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A group of lefties spark a protest movement, a movement that's clashing with police, yet it is nonetheless receiving widespread public support, praise from establishment Democrats, and relatively respectful coverage in the corporate media. It's also defying the efforts of conservatives to denigrate and stigmatize it; in fact, some Republicans are so flummoxed as to how the respond that they're choosing to halfway embrace it.

George Wallace may finally be dead for real.

As we all know, the contemporary incarnation of conservative populism has been a powerful political force for four decades. Along with its partner in crime, corporate power, it's made conservatism the country's dominant political ideology. It was born when right-wing pols began to sell the notion that liberals and the Democratic Party were out-of-step with the "real America." Jon Meacham gets it sort of right here (which is more right than he usually gets it.)

Roughly put, the white backlash against civil rights and an increasingly expensive government enabled politicians such as Richard Nixon — who is really the architect of the kind of populism still practiced by figures like Sarah Palin — to change the conversation from economics to culture. For decades now, Republicans have successfully urged Truman’s “little guy” to think more about cultural elites than financial ones. (George Wallace’s “pointy-headed professors,” for instance, or Roger Ailes’s “liberal media.”) Democrats who talked about economic justice were marginalized or defeated outright. And so cultural populism displaced economic populism as a political force in American life.

I'd say Wallace and not Nixon is the "architect" of modern conservative populism; Nixon's "Silent Majority" and 'Southern Strategy" had roots in Wallace's presidential campaigns. Also Meacham, while overstating the significance of "expensive government" in the birth of conservative populism, ignores the societal rift caused by the Vietnam War; next to race, national security has been the cultural issue most effectively exploited by the right.

More egregiously, Meacham overlooks Democrats' aiding-and-abetting role, saying "Democrats who talked about economic justice were marginalized or defeated outright." In fact, Democrats, cowed by the GOP's populism, stopped talking about economic justice and allowed themselves to be marginalized. As Kevin Baker points out, the Democrats, themselves reeling from the upheaval of the sixties, internalized the right's critique, with disastrous results.

It turned out not to be necessary for the right to actually become populist. Absorbing the old cant now constantly echoed by an intimidated or captive mass media—that liberals are naïve, impractical, “out of the mainstream”—Democratic leaders fell for the idea that the right represented the true will of the people and acted accordingly... Assuming a posture of helplessness before the Republicans’ fraudulent Populism, the Democrats acquiesced to and assisted in bundling up the nation’s industrial base and shipping it overseas—a policy that shut down the working class escalator to a better life, gutted the unions, and deprived liberals of their main source of political power.

And Dems also began to woo Wall Street beginning with Jimmy Cater, who deregulated the banks. Of course, it was Bill Clinton who made Wall Street a dominant player inside the party. (At the same time, Clinton tried to blunt the GOP's conservative populism by becoming something of a conservative populist himself.)

Due in part to the Dems' scared shuffle to the right, the GOP rode conservative populism to terrific heights. You know the drill. Welfare queens. Willie Horton. Card-carrying member of the ACLU. Kerry windsurfing. It's the subtext, if not text itself, of every GOP presidential campaign, as well as thousands of Congressional ones: the Democrat (the "liberal," whether or not the label applies) represents "them," not "us," even if the GOP candidate is, say, a Hollywood actor or the son of a Senator or a draft-dodging, coke-snorting Yalie son of a President.

The first big sign that conservative populism had lost its fastball was the election of Barack Obama. They tried to depict him as un-American, as foreign, as Other, as an Ivy Leaguer. The race card wasn't a trump card. They energized and enraged the GOP base, but they didn't convince a critical mass of Americans that Barack Obama is not one of "us."

The purpose of conservative populism is simple: to divide. Black from white. Working class from the poor. Men from women. Cultural progressives from cultural moderates. The religious from the secular. When your agenda benefits a miniscule fraction of the electorate, you have no choice but to divide, to keep people squabbling while you stuff your pockets with cash. If people were to unite according to their economic interests, you would be cooked.

