The Identity Politics of Middle Aged White Suburban Conformists

Competitiveness is a fine thing. Late in the game the aging ballplayer with bad knees, who hadn’t played for weeks, comes out of the locker room, where he’d been dressing to go home once again, hobbles to the plate, and after a few total whiffs, hits the amazing homerun that wins the big game – and can hardly make it around the bases, as he can hardly walk. But he makes it home and the crowd goes wild. Kirk Gibson did that out here one year. We all remember it. And out here we watch take-no-prisoners Kobe Bryant, running on white-hot anger and a refusal to lose, ever, force the Lakers to win, again and again. In the context of the game he is not a nice man at all. Outside that context no one quite knows. But he is a real competitor, and he’ll drag the rest of that often flakey team with him to win after win. No one gets to relax, even for a minute. And he himself will play hurt – broken finger, bad ankle, bum knee – whatever. He will do whatever it takes to win. It’s pretty impressive.

But context is everything. A businessman, an investment banker, or the head of one of the big oil companies, running on white-hot anger and a refusal to lose, ever, can be dangerous. Winning may involve cutting corners, or taking the calculated risk that safety issues can be set aside, with luck, and even if things go terribly wrong, the win – big bucks for every investor – will make up for the bad press. You can always say you’re sorry – no one could have predicted this would ever happen. All you have to do is look moderately sad. And you win. Everyone loves a winner, and loves a Real Competitor. After all, Rick Scott was best known as the disgraced former head of the Columbia/HCA healthcare company that got caught up in a massive fraud scandal in the nineties – it was pure Medicare fraud and the firm later pleaded guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans. Columbia/HCA agreed to pay almost two billion dollars in fines, a record penalty for a healthcare company. The fines covered fraud perpetrated when Scott was in charge, at the top, and he was forced out of his job as a result of the scandal. But he took the Fifth one hundred fifty-seven times, so he escaped being convicted, directly. And last year the voters of Florida made him their new governor.

One must assume they liked his win-at-all-costs way of dealing with things. You want the goodies, you take the goodies. They must have liked that attitude. Everyone loves an outlaw. They hired one, so to speak.

But most everyone knows from personal experience that hooking up with someone who wants to win at all costs is problematic, unless you’re playing basketball, on their side. Sooner or later you find yourself in an argument where the other party insists that they are right, and it’s clear as clear can be that they’re wrong. But they persist, and badger you, and mock you, until you finally say whatever – you’re right, Stravinsky was Irish – because it’s not worth arguing about. They’re pleased and smug, and you just let it go. Later comes the apology – yeah, they knew all along they were wrong, the whole time, but they really did have to win, and they’re sorry. Will you forgive them? They’re sure you’ll understand – some people are just competitive, and that’s a really, really good thing. Sooner or later you fail to see the charm. You’re out of there.

And now the Republicans are trying to sort out their array of possible candidates to run against Obama in 2012 – someone competitive, someone who will do what it takes to win, whatever that might be. And the first up is the former House Speaker:

Newt Gingrich “warned that America is headed toward becoming a godless society unless voters take a stand against President Obama and liberal-minded college professors and likeminded media pushing his agenda,” the San Antonio News-Express reports.

He also “called for a return to historic, Christian roots he said were critical to protecting the nation’s freedoms.”

Said Gingrich: “There’s a desperation with which our elites are trying to create amnesia so that we literally have generations who have no idea what it means to be an American.”

What?

See Steve Benen:

Yeah, just think about it. Unless we all become conservative Christians, the next thing you know, prominent leaders might start cheating on multiple wives. Oh wait.

And Benen points out the obvious:

First, the United States remains among the most religious industrialized powers on the planet, so the threat of creeping godlessness seems out of place. Second, even if the ranks of atheists and agnostics are growing – and they are – isn’t this just a natural development in the marketplace of ideas? Exactly how does Gingrich suggest using political power to “return” America to its “Christian roots”?

Third, the growth in the number of non-believers began in earnest during the Bush era. Blaming Obama, the media, and college professors sounds like the mad rantings of a deeply paranoid person. And finally, “what it means to be an American”? The true test of patriotic ideals is sharing Newt Gingrich’s religious faith?

Benen finds it all pretty tiresome:

Gingrich fears widespread “amnesia,” but I have a pretty good memory, and I remember when the former Speaker was in office and he pretty much ignored the Republican Party’s religious right base. In fact, the vaguely theocratic movement grew so disgusted with Gingrich blowing them off that in the spring of 1998, James Dobson and a bunch of religious right heavyweights said they were prepared to abandon the GOP altogether and form a Christian conservative party. They had no choice, they said, because Gingrich refused to take a faith-based agenda seriously.

No, really – CNN reported it and everything.

