I went to hear Joe the Plumber the other day at a Take Back Illinois 9/12 event. I wanted to know what motivated today’s conservatives.
Here is what I found out.
The “9/12" movement is based on principles announced by Glenn Beck. The nine principles and 12 values could be endorsed by any American: Honesty; hard work; family; thrift; faith; “America is good.” One of the fundamental beliefs of today’s conservatives is that only they support these ideals. Liberals hate America. But liberals have also taken over America, which is why it needs to be “taken back” by this movement.
The people at this event were all white and African Americans appeared only in Samuel Wurzelbacher’s comment about a black woman who had murdered her children, and, of course, in nasty remarks about our president. This was an explicitly Christian gathering. As a Jew, I felt excluded. The only mention of non-Christians was Wurzelbacher’s applause line about how shameful it is that some Muslims wish to build a community center near Ground Zero, which drew excited applause. If anyone was homosexual, they might have been offended by Wurzelbacher’s proud use of “queer.”
It struck me that my neighbors saw themselves in a different and simpler world than the one I live in. In that room, they were America as they imagined it — white, Christian, and heterosexual. They don’t see why other people might be put off by this exclusive view or offended by their language.
Like Laura Schlessinger, the conservative radio host who freely used a racial slur on her show, they don’t care to imagine how other people might think. They have nothing to offer to those who are really hurting in today’s economy: The unemployed, the underpaid; the uninsured.
Wurzelbacher seems sincere and forthright. He believes in fatherhood and doesn’t shrink from challenging authority. But he is unusually ignorant for a public speaker and is proud of simplistic political ideas: “Global warming is a farce”; “Social Security is a joke.” Like many public conservatives, he disdains those who disagree with him: “Liberals are a sickness in this society.”
Wurzelbacher is an expert on plumbing and little else. As a motivational speaker, however, he offers a clear message: “A politician is going to screw you.” Although he obviously disdains Democrats, he also refused to identify with Republicans. He was disgusted by his visit to Washington and the entire political elite. He believes that average citizens have allowed “them” to run the country for too long. He repeatedly urged us to “get off your butts” and take back control.
A few minutes later, the audience demonstrated what they took away from Wurzelbacher’s populist message. Aaron Schock, our congressman, made an unscheduled appearance and hijacked the event. He would not relinquish the microphone, despite the pleas of the host, until he had spoken as long as Wurzelbacher. Schock offered a well-rehearsed partisan message about cutting taxes and repealing healthcare reform. Schock is precisely the kind of slick politician of whom Wurzelbacher is suspicious. He derides government spending except when he can appear in a photo with the recipients of government grants, even those in which he played no role. Wurzelbacher’s audience got off their butts many times for Schock, standing and applauding his every platitude.
Schock is quite vocal about how important it is to cut government spending. But he, like other conservatives, presents no way to deal with the enormous deficits and debts that plague our national and state governments. Neither does he offer any evidence that, if his party were in power, he would support the painful policies that might bring us back into the black: Cutting services like education, fire and police; cutting contractual pensions; reducing Social Security benefits; cutting military spending. That’s no way for an ambitious young man to get reelected.
Simple virtues and political cliches won’t solve our problems, which can’t all be blamed on “liberals.” Getting off our butts to cheer our congressman was not what Wurzelbacher wanted. If these conservatives do Take Back Illinois, they won’t know what to do with it.
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).