In the US, a return to primordialism.

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen.  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 president’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, “socialist” 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,  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 “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values.  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-“big government” 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 Right’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  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.  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. 

Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” 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 “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice.  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  classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” 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-style 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.  A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic  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 Crist’s presence.

Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” 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 “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” 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).  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 Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’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 “mosque” (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 “provocation” 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 “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” 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.  That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ 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: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.

18 thoughts on “In the US, a return to primordialism.

  1. The ‘ugly American’ is back in numbers eh. The inevitable consequence among many contributing debasements, of low participation in politics and community affairs and an appalling “Orwellesque” US media system. Now leaping ahead a bit here…

    ‘Primordial’ is exactly what is not needed to usefully approach the overfamiliar, but still scary suspects. Peak oil, climate change, stumbling finance capital, and nation states (including several US states), close to actual bankruptcy. Constant growth, resource hogging, and innovation needed by capitalism just to operate will objectively not be possible for many more years.

    Things could turn quickly-no more “too big to fail” taxpayer bailouts, infrastructure, civic and banking system collapses.
    Some adcademics, activists and countries are starting to seriously re examine and explore marxist thinking and economics along with low growth and other scenarios, but the more likely outcome seems a grim futurist/survivalist response from populations re-regionalised, rather than a global co-operative, socialist, ‘green’ influenced direction.

    Think old movies “Waterworld, Soylent Green, Bladerunner” Chuck in “Gattacca” as well as there are sure to be colonies of insulated bright young things still around while the rest of us try and avoid Mel Gibson (as in Mad Max).

    How can one be too hard on the US people though (as opposed to Fox News, military industrial, Wall St etc) when our own NZ population is subject to similar atomisation and oppression albeit on a smaller scale and minus the saturation religious bigotry. False counciousness is certainly a modern political plague. Thanks for the thought provoking report Pablo.

  2. What people like GIngrich seem to miss is that there is actually no law forbidding waving around a Japanese Imperial flag at Pearl Harbour. You can argue that the mosque is in poor taste but the Constitution and the law built on it are extraordinarily specific.

  3. Indeed Hugh:

    The stupidity of the GOP’s self-professed intellectual leader is Palinesque. To say nothing of his moral hypocrisy. But he and those other paragons of moral virtue, Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove, get major air time on conservative media outlets. This would be laughable except for the stakes involved.

    TM: There is a certain “Rome before the Fall” aura to the diversionary political discourse in the US, although I must say that there appears to be a growing backlash to the more egregious rightwing abuses of freedom of speech used to attack freedoms of association, movement and worship on the part of scapegoated “others.”

  4. I think Gingrich has actually out-Palined Palin here, since when I last looked she wasn’t going so far as to say the mosque was illegal. Possibly this is his attempt to outmaneuver her in the 2012 primaries.

  5. The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight.

    From a security perspective, have there been any reports of increased recruitment/activity of the 3xK ilk?

    I suppose one fortunate side-effect of recent law changes (e.g. patriot act), would be the improved ability to track and restrict that sort of activity.

    …they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.”blockquote>

    This reminds me of a comment you made in a scoop article a few years ago (might be several years ago…) about the potential for self-fulfillment of one WP’s immigration/security scaremongering- this controversy makes me feel that the issue is already a small victory for AQ; and failure to complete the project might well serve to further embitter/recruit US residents.

  6. Dylan:

    I am not sure about KKK recruitment but I do know that gun sales and white citizen militia formation have increased significantly since Obama took office. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the Media 7 interview about wikileaks (referenced in my “Shameless Self-Promotion Alert” post of a few weeks ago), the expansion of the US internal security apparatus has not led to better detection of white supremicist plots (although it has uncovered a few) because a) there is a lack of coordination between the multiple agencies and bureaucratic levels in the local-state-federal hierarchy; and b) the overwhelming focus is on uncovering jihadist cells and plans rather than the full specturm of armed irregular activity (the second priority appears to be environmental activists rather than racist organisations).

    As for the self-fufilling prophecy scenario that I wrote about in Scoop a few years back (“Scapegoating in the Political Gutter”), which alluded to WP’s attempts to ostrasize the NZ Muslim community for political gain: I have always believed that 9/11 was a “sucker ploy” played out on a grand scale. The intention was to get the US to militarilly overreact and show its true anti-Muslim colours in response to the provocation. Sadly, it has done both, and in each case the sucker’s response was led by conservative Republicans (W. Bush with his “bring it on,” no-holds-barred approach to the invasion of Iraq, and the likes of Gingrich, Palin and the Fox barking dogs with regards to fomenting anti-Muslim hatred).

    Old time realists like Kissinger, as well as liberal civil libertarians, must be shaking their heads in disbelief at the utter and counterproductive stupidity of these moves–and yet the drumbeat of hate-mongering goes on.