But yes, the man has to win now. He needs to be competitive. This is what that looks like, although Benen thinks those who are impressed by Gingrich now should be wary:

Gingrich eventually talked the movement leaders out of it, brought them back into the fold by making a bunch of promises, and then proceeded to ignore the religious right all over again. All the while, Gingrich was conducting his personal life in … how do I put this gently … an ungodly kind of way.

And now he wants to hold himself out as the paragon of all things Christian? Please.

But maybe being the paragon of all things Christian is not what Gingrich is telegraphing here. This may be a display of a different sort – he is a Real Competitor. He’ll maintain the outrageous, just to show he’s a real winner, like Rick Scott or whatever.

But that’s not all he said:

“I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9,” Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

Steve Benen comments again:

Now, I’m not a theologian, but I’m fairly certain that a country cannot be atheistic and dominated by radical Islamists at the same time. This has something to do with the fact that they’re complete opposites. But putting aside Gingrich’s jaw-dropping foolishness, let’s also note the audience. More to the point, who Gingrich was talking to was every bit as interesting as what he said.

In this case, the former House Speaker was sharing his unique brand of idiocy at a San Antonio ministry called Cornerstone Church.

And now we’re talking John Hagee – in 2008 John McCain sought out Hagee’s support but was finally forced to disavow and actually repudiate Hagee’s endorsement. And Benen cites Jamil Smith with this:

Mr. Hagee’s name should ring a bell. He is the Texas megachurch pastor that, as Mother Jones reminds us today, senator John McCain couldn’t escape fast enough in 2008 after news of his endorsement brought forth revelations (natch) that Hagee blamed gays for Hurricane Katrina and called Catholicism a “false cult” and a contributor to Hitler’s anti-Semitism.

Basically Hagee believes Jews are to blame for everything that has happened to them – they didn’t believe Jesus – and of course the Roman Catholic Church is “the great whore” – that emphasis on Mary is just so very wrong. And Hitler and the Nazis had operated on God’s behalf – to set up the war that set things straight, as God had planned all along. And Hagee has said God is using Muslim terrorists to massacre Americans – because the United States supports a two-state solution in Israel, and God hates that. Everyone knows all this.

They do? Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, does not, as for as one can tell. But Newt Gingrich needs John Hagee to win. You do what you must to win. He’s showing his party he’ll do just that.

Andrew Sullivan has a different take:

So we’re facing a secular socialist Islamism? Run that by me one more time, will you? And this, I think, is where Gingrich gets his otherwise absurd reputation for being an intellectual.

What he does is grasp constantly for huge, world-historical theories and systems in order to situate himself in the present. Doubt rattles him; moderation befuddles him; pragmatism offends him. Only Great Ideas appeal. But he is too emotional to separate his feelings from his thoughts in all this (a human failing but one to be resisted as best one can). And so the content of the ideas becomes secondary to their political usefulness. Only then – when Gingrich sees himself as utterly right and, duh, winning – does he feel comfortable.

And of Gingrich’s recent actual conversion Sullivan adds this:

His conversion to nineteenth-century Catholicism is the kind of thing a Marxist/neocon would do in the 21st Century. What else today has the appeal of total truth in which the tension between faith and politics is reconciled entirely? Apart, of course, from Islamism.

Yes, maybe so, but Matthew Yglesias gets to the heart of the matter:

I think it’s important to actually understand what Gingrich is saying here and not just make fun of him for contradicting himself. This speaks, I think, quite accurately to what the conservative movement in the United States is about – the identity politics of middle aged white suburban conformists.

And here’s the puzzle:

Note that Jesus Christ was not an American patriot. Indeed, there was no United States of America at the time the Gospels were written down. Nor were the early Christians some kind of Roman nationalists. But American conservatives are both Christians and Americans and it’s important to them to affirm these identities simultaneously, even though it makes a bit of a hash of things. This is also why in the United States loud proclamations of Christian faith are typically associated with enormous belief in the beneficent possibilities of organized violence, but only among Christians who are also white people.

And here’s the solution:

You have to think of “America” in Gingrich’s eyes as constituting not so much a place as a specific tribe of people. The concern is that tribe of people might all go secular, which will leave the country exposed to takeover by radical Islamists. This is what many conservatives appear to believe has happened in Europe. A place like France has supposedly managed to both go secular and also be ground zero for Eurabia. Those two things are causally related because secularism enfeebled France by undermining support for Christian patriotic militarism, and they’re non-contradictory because French Muslims aren’t “really” French. This is how it gets to be the case that overturning marriage equality in Iowa is somehow a blow against the threat of creeping sharia.

Does that make sense? Of course not – but real competitors don’t worry about what makes sense. They just win.

