Sunday, March 23, 2008

sense of threatened tribalism

I saw the title of this post as a phrase this morning at Glenn Greewald's digs over at I agree with his assessment that there is "no better phrase to describe the animating feature of the modern Limbaugh/Kristol/Fox News conservative faction." Period. Over at my old site, I have called it the "Dixie Stench" because the particular flavor of crypto-racist, persecution-complexed Christo-fascism that has fused itself so thoroughly to the very DNA of the GOP (the political arm of the modern conservative movement), is a direct descendant of the violently racist political culture of the post-confederate south. This is the long-term fallout from Nixon's odious "Southern Strategy" wherein the knuckledragging, mouth-breathing bigots of Old Dixie were told, while still seething about a full decade of federal intervention in their "traditional" way of life, that they had friends in the (former) Party of Lincoln. Of course, this seduction and pandering on the part of the GOP didn't become overt until the 1980 campaign when Saint Ronnie of the Ray-Gun deliberately used the phrase "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi as a dog-whistle signal to the southern racists - a scant sixteen years after three Civil Rights workers had died there while trying to overcome the awful legacy that jingoistic political formulation circumscribes.

Which brings me to Bill Clinton.

Make no mistake, when a white, southern man stands in front of a crowd of white people in a place as rigidly old-fashioned as a VFW hall in a state that was among the first to secede and last to rejoin the Union, and says, in his best Arkansas drawl, this (bold face mine)...

"I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country,
And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics." means exactly what you would think it means if you were as ungenerous as possible in interpreting it. Doubt me? Watch the video.

As Bob Cesca says over at his place "you can see his sly little smile as he says "other stuff"." Also note that he uses the phrase OUR politics, a very loaded phrase when uttered by a white southerner to other white southerners about a black person. Bill Clinton knows that. He is playing directly to the sense of threatened tribalism.

Now, I've had fights with my family. All of you know this about me. During the entire Clinton presidency, but particularly in the fall of 2000, I had screaming fights over politics in the living room of my parent's house where things were said that have over time come to erode and ultimately diminish our relationship. One of those fights involved pointing out to my father, who grew up dirt poor in West Texas, got himself college-educated, into the middle class and married with two successful children despite the class-based limitations of his upbringing, that Bill Clinton is the embodiment of the American Dream - a brilliant and intellectually curious kid who grew up dirt-poor without a father in a two-room shack in Arkansas became President of the United States and would lead the country during an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity - the essence of the class-blind, meritocratic American ideal. Mister Smith in Washington and all of that. George W. Bush is the embodiment of the un-American Dream - a dimwitted and incurious spoiled brat who used his family name and connections to avoid any adult responsibilities or consequences for his actions, amass an unearned fortune and achieve the White House (again unearned - twice) where he lead the country into a waking nightmare of squandered blood and treasure in wars of personal vanity to the financial benefit of his cohorts and financed on the backs of the poor - the essence of the very worst of Old Europe's aristocracy. We had a revolution over just those sorts of things, if I recall, but I have never been able to convince my father of any of this. To him, Dubya is a good ol' boy from West Texas, just like him. And Bill Clinton is a Lib'ruhl.

And he buys it because Dubya and the slick GOP operatives who manufactured his good ol' boy image understand how to tap into that very tribal ideal, about which Digby has been writing for years and which is finally getting enough intellectual currency out in the lefty inter-webs to catch on with a leading light like Glenn Greenwald.

Bill Clinton, being the bright guy that he is, understands all of this - whether overtly or intuitively I cannot say - and he used that notion of the "threatened tribalism" in that speech he gave to tap into that part of the GOP lizard brain against a fellow Democrat who happens to be dark-skinned, for the benefit of his wife. That act (amid all his and his wife's other attacks on Obama) reveals the true nature of the political climate in Washington - that we actually have three major political classes in America, but only two formal "Party" representations to encompass them: the Ruling Class, the Bureaucratic Class and Labor.
  1. The Ruling Class is self-explanatory - either a group of entitled individuals either with inherited wealth who cast a longing eye to the old aristocracy of Europe and resent democracy, or with "earned" wealth and a wildly inflated sense of their own potency as rockstar C.E.O.'s or captains of industry or Nietzschean supermen. They have most of the money but are at a steep numerical disadvantage in a democracy. In Britain they would be called the Tories. In America, the GOP is their party.

  2. Labor means more than just labor unions. It is what used to be meant by blue collar, working class and working poor. It also includes immigrants and service industry wage slaves. They may have numerical advantage in a democracy, but little money or time to be involved in politics, a hole once filled by Big Labor but now exploited by the other classes. The Renfields from the Bureaucratic Class, along with their collaborators from Labor, have been able to break up this group along racial and tribal lines in a very successful, multi-generational divide-and-conquer campaign most saliently detailed in "What's the Matter With Kansas." The Democrats should be their party but they have been successfully sub-divided along mostly racial lines between D's & R's.

