A Great Variety of Morbid Symptoms, Seen in the Reflecting Pool Yesterday

Posted August 31, 2010

New York Times: Glenn Beck Leads Religious Rally at Lincoln Memorial

I watched / listened to most of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally while doing laundry and cleaning the house. The cheesiness of the voice-overs and unevenness of the speeches lend themselves to easy mockery, but the far right’s ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, DC yesterday means that this is no laughing matter.

First, on the media coverage of the event: I’m struck by the extent to which the notion of “politics” is becoming largely incoherent; the NYT reports, with a straight face, that this event was about religion, history, or nationality rather than “politics.” While speakers stayed away from the strictly partisan, this event was entirely about articulating and mobilizing a politics, both in the narrow sense (firing up the base for the mid-term elections) and the broad sense (laying out an ideology which can serve cohesive and expressive functions for a politics).

I wonder if it is a sign of the times in terms of what some would call “depoliticized culture” that politics can only be asserted through a thin veneer of “non-partisanship” and we lose our ability to even imagine what a political politics would be, that is, a politics that affirmed the notion of a political space as one of democratic participation or the creation of a community. Still a post-Watergate moment in which “politics” can be presented as something irredeemably sullied, and the political has to assert itself behind the back of “politics.”

Constancy of the political conjuncture

More substantively, this suggests to me that we’re still in the political period inaugurated in the late 70s, of aggressive conservatism vs. a tepid center (which substitutes for anything liberal or left). Of course the context of prolonged economic stagnation is somewhat novel, but for the moment the large-scale political options still seem to be those of the neoliberal, Reaganite era.

 While the proto-fascist elements of this remain frightening, as aspects of the right have been off and on since at least the early 90s, what I find more perplexing and maybe more troubling is the complete failure of the center to articulate any politics whatsoever and the extent to which left politics don’t even register on a national-popular scale. I never considered myself an Obama supporter, though I did unify with a lot of the popular sentiment around his election. I even thought that that popular sentiment had a good chance of cohering into a politics in precisely this sense, a new political center of gravity, a sort of muscular liberal-centrism that would represent a departure from the Carter-Clinton trajectory which dissolved the New Deal / Great Society notion of the Democratic Party, replacing it with tepid, incoherent triangulation, only rarely held together short-term by a charismatic personalism or something like mass popular anti-fascism. I suppose I’m saying nothing particularly noteworthy or novel here, but Obama’s presidency is looking more and more like Carter’s.

Characterizing the far right and responses against it today

One could characterize the national-popular of 1994-2010 in the US as an alternation between always incipient far-right adventurism and popular fronts against the far right that never develop a lasting positive politics, with a changing cast of depoliticized “others” serving as galvanizing agents. The logic of Reaganism, having achieved a great deal from 1978-1992 or so, was not able to go further without developing into something that made a majority of Americans uncomfortable. What will be interesting, in a grim sort of way, will be to see if economic stagnation and rampant unemployment make the far right option palatable for a larger, energetic plurality, or if this is yet another example of the right over-reaching, as they did with the Contract with America, as they did during the Bush Jr. presidency, etc.

Note: I suppose calling the reaction to the Contract with America, the reaction to Clinton’s impeachment, and various versions of Anybody But Bush an “popular front against the far right” may sound anachronistic. Maybe we do need a different, more contemporary term. The whole lexicon of fascism and anti-fascism is both tempting and perhaps jarringly “off” for these moments. I think we could also say that anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and local, nativist “public order” campaigns over this time period have at times, to many of us, had something of a proto-fascist “feel.” And while the anti-Muslim stuff has the capability of generating a center-left front in reaction to it, of late anti-immigrant and public order politics, while they ebb and flow, can in their moments of ebb enjoy wide popularity with only committed lefties and the immediately targeted recognizing that something is amiss.

All of these “fight the right” moments have had in common a “front” character, in that the politics they project are jumbled and united mainly by what they oppose. The beneficiaries of these fronts tend to be the leaders of the Democratic Party, while the foot-soldiers tend to be Great Society holdouts (“progressives”) or radicals.

One can take a poll today and demonstrate that capitalism doesn’t look so rosy and socialism doesn’t look so bad, for large numbers of people. But no political force with a voice to be heard is promoting socialism or anti-capitalism. On the other hand, the voices saying that Obama is a socialist and his socialism is exactly the problem are loud and vociferous. The percentages of Americans who incorrectly identify Obama as a Muslim have risen by several points over the past year, proving we don’t so much live in an era of “speaking truth to power” as one of telling the truth in lies, where enough force gives an idea power.

What is set into motion with this rhetoric?

I suppose it’s also important to take note of some of the more obvious elements of this rally. Is this a savvy attempt by the right to wrap itself in the mantle of King, thereby inoculating against claims of racism? One friend remarked, on an earlier version of this article, that essentially the the message was, “of course we’re mostly white, but we’re not racists;” it raises the prospect of a “racialism cloaked in a post-racial guise” which deserves a separate post. Will anyone actually take Glenn Beck seriously as an inheritor of the legacy of MLK? Or is the point, rather, wrapping conservatism in the mantle of MLK and Lincoln?

The whole theme of “restoring the nation’s lost honor” is kind of fascinating to me. Honor? Really? Of course Reagan’s big thing was restoring the nation’s lost optimism. Since the 80s the right has never managed to replicate the complete ideological dominance it enjoyed during that era, and I’m sure this thrust is partly an attempt to chart a new course towards that, though in a sense it’s hard to see Beck and Palin as anything more than energizing antagonists who would make ineffective leaders in power, a la Newt Gingrich in 1994. Of course one probably could have misread Reagan as being exactly that. Palin could probably have his kind of upside, but I’m not sure if it’s possible for her to assemble a team of handlers like his which could manage her many downsides.

These personalistic concerns are probably far secondary to larger, conjunctural ones. Is there reason to think, paraphrasing Gramsci very loosely, that the old is dying, that this stalemate between a perpetually juvenile far right and anti-far-right popular fronts will be broken? That there are signs of something new struggling to be born? Or is the post-2008 era still a sordid, late chapter of neoliberalism in which nothing new can be asserted and subordinate social groups and radicals can only put something forth in local, partial, or economic-corporate fashions?

In the shorter term, Glenn Beck has thrown down the gauntlet the One Nation Working Together march October 2. Will we get as many people to DC as they did? And will it be as impactful?


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