Monday, March 01, 2010

How Big Is It? With Update

It's not a Leno (really, a Carson) joke line--it's a question with profound implications for the United States at this delicate moment in human history.

How big is the group of American voters who support the the reactionary-beyond-belief politics, the violently angry far far right?

We know how loud they are. We know that their most extreme views are increasingly embraced by Republican office-holders and aspirants, right up to the leadership in the U.S. Senate.

The latest manifestation is Senator Jim Bunning's ongoing filibuster which is holding up extension of unemployment benefits, affecting millions. As well as other projects that affect the poor and working people. Here's TIME's Joe Klein today:

As this comment from the Number 2 Senate Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, makes clear, the Republicans are turning toward a form of reactionary radicalism that is well to the right not only of traditional conservatism, but also of post-Victorian concepts of government and--not to put too fine a point on it--of common decency as well:

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, argued that unemployment benefits dissuade people from job-hunting "because people are being paid even though they're not working." Unemployment insurance "doesn't create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,"

The idea that those who have lost their jobs in this Wall Street/mortgage-scam recession are simply deadbeats, choosing to stay on unemployment rather than look for work, seems more appropriate to Scrooge's London than the 21st century. But Kyl has spoken his version of the truth, and we should be grateful for that: this is what the Republican Party is now all about. The America they--and the Tea Partiers--want would have no Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security (just ask the rising Republican star, Paul Ryan, who would privatize them all), no social safety net, no environmental or workplace regulations, no highway or infrastructure building."

Before this spectacle, there was another, that Frank Rich wrote about over the weekend: the sudden embracing by right wing media mouths and politicians of the guy who flew his plane into a building containing IRS offices, calling him a hero. Referring to Times reporter David Barstow's investigation into the Tea Party movement, Rich writes:

Barstow confirmed what the Southern Poverty Law Center had found in its report last year: the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback. And now it is finding common cause with some elements of the diverse, far-flung and still inchoate Tea Party movement. All it takes is a few self-styled “patriots” to sow havoc.

While Rich cautions that the Tea Partiers and the Republican officeholders have little in common, the officeholders are falling all over themselves to adopt extremist--and violent--rhetoric.

I've seen a lot of explanations of this "anger," not many of them very convincing. The latest is Michael Lind in Salon, who says that the movement is the last cry of a declining demographic group, the white working class, and that groups in decline tend to want to obstruct the change that is overwhelming them and their world. That's more or less been my working theory (though the rest of Lind's piece makes pretty doubtful conclusions and offers impractical solutions.) What makes absolute sense is that there is a lot of racism involved, and not just black and white, but towards everyone who isn't white. President Obama is the obvious center of projection.

Those emotions are being exploited, fueled and guided with their usual subterranean skill, by reactionary corporate interests, while shameless GOPer politicians are all too obviously trying to ride the wave.

I get all that. I still don't know though how big it is. It's a declining minority (racist whites) of a declining soon-to-be minority (whites). But if you listen to Hardball or CNN, you get the impression that this unhinged anger at Obama and Washington is very big. CNN in particular is promoting the idea, citing its poll that claims that 56% of Americans believe the federal government threatens their freedom.

Here's what I do know: an awful lot is being deduced from one election in MA, which some folks up there think was due largely to state politics. And poll questions of such a general nature bring together people who are never going to actually vote the same way. There are lots of ways to interpret "broken government." Maybe it's Obama to some, maybe it's Republican obstructionism in the Senate to others.

I do think a certain unhinged quality, a mindless lashing out, a feeling of helplessness and general anger, is probably real, and rooted in fear. But all kinds of fear, by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.

How big is it? is in the end a political question, that elections will settle (without necessarily addressing the question directly.) It may be that Jim Bunning is leading the political equivalent of the Terry Shiavo moment, that was followed by hefty GOPer defeats. We just don't know yet. But if healthcare doesn't pass, this is going to grow.

But there's another important question: how dangerous is it? That doesn't always depend on size. Given the right circumstances, you'd have to say that right now: dangerous. Maybe very dangerous.

Update: The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a new report on Tuesday that quantified growth of right wing extremist groups--at 244% rise in the number of these groups in 2009.

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