  3. The Bureaucratic Class is most often mis-identified as the "swing voters" or middle class. In an earlier day, they would have been known as "The Merchant Class" or the bourgeoisie. These people range from office-tower cubicle drones to temp workers to the Creative Class to small business entrepreneurs to school teachers and college professors to government office clerks to middle management in industry across the United States. They are the cogs-and-gears of the vast machinery of our economy, the million little pieces that allow the whole system to operate. They are its greatest beneficiaries, and to some greater or lesser small extent, complicit in its crimes. They can be Dems or Rethugs, depending on how they self-identify - which is itself a function of biography, perceived social mobility and various historical socio-regional influences. It is also the most fluid and permeable group. New members of the Ruling Class almost exclusively derive from this group while old members of the Ruling Class arrive (though they usually stop) here when in social decline. Fresh blood from Labor arrives here occasionally but usually very tenuously (a long trip up and a short trip back down) and rarely move beyond. Especially under Rethugli-bot rule, people drop out of this group far more frequently than they join it. Under the programs of the New Deal, this group flourished to unprecedented levels, and since Saint Ronnie, they have been in steep decline - which should make them the natural allies of the Democrats, except that it doesn't for reasons that have been examined ad nauseum across the inter-tubes for almost a decade now.
Which brings me to another point I have made off and on the last couple of years. I have argued, as have others, that the choice between the two parties is not like a choice between a red car and a blue car, or the red team and the blue team. The neat labels of liberal and conservative or Left and Right are not descriptive enough for the complex world we live in. What we are talking about is such a fundamental difference in belief about Life and how to live it, about the nature of Truth and how it is obtained, about how society should be structured and who should benefit from its products, about who should live and who should die, that to reduce party affiliation to one's stance on whether the boys should be allowed to kiss each other is the height of distraction politics.

But over the last 40 years, the Renfields have waged a very successful PR campaign in the form of a ginned-up "culture war" (in order to disguise a class war already fought and won by the other side) that grew out of Southern racial animosity and cross-regional resentments, then spread across the country along racial and class lines, resulting in a world where my formulation of the GOP as a coalition comprised of "The Stupid, The Deluded and The Corrupt" is the dominant party of the land. If we only evaluate our politics as Left or Right, the triptych doesn't make any sense. But if we can see it as class-based, then from Labor comes those too stupid to know the GOP is fucking them over (I should say "ignorant" but "stupid" scans better), while the Bureaucrats provide those too deluded to understand they are not part of the Ruling Class and the Ruling Class itself almost entirely provides those too ethically and morally compromised to give a shit about anything except enjoying the fruits of their own corruption. We are ruled by a group of people who resent accountability and are largely detached from reality or the consequences of their actions. Reality does have a well-known liberal bias.

So, along comes William Jefferson Clinton, that rare animal who has been able to successfully leave Labor for the Ruling Class. His impeachment witch-hunt was both a punishment meted out by the Ruling Class for forgetting his place and an induction ceremony of sorts - a test and rite of passage - which he obviously passed as we now see him and Poppy Bush hangin' out around the golf course.

As a full-fledged member of the Ruling Class, he has clearly forgotten his roots as fully as my father, and I believe that he and his wife now see themselves as having so successfully leveraged the apparatus of the Democratic ""brand" over the last several decades to their own personal political advantage as to now be synonymous with "Democrat." Bill and Hillary Clinton really do think of the Democratic Party as their own personal route to respectability within the rarified air of the Halls of American Power, except that rather than making their fortune in oil or timber or, say, collaboration with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis (I'm looking at you, Prescott Bush) - a fortune made in exploitation of some commodity - they've made their social and political fortune as a kind of political service provider to the Ruling Class by re-engineering the Party of the Left and delivering unto the Ruling Class a pliant, apologetic, capitulatory Blue Team - for the kinder, gentler aristocrat. Why else do you think Hillary has been siding with McCain? She sees herself as part of the same social class. As the reigning queen of the Blue Team, she genuinely, honestly thinks it is quite simply her turn and Obama is just an upstart who should wait in fucking line, make his bones and pay his goddamned dues. That's why she saw no irony whatsoever in magnanimously offering him the veep position a few weeks ago, despite being hopelessly behind by every measurable indicator. "L'Democrats, c'est moi," indeed.

Going even further, Bill resents the hell out of this new guy who is challenging his wife's bid for immortality because not only does he see himself as the first in a long line of future rulers (along which his wife would be the next natural step until Chelsea can make a go at it - ad infinitum), at a personal level this slender, handsome, charismatic rising star is a challenge to Bill's legendary virility, his status as "The Big Dog" and de facto leader of the Democratic Party, the very source of his power and respectability. While a Hillary administration would obviously deepen and strengthen his primacy as the Greatest Living Democrat (possibly all the way into immortality), an Obama presidency would signal the end of it and his reversion to (by way of his wife's failed presidential bid) just another Democrat with a vague presidential history - just another Carter or Kerry. He wants to enjoy his time at the top unsullied by a natural rival. The fact that the brewing conflict between the two is taking on racial overtones is incidental, I think, because for Bill it is simply about having the biggest dick in the party. The fact that Al Gore has found his own path to a parallel super-celebrity he can dismiss as merely the social striving of a nerd who never was quite as cool as him, but the easy charm and sex appeal of Barack Obama is harder to attack because it is a direct threat to the underpinnings of his manhood, a real and present danger to his perceived and, frankly, deliberately engineered social standing in the social galaxy of the Ruling Super Class.

Which is why he is pulling out all the stops and triangulating like hell, just like he did fifteen years ago along class lines, this time along racial ones. As a poor boy from rural Arkansas, the lower reaches of the Labor Class, he has fought and dug and scratched his way to the top, to membership in the Ruling Class, and he now intends to pull up the ladder behind him.

We can't let him or his wife win this one. This is bigger than the both of them. I leave the final words to Frank Schaeffer at Huffington Post:
Obama offers civility in the midst of a drunken national bar fight. Obama speaks in complete sentences, well-turned paragraphs, offers thoughts with intellectual depth, nuance, humility and compassion.


By providence or blind luck, we are being given a second chance. In Obama our founders appear once again stepping from the mists of time to offer a wayward great, great grandchild an opportunity for redemption.


If we squander this undeserved reprieve and choose business-as-usual, if we don't elevate ourselves out of our self-made mire, we will step into a future of steep and steady decline and war without end. It won't matter if you are right or left. It won't matter if the Republicans or the Democratic Party wins. We will all lose.

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