That's what's happening now, or beginning to happen. The "We are the 99 percent" message is so potent because it highlights economic inequality and binds the overwhelming majority of Americans together, transcending all the mostly superficial divisions that conservatives and corporations seek to exploit. It's a bullet to the heart of conservative populism, and that noise your hear are the cries of the oligarchs.

As the financial powers feel their control of the country slipping, they will try to trigger a backlash. The pundits and politicians who serve them will go back to their old playbook, because they have no other. At the moment they're trying to depict the movement as anti-Semitic. When that fails, they will claim it is communist and anti-American. Researchers on the right are feverishly looking into the backgrounds and affiliations of people involved in the movement. Some of the divides in American culture aren't superficial. Tribalism runs deep, as does prejudice, and conservatives will as always try to use them to their advantage.

They will fail. They will fail because conservatism has succeeded. The corporate-funded right has transferred so much wealth to the rich that the middle class and formerly middle class have become (even more) populist.

[T]he nation’s businesses have illegally, callously, and systematically abused their workers in a time of increased global competition and technological change, while government protection of workers’ rights has significantly weakened...The longstanding distinction between the blue-collar and white-collar worker has been blurred. Good blue-collar jobs are disappearing rapidly as manufacturing industries decline; but many new white-collar jobs pay poorly, provide minimal health care and pension benefits, and offer little job security.

The suffering is so widespread, and the injustice so blatant, that more and more Americans are directing their anger not downward but upward, finally finally finally, at the people who've gotten staggeringly rich at the expense of the great majority.

The Occupy Wall Street protests at last suggest that America’s wealth gap is once again becoming an organizing political principle in the country.


To be clear, I'm not saying that OWS will prevail: who would dare predict victory given the power it's up against? I'm saying the right wing will not succeed in marginalizing this movement by portraying it as out of the mainstream. Because we are the 99 percent.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Digby has a somehwhat different take, although (11+ / 0-)

    I don't think it's incompatible with mine:

    I'm feeling like a Cassandra again, just as I did in 2008 when Obamamania was at its height and everyone was insisting that politics had been transformed for all time. I'm sure I'll be just as unpopular now as I was then, but here goes:

    While I love Matt Taibbi and I think this piece is right on in many ways, I hope that people involved in Occupy Wall Street don't start to bullshit themselves into believing that there is not going to be a reaction to all this and that the reaction is likely to be powerful --- and polarizing. The people in power know very well how to push the buttons that need pushing.

    This is a beautiful moment full of promise. And we should do everything we can to maximize the numbers and create solidarity while the reaction is gathering its forces. But the idea that it is so transformative that the laws of politics, power and human nature don't apply is a familiar form of self-delusion that's frankly reminiscent of the Obama campaign ... and the Tea Party. I thought we'd learned our lesson.

    She's absolutely right that this movement grows there's going to be a massive effort to defeat it. But I firmly believe that the some of the buttons the right wing normally pushes aren't available to it.

    •  The views are compatible (8+ / 0-)

      in that Digby is warning about  manufactured "backlash."

      But the reality is even the backlash requires abandonment of "Conservative populism." You can't defend the elite while simultaneously attacking them.

      The question OWS is asking, nit directly of course, is, who is for Wall Street? Who is for the1%?

      Call them job creators, if they like, but it still requires defending Wall Street.

      Not an easy thing to do.

      It's like defending cutting Social Security and Medicare.

      •  Your diary overlaps with mine (6+ / 0-)

        Whatever OWS and related efforts manage to accomplish, I think it's safe to say we're at the beginning of a new era in American politics. (Or as one of the signs say: The Beginning is Near.)

        The right-wing and corporations will be victims of their own success. We can hope anyway.  

        •  I agree with you and with Digby (4+ / 0-)

          I don't think OWS is likely to prove the tsunami that sweeps away the old order, but like the protests in Madison, it is an important step forward in the shift from right-wing to left-wing populism.  

