It’s the Country, Not the System, That’s Stacked Against Liberals and Progressives

Historian Richard J. Hofstadter

Some of my fellow lefties seem confident the GOP’s just-say-no-to-all-things-Obama strategy will backfire in November.

I understand their argument: outs can’t win merely by opposing ins.

But Republicans will have a leg up on Democrats in November, and not just because the party that controls the White House almost always loses House and Senate seats in mid-term congressional elections. A recent NBC News online “First Read” explained why the GOP has a built-in advantage:

“It’s the country — not the system — that’s stacked against liberals and progressives….From 1989 (after Reagan’s presidency) to now, the most stable data in the NBC/WSJ poll has been that roughly one-fifth of the country identifies as being liberal, while one-third identifies being conservative. Even in 2008, when Obama decisively won the presidency, the average in the poll was 25% liberal, 36% conservative.”

So it’s not just the economy either, stupid.

The poll numbers hint at the biggest GOP edge: the U.S. is the most conservative country in the Western democratic world. “Liberal” — which means centrist or center-left in other industrial democracies — is as far left as mainstream American politics flows. The U.S. is the only industrial democracy that doesn’t have a significant democratic socialist or social democratic party.

On the other hand, conservatism skews farther rightward in America than in any other Western nation. In all of the others, the Republicans would be far-right, way out on the fringe.

At the same time, the nature of liberalism can be a disadvantage to its proponents. Liberals are creatures of the Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Reason. So in politics, they appeal to reason over emotion. In other words, liberals aim for the head, not the gut.

American politics is often gut politics. So conservatives shoot — sometimes with Tommy Guns in campaign ads on TV — at the gut.

Extreme conservatives are given to pandering to irrational fear and mindless resentment, even outright hate. Also, uber-rightists aren’t above exploiting many people’s penchant for believing almost any conspiracy to be true, no matter how absurd. Historian Richard Hofstadter called it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the title of his famous 1964 essay on the subject.

Paranoid politics is right up the alley of the Tea Party movement, which the Republicans are counting on to help them win this election cycle, big time.

Hofstadter wrote his essay while Republican Barry Goldwater – the founding father of modern GOP ultra-conservatism — was trying to wrest the presidency from Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater pushed hard for the votes of whites – especially Southerners — who were angry over Johnson’s support for historic civil rights legislation aimed at ending years of legal and societal discrimination against African Americans.

Hofstadter said “the Goldwater movement” was an example of “angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers.” The Goldwater campaign, he added, has “now demonstrated…how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

True, LBJ cleaned Goldwater’s plow. So it’s also possible that the GOP will end up shifting too far right even for a body politic where self-described conservatives have an 11-point polling edge over folks who call themselves liberal.

Anyway, Hofstadter explained that he came up with the term “paranoid style” just “because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In any event, substitute “Tea Party movement” for “Goldwater movement,” and you’ve got it.

The sort of “white backlash” voters Goldwater so ardently pursued — Nixon and “state’s rights” Reagan avidly sought their support, too – are back with the Tea Party. A lot of them just can’t get over the election of an African American president.

Many white backlash voters of the 60s called the civil rights movement a communist plot. Some said the movement had a secret goal: the creation of a black Soviet state.

Based on their signs and what they say – and yell – many Republican-tilting Tea Baggers believe Obama is turning America into a Soviet state complete with, according to one placard, “WHITE SLAVERY.”

Of course, I hope my brother and sister lefties are right about right-wing Republican road blockers dooming the GOP. I worry they are wrong.

But nothing would make me happier than to feast on crow and humble pie should the vote go our way and the Democrats hold the House and Senate, even if by reduced margins, after the votes are counted in November.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on August 4, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.