led to the emphasis, in Sunni Iraqi political propaganda, of the Sunnis’ belief that they are being oppressed by being out of power. So used to the privilege of ruling the country, the notion of confronting the future as merely one of many political classes is tantamount, in their minds, to finding themselves suddenly under authoritarianism.
The rural Christian white power base of this country, I put it to you, is similarly faced with a moment of loss of political privilege, less stark or extreme but equally discomfiting. And they, too, have been poorly served by tradition, rhetoric and a selective reading of their nation’s history. It is a matter of absolute, unwavering faith in this country that the real America is the land of white rural Christians. To suggest otherwise is to invite scorn and ridicule, and not just from the likes of FOX News, but from reliably centrist, mainstream publications and media vehicles. It is a central part of American mythology. I find it inarguable that there is a dominant cultural meme that there is a real America in between the coasts whose needs and desires are, by virtue of who holds them, more legitimate and pressing than those of anyone else. This iron-clad belief in one group’s political preeminence has handicapped that group’s ability to react to demographic and political change. I genuinely believe, following the Reagan administration, that conservatives grew to believe that they simply had a stranglehold on American politics that would never be challenged outside of the margins of American politics. This led to the serial derangement at the presidency of Bill Clinton.
But Clinton, at least, was white, Southern, and such an enthusiastic centrist that in an international context he might legitimately be seen as a conservative. His accent and manner, along with his triangulation, helped to disarm the brewing cultural uneasiness of a country that was growing more and more tolerant of previously forbidden difference, and slowly and imperfectly less uniformly white, male and Christian in its various apparatuses of power. But 9/11 stoked racial and religious discomfort, inflamed America’s traditional militancy, and made anathema the left’s questioning of traditional assumptions of America’s goodness and benevolence. Following eight years of almost unbearable political strife and cultural division, an American liberalism emboldened by a breakdown in fundamental governance by the governing conservative party and buoyed by changing demographics delivered into the presidency an Ivy-League educated lawyer with a foreign-sounding name and a background that was alien to many people. And he was black. In this unapologetic liberal, with an identity that seemed so remote to so many, the very picture of a changing America had ascended to the highest office in the country.
This is not an accusation of racism. It is not. It is a reflection of the fact that Barack Obama is simply different from every president who came before him in what remains a very powerful way, and that he is different from recent presidential political history in that he ran as a Democrat unafraid to embrace liberalism. The loss of political dominance is scary for anyone, and as black America has been the closest thing to a block vote in favor of liberalism in American politics, Obama’s racial identity serves as a remarkable symbol of what he represents politically. It is that symbolism, what Obama’s race means politically, that motivates most of the fear, not racial hatred. It is this same recognition of the political power of race that leads some pundits to attempt to desperately try to thread the needle and advocate continuing white demographic domination (“we need more white babies”) while avoiding genuine racist dialogue.
Lucky for all of us, we don’t have to worry much about motivations when it comes to political activity. All of us, again including myself, have a tangled set of causes and motivations that push us towards our political inclinations. The content of the political opinions of the Teapartying right, as articulated regarding policy, and their votes, is what matters. But that is really what matters, their votes, and their votes will always and only be in proportion to their numbers, and they must get used to this fact. There must be an honest and thorough acceptance of the fact that rural people do not get extra votes, that the middle of the country has no special privilege to lead, that white America is not the natural ruling constituency of the United States, that “traditional America” is not America. Demographic trends are not destiny. It is not certain that the number of Hispanic Americans will continue to change, nor that Americans will continue their long migration into the cities. But both appear likely, and if white people and rural people lose their status of political privilege because of demographic change then they must recognize that this is the simple business of democracy. Democracy permits no privileging of one demographic or another beyond their quantity. Indeed, democracy is the privileging of number over every other consideration.
That there are legitimate policy positions within the 9/12 movement, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t deny. And that those positions have every right to be express loudly and impolitely I asset most whole-heartedly. But the frankly absurd romanticization of this movement by many in the culturally and socially disconnected conservative media elite ultimately does our national conversation no favors. Yes, they are angry about policy, but they are also angry to be coming into a world where they are not guaranteed any particular share of power. This is a simple fact, and its denial suggests partisanship over honesty. This gradual loss of demographic privilege is no great loss to the white rural center of our nation. It merely means that they must operate on the same playing field as all the rest of us, that their needs are, like all of ours, important only as far as they can convince people with effective speech and as far as they can secure votes. And I must point out that they enjoy dominant numbers in a whole host of American institutions of power, beyond what proportionate democracy would normally suggest.
I am not blowing smoke when I say that I have some sympathy with people confronting change, particularly when this country’s media and intelligentsia have been so knowingly complicit in elevating the importance of this demographic above that of other people. But all this talk of oppression must stop; all this hysteria that the government is coming to get them because it no longer represents an organization bent solely towards the perpetuation of their ends must stop. For some members of this movement the notion seems genuinely to be “We are oppressed if not oppressing,” and that is not workable for a democracy and not constructive for our discourse.
In another thread there is a discussion going on about what represents a special interest group. I’m no fan of the term. And yet as far as it has traditionally been used to undermine the appeals of the liberal caucus, the Teapartiers represent the very definition of a special interest. They are a group of people who invoke the language of grievance and oppression to insist that they deserve special rights and special consideration beyond what they are entitled to as members of a democratic polity and separate from what we decide is best for the country. For too long, we have defined in our politics the “special interest” as being anyone other than the white rural Christian hub, with the needs of the former inherently illegitimate and the needs of the latter paramount. That has to change; these people need to come to understand that they are just another group, not special, not entitled, not privileged. We need to vigorously deny that any group has special access or right power in this country, and we need to denounce the cynical opportunists who stoke fear in the face of demographic change in a ploy for partisan political gain.