  7. Very interesting discussion. I have been reading about the Cold War arms race of nuclear weapons [for what I hope to explore in my Masters Degree 2011] and the authors noted, courageously I might add, the apartheid attitude of US administrations when wanting its hegemonic grip on nuclear weapons. I am quite astounded that you mentioned a similar attitude, apartheid, in things political from the Neocons, or conservatives who fear socialism as a disease. It’s really about a failure to recognize responsibility of a government is to look after the sick, poor, unemployed etc. That’s not socialism. That’s responsibility. Human Security even (UNDP 1994 as example)

    The same can be said for ethnic integration. Apartheid, in the case of what you explained in your post, is ethnic cleansing on a non-violence platform. Same thing, different vehicle. Except it’s all chatter and no brains (or bullets yet). On the question of the Mosque issue in NY, I’d have to say, it’s quite ugly when you see the photos of protesters against the idea of Ground Zero being ‘contaminated’.

    I also think you are being quite brave to point out these ugly, open to the air attitudes in your country.

  8. Quentin:

    There are still plenty of fair minded people in the US, so I have not lost hope yet.

    WASP is an old acronym that stands for White Anglo Saxon Protestant. It was very much in vogue during the Nixon era when he purported to represent the “silent majority” of Americans, who were in his mind all WASPs (as opposed to hippies, yippes, Black Panthers, Commies, Weathermen, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), draft-dodgers, drug addicts and assorted other non-white and anti-Christian riff-raff).

  9. Regarding Fox and other right wing media, writer Dave Neiwert claims “[this is] probably the most significant major-media endorsement of American fascist ideology since the 1930s.”


    Beck has been at the forefront of the anti-intellectual campaign which shows no signs of abating as you say.

    Do you think Neiwert is exaggerating Pablo? I’m interested in your thoughts on that. Certainly ‘Progressives’ are the new Jews – although Beck is a Protocols of Zion conspiracist as well so anti- semitism is never too far away from the surface.

  10. As the old saying goes-“what goes around, comes around”

    I have never been able to comprehend the idea that everyone and all beliefs and all movements are equal.

    For some years now (several decades) the western world had been in a state of self delusion over the concept of equality. The theory was that men, women, gays, blacks, hispanics, chinese, etc – were all equal.

    Only a complete fool would actually believe this.

    Yet we’ve had decades of equality laws – and theyve all contributed not one iota to mankinds advance. Sure the world is different due to these laws, but I dont think on balance that the black residents of Louisiana think they are really any better off (relatively) than they would have been 50 years ago. And I doubt that (again on balance) that western women really think they are better off than their mothers. Their mothers will live longer than they will, todays women will go into old age mostly as lonely single people, their children will be spread over several households and they will mostly not have a partner to help and support them. They will also be broke.

    These realities are starting to dawn on populations around the world. They are starting to think those terrible un-PC conclusions to themselves. Theyre silently saying to themselves “Equality, my arse”

    And backlashes can tend to be a bit over-the-top. This is what we are seeing in the US today. No one is actually saying out loud things like “Obama is black – so what else would you expect” or “What the hell do we think we are doing in Afganistan – why just we dont shot anyone who looks like trouble, and then leave the dump of a place to rot”

    No, instead what we are seeing is those people latching onto anything that will allow them to express their frustrations at the situation. This allows them to challenge or accuse or simply insult anyone and anything that is associated with these (generally) liberal politically correct concepts. These concepts include (along side the vague idea of equality) such ideas as ‘tolerance’.

    Ive always felt that there are only two types of tolerance. One is involved with prople who are traing for something – like learning to drive. They will make mistakes, but they will get better with more effort. One has to be tolerant during this process.

    The other type of tolerance is where one is asked or expected to include or allow for others habits. This is mostly in the area of cultural practices. You know “Lets celebrate our cultural differences”.
    Well such ideas leaves most people cold. In fact most people see it as a lowering of standards (even if thats not how they express it).
    And this is another underlying theme in whats happening in the US. All this ‘multiculturalism’ is actually seen by most US citizens as reduced standards.

    And good ole US citizens – as isolated and insular as they are – dont like these foreign things.

  11. Well done barry for a rambling and illogical celebration of intolerance that acts as a fitting confirmation of Pablo’s observations.

  12. Pingback: DrawingSilence » Archive » Kiwipolitico article

  13. Thanks Tom – I feel much better for your comments. It just confirms my observations…………………..

  14. As a bit of an aside a few right wingers on other sites that I frequent were quite taken aback but this video of a teabagger protest in NY.
    I know it’s not representative of the majority of the Teabag fringe but still the movement seems to be dragging all kinds of nastiness out of the closet.
    To me I think this is needed, to get this out in the open rather than let to fester out of sight, at least when it’s in your face like this it is easier to identify, confront and correct.
    Question is are they willing and able to do so?

    Who’d want to be a sole black man at one of these events?

  15. Regarding the youtube view. There was nothing in it except free protest. At least in the USA that sort of protest is encouraged while here we shy away from it weakly.
    The site of the centre or mosque or whatever is totally inappropriate and everyone knows that. The people behind it are pushing for what the local people do not want and that is just wrong. And yes I saw the CNN interview with the imam. I cannot say it filled me with any peace.

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