In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a â€œpost-racialâ€ society was never going to happen.Â Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the presidentâ€™s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, â€œsocialistâ€ health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.
The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship,Â and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called â€œanchor babiesâ€), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values. Â Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.
The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-â€œbig governmentâ€ sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.
The irony is that the Rightâ€™s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops Â from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters. Â Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections.Â
Hence, in the current context of an impending â€œdouble dipâ€ recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called â€œculture warsâ€ consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice. Â The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.
Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working Â classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual â€œresponsibility,â€ â€œfree enterpriseâ€ and â€œfreedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-styleÂ rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.
There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive. Â A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic Â and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Cristâ€™s presence.
Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its â€œsmall governmentâ€ origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.
The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a â€œmosqueâ€ close to Ground Zero is a â€œprovocation.â€ Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the â€œprovocationâ€ to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh). Â In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Womenâ€™s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tillerâ€™s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero â€œmosqueâ€ (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).
Nor has the â€œprovocationâ€ argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the â€œprovocationâ€ argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese â€œsneak attackâ€ brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.
In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.
The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad. Â That means that international conflict, in its â€œclash of civilisationsâ€™ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.
Then there is the final implication: unitedÂ they will stand, or dividedÂ they will fall.