Sunday, September 07, 2008

Why the impulse to vote for "That dude/tte I can have a beer with" makes sense: a progressive perspective

I've just been thinking about, and talking about with J-Mom, the whole "I'mna vote for a normal guy/gal, cuz I don't want no uppity folks with no horse sense makin' decisions for my country," phenomenon of the past few election cycles (or at least, the perception of the increase in this impulse in the past few elections).

Now, certainly this comes in part from the anti-education strain of "progressiveness" in the Republican propaganda, and some of it is a naive "he's a person, just like me, who understands my troubles." (And certainly, in the case of, say, Bush, it's completely artifice since he comes from a family with deep roots in Eastern elitism, wealth, Ivy League, etc.)

But in talking to J-Mom, I remembered myself of just eight years ago; before I became a news junkie, I assumed that basically the US system was ok, and just needed some mild reform to fix. Sure, politicians were politicians, but there wasn't a rot at the core. And I don't think I used to be a purely dumb person -- I just hadn't done the research, in effect.

Just like it takes a certain disposition to be ok with atheism -- to come face to face with that existential crisis of "this is all there is" and to accept it -- it takes a certain disposition (and exposure) to be ok with the fact that our government really, really ISN'T basically ok. That is, pretty much all of our politicians are out for themselves, and not the public good, to a greater or lesser extent. AND, our government has done some pretty horrific things in our names (Iraq is just the latest; cf. the Contra War/Iran-Contra, overthrowing Mossadegh and installing the Shah in Iran, intervention in Haiti, the "Spanish-American War," support for Augusto Pinochet, the Viet Nam war and the Gulf of Tonkin, etc. etc.). (This is not to say that people are inherently out for themselves; I don't believe in "human nature" in that manner of speaking (we're also not inherently cooperative; we're both at the same time, far more complex and more/less reassuring) -- but politicians, by the nature of what they have to do to get where they are, are overwhelmingly out for themselves, imho.) Having taught a class highlighting these actions by our government (as well as going through my own realizations) I know how hard it is to accept that the US is not "#1", unless we mean "#1 at looking at for ourselves using heavy artillery." We're just not a nice people on the world stage.

Any road -- it's much easier to accept that our government is made of good people who occasionally err, than that the elected politicians are basically out to preserve the status quo of American Empire. And if you do believe that there are forces out to preserve the advantages of the elites, it makes far more sense to try and find someone "normal," who won't betray your interests, because they share your optimism, your jingoism, your sense of being slighted, your religion. Basically -- Republicans. It's not just an appeal to prejudices (though that's part of it) -- it's an appeal to the belief that we are in control of our own government; that we can believe in something, and that the scary prospect of fundamental change in the system needn't be so seriously considered. After all, if our government is so cynical, we are complicit in it -- and who needs that on top of other problems?

So I get it, on a certain level. It requires me to remember who I was before, when I was an occasional news watcher, and didn't realize "how deep the Rabbit Hole went". As I've said to many people, I read several hours of news a day to get the understanding I have -- who among us can do that? Of course people buy a lot of bullshit, I'm sure I do too, but being a professional researcher with more flexibility than any non-academic worker, it's not that I'm smarter, it's that my training is in doubting everything and verifying it with 8 sources. (It is true that we are trying to avoid teaching critical thinking to our kids -- as Paulo Freire said -- paraphrased -- you can't expect the system that oppresses people and uses them as workers to educate these same people about the true nature of the system and how to fight it. So while we're all complicit in this, and every person has some responsibility to educate themselves, there's also the odds stacked against them.)

I came to these ideas in part because it also explains the PUMA phenomenon, that is, those that identified Hillary's struggles with their own and thus continue, or continued to support her, despite the fact that their background is as similar to hers as Bush's is. What they shared was a sense of aggrievement -- and it seems to have clearly (from non-PUMA's perspectives) overshadowed all of their goddamned sense, since the last thing a Clinton stood for was real change. (Implicit in all this is my belief that Obama won't, alas, bring real change either, but at this point, it is refreshing to hear someone voice true ideals I believe in, even if I am extremely skeptical they'll follow them.)

Of course, this strain of discourse flows from, I believe, a deeply cynical place, a place right at our founding where, Howard Zinn convincingly argues, there was not the same strain of deep racism, as class lines held people together more closely. He gives evidence in his fascinating (if hard to slog through sometimes) People's History of the United States that the Color Lines separating the interests of poor whites and poor blacks were not only not preexisting, but consciously constructed, rather than the result of some kind of natural racial antipathy.* This is, interestingly, possibly the same font as the invention of "White Trash," a construction I read about briefly from a book on the floor of J-Friend Lindsay's place, left there by one of her roommates. Knowledge comes from the darndest places -- it argued essentially that White Trash was a consciously employed derogatory term to further separate White and Black class interests in common. But... digress.

So I can understand the impulse to have someone "just like you," rather than an elite who will preserve elite interests, as they always have. And I understand the willfull self-delusion to construe political figures as being normal folks, rather than believing the alternative -- that they're deeply cynical, self-serving elites deploying cultural signals to appear like you, though they are not you. It's hard to admit that, and not forget that -- because doing so gives up the last vestiges of easy control over a system gone awry, and few wish to look into that abyss...

And seriously, PUMAs? If Dems can convince themselves that the real sexism Hillary faced means her elite background has something in common with the trials of everyday women/folks, then I can have some sympathy for the delusions necessary to believe Palin's moose-skinning is pertinent to the dream of having someone who knows your troubles be in charge. (Even if I believe in the end that it is deeply, deeply... wrong.)

* From Zinn's People's History, Chapter 2:
In spite of such preconceptions about blackness, in spite of special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were "remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences."...

...[Historian Edmund] Morgan concludes: "Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests."
We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.
The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not "natural." This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.


Daktari said...

This was a fascinating post. If you don't mind my asking, how old are you? You have a very interesting perspective. Titillating almost. And I bow to your superior command of the historical context. I'm just a novice news junkie. Oh, and you can write like a sumbitch.

Any road (as you say), I'm going to let this post sink in for a bit. Just wanted you to know that I appreciate your making me think.

Keep it up.

J said...

The ripe old age of 29.

And I'm a north-Midwesterner -- writing like a sumbitch is good, right? ;-P

Daktari said...

Yes, means you got talent like whoa. :p

I'm insanely jealous about the youth and brains and insight, but--I'll be honest--I don't envy the northern Midwest thing.