          To quibble with one line in your diary, the purpose of conservative populism is not simply to divide.  The purpose of conservative populism is to serve up scapegoats for people's dissatisfaction that draw their ire away from the oligarchs who are the root cause of that dissatisfaction.  Whether black or brown people, Jews, Commies, gays, pointy-headed liberals, Mooslims or whatever, the populace must be supplied with an endless stream of bright shiny objects to distract them from their growing economic and political disenfranchisement.

          The economic situation for most Americans is getting so dire that distractions and scapegoats are losing their power to divert anger.  The oligarchs hoovering up so much of the nation's wealth, and so obviously pulling the strings in Washington, are ever more clearly the enemy, and it is the job of left-wing populism to deliver the Eat the Rich message.  

          The war over blame will determine political fortunes for some years to come.  I like our chances in the end, but there are decades of propaganda to overcome and it won't come easy.

          Don't tell me what you believe. Tell me what you do and I'll tell you what you believe. --Meteor Blades

          by Dallasdoc on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 04:51:02 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hkpa, katiec, DaleA, david mizner

    Your last paragraph spoiled it for me though. I know you're right that no one can know for certain whether or not it will succeed but I refuse to let myself even consider failure. This thing sprang up like magic thanks to a handful of people that made up their mind to stand up and be heard no matter the consequences and now thousands have joined them, and still growing. It's the most amazing and surprising thing I've witnessed in my lifetime. Who could have predicted this a couple months ago? Certainly not me, it would have been just too much to hope for, my imagination isn't big enough to have believed in this awakening of the people.  But here it is and we're finally being heard and corporate America is pissing in their pants in harmony with the whole right wing. I can't stop smiling.  

  •  Excellent essay, David. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, david mizner

    More jobs equal less debt, even our kids can understand that.

    by TomP on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 04:24:18 PM PDT

  •  I also agree with you that it came (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, DaleA, dakinishir, david mizner

    from Wallace.  I remember.  I was 13 when he ran in 68.

    Conservative populism was born in racism, in a racist "backlash." and racism has always been a visible or or poorly hidden part of it.  

    More jobs equal less debt, even our kids can understand that.

    by TomP on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 04:26:45 PM PDT

  •  teabaggers & religious right are the RW populists (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, DaleA

    Conservative populism is thoroughly hijacked by the 1%, but there's very little that OWS could offer conservative populists besides reforming the most offensive aspects of debt-based "race to the bottom" globalized capitalism.

    These people are still conservatives.  They will still support "official" Christianity.  They will still oppose gay marriage and abortion.  They will still support most of the 1%'s economic agenda: tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, etc., if only out of blind principle.  They will still oppose most forms of social welfare spending.  They will still insist on government-led social engineering, and will reject the inclusion of all racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, etc. minorities in the national identity: they will only be allowed to live and work here.  The best you could get out of them is a deal to go back to the middle-class utopia of the Fifties and Sixties - for better or for worse - and maybe not even then once we start talking the particulars of powerful unions and 95% tax rates.

    Do you know why they call it the American Dream? Because it only happens when you're asleep.

    by Visceral on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 04:41:08 PM PDT

  •  I hope you're right, David (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    david mizner

    Your essay is terrific. As a historian, I think you're right on.

    My forthcoming book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity will be published in Summer 2012 by Potomac Books.

    by Ian Reifowitz on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 07:04:28 PM PDT

  •  interesting tidbit: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    david mizner

    I have read that the whole modern conservative populism / "southern strategy" sort of thing that people attribute to Nixon and/or Wallace actually started with William F. Buckley's quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965.  

    Everyone was expecting that he would get some votes from the wealthy elites and some other niches, but to the their surprise he actually did best among working class white ethnic voters, people who usually voted for the Democratic candidate.  Well enough, in fact, to swing the election away from the Democratic candidate and to Republican John Lindsay.

    Movement conservatism took notice, and the rest is history.

  •  Very good read - Thank you. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    david mizner

    "You can't always get what you want; but if you try sometimes...." - Rolling Stones

    by LamontCranston on Tue Oct 18, 2011 at 08:48:34 PM PDT

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