Old-line conservatives, the Edmund Burke kind, are now feeling forlorn, and may share Andrew Sullivan’s dilemma:

I now find myself largely opposed to most Republicans and in favor of a Democratic president, as an even-tempered pragmatist. But I have not re-imagined myself as a leftist. Others have, of course, but I wince a little every time.

It’s tough, especially on one issue:

Take the issue of taxes – and you see where the right-left paradigm is totally insufficient to the occasion.

Income tax rates are now lower than they were under Ronald Reagan and far lower than they were under Eisenhower. And yet it has become a Norquistian non-negotiable that no taxes can be raised at all on anyone, let alone the beneficiaries of the last thirty years – and those who differ must be “leftists” – even when the US is facing debt of historic and dangerous proportions. Someone advocating what Eisenhower was perfectly comfortable with would be regarded by the Republican right today as a communist. And yet, of course, Eisenhower was emphatically not a Communist, whatever the John Birch society believed. In retrospect, he might even be seen as the most successful small-c conservative of the 20th century.

Of course those who view Obama as some kind of hero of the left should also feel uncomfortable, given what Glenn Greenwald lays out here:

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% – from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest received a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, “the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.”

Sullivan:

Conservatism cannot be defined as whatever is the most extreme right-wing narrative of the moment. Time matters. Conservatism needs to be flexible enough a governing philosophy to be able to correct for conservative ideology itself. When such an ideology threatens fiscal balance, a prudent foreign policy, and a thriving middle class, it has become the enemy of real conservatism, not its friend.

But that’s not a winning attitude. And that makes Joe Klein quite unhappy:

This is my 10th presidential campaign, Lord help me. I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party’s banner. They are the most compelling argument I’ve seen against American exceptionalism. …

There are those who say, cynically, if this is the dim-witted freak show the Republicans want to present in 2012, so be it. I disagree. One of them could get elected. You never know. Mick Huckabee, the front-runner if you can believe it, might have to negotiate a trade agreement, or a defense treaty, with the Indonesian President some day. Newt might have to discuss very delicate matters of national security with the President of Pakistan. And so I plead, as an unflinching American patriot – please Mitch Daniels, please Jeb Bush, please run. I may not agree with you on most things, but I respect you. And you seem to respect yourselves enough not to behave like public clowns.

And Kevin Drum comments:

I don’t know about Jeb, but I agree that Mitch Daniels seems like he ought to be a decent candidate. He’s a genuine conservative, not a RINO sellout, but also not a wingnut. He’s a Midwesterner, has experience in the Bush administration, and commands a fair amount of establishment respect. Not my cup of tea, obviously, but his background ought to be appealing to a fair number of Republicans.

But the usual question remains: how does he get through the primaries? When he hops over to Iowa, they’ll expect him to denounce sharia law, make jokes about Obama’s Kenyan birth, throw himself wholeheartedly into the culture wars, pretend that global warming is a liberal conspiracy, and make dire remarks about the specter of socialism taking over America. In other words, he’ll have to act like a public clown, and if he doesn’t do it, he’ll lose.

So it’s pretty much a no-win scenario for him. If he’s smart, he’ll wait for 2016 and hope that the Republican Party has come to its senses by then.

But maybe that won’t happen. The party here has become a tribe, and the identity politics of middle-aged white suburban conformists is the order of the day. Parties have platforms, with specific policy goals. Tribes have totems and myths. Policy hardly matters.

But something is up, as Americans have now decided that Fox News isn’t exactly a reliable source:

In the space of one year, Fox News has lost its perch as the most trusted TV news network in the US and is now average at best, a new survey has found.

A poll gauging public trust in TV news has found that PBS is the most trusted name in news, while trust in Fox News has dropped significantly.

According to a survey from Public Policy Polling, “a year ago a plurality of Americans said they trusted Fox News. Now a plurality of them don’t.”

In a survey taken a year ago, PPP found that Fox was the most trusted news network, with 49 percent saying they trusted the network, and 37 percent saying they did not. In the new poll, 42 percent said they trusted the network while 46 percent disagreed.

PPP notes that trust in the network declined only marginally among conservatives, from 75 percent to 72 percent. “But moderates and liberals have both had a strong increase in their level of distrust for the network – a 12-point gain from 48 percent to 60 percent for moderates and a 16-point gain from 66 percent to 82 percent for liberals,” the institute reported.

That had to happen. As the tribe contracts, excluding the heretics who question the myths, and don’t worship the totems, and as it chooses its win-by-any-means warrior-leader, many fail to see the charm in all this. They’re out of there. Yes, maybe everyone loves a winner, but context is everything.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Identity Politics, Newt Gingrich, Republicans in the Wilderness, Tribalism in American Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Identity Politics of Middle Aged White Suburban Conformists

  1. Motorod says:

    Great piece. Keep up the good work. I’ll be posting this elsewhere, eveyhwhere.

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