Friday, June 06, 2008

The Distance From Yesterday

A couple of interesting items on cultural and political distance from the left-wing journalist Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, were circulating yesterday.

First, there is the distance traveled in Democratic Party nominating Obama for President. In 1966, however, whites in and around Chicago switched to the Republican Party in opposition to the Open Housing Act and civil rights for African-Americans. From Pearlstein's point of view, white resentment over civil rights, urban riots, the anti-war movement, and the counter-culture would form the core of the "Nixonland" phenomenon that has dominated American politics up to the present. Whites were also literally up in arms about the prospect of African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods. They were killing black kids who strayed onto "their territory" and responded to MLK's march on Cicero with violence. Pearlstein reproduces several hate-filled letters from whites to Sen. Paul Douglas to make the point even more poignant.

Given that Obama emerged from Chicago to become the first African-American nominated for President by a major political party, Pearlstein emphasizes that the moral progress between 1966 and today is unbelievable. Despite the political domination of Republicans and conservatives at the highest levels, American society has made remarkable progress.

And he's right.

But that's not the whole story. Pearlstein uses the venemous right-wing response to Ted Kennedy's brain cancer to illustrate the enormous and potentially murderous tension between right and left in contemporary America.

Pearlstein sees the right as weakening because they're still complaining about Ted Kennedy, Vietnam, and (if you're Ann Coulter) the rejection of McCarthyism, and not coming up with any fresh grievances.

Here I believe that Pearlstein's mistaken. The right is currently weak for three reasons in descending order of important.

First, the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans proved to be incompetent and corrupt. This made conservative claims to the value of the traditional, anti-intellectual masculinity represented by George Bush and Dick Cheney seem almost comical in their absurdity.

Second, white suburbanites have embraced racial integration, gay rights, and secularism while rejecting the religious right in the most visceral way possible. The disgust of white, college-educated suburbanites with the conduct of the right-wing during the Terry Schiavo case and evolution controversies was almost palpable and is now being attached to right-wing rejection of global warming.

Third, most of the country has rejected both the Goldwater small-government conservatism of rejecting the New Deal and the Gingrich big-government conservatism of putting Social Security, health care, and public education on a "market" basis. Conservatism isn't "intellectually exhausted" so much as the right hasn't come up with new conservative concepts to replace failed ideas like privatizing social security that were being energetically promoted just three years ago.

But that doesn't mean that the right-wing has lost inspiration for its resentments. At the root of those resentments is the bitterness that white conservatives feel over being subject to negative moral judgments of liberals, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, and other groups. That bitterness is almost palpable in conservative blogs like Protein Wisdom but it permeates right-wing communication in general. Conservatives are in a box. They often view stigmatizing blacks, gay people, and Hispanics as a fundamental element in their freedom as Americans but hate being stigmatized themselves as racists, homophobes, and bigots with all their bitter hearts.

Of course, there are other sources for conservative resentment. But I would like to suggest that bitterness over the moral judgments attaching to conservatism is the most powerful continuing source of conservative resentment in American society.

And it will continue to be so.

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