Poverty & the Making of American Politics

With the midterm elections fast approaching, the time is ripe for reflections on the changes wrought in the political landscape since Obama’s election nearly two years ago.  Such thinkpieces tend more towards the negative — though some are more balanced than others — but, invariably, much mention is made of ye olde Tea Party, that purportedly populist uprising that has so usurped the sociopolitical conversation of late.  There are many theories of the Tea Party, elaborate and historical accounts that likely contain a good bit of truth.  But if there is truly anything to be learned from the New York gubernatorial debate, it’s this: the Tea Party’s claims towards ownership of bread-and-butter economic concerns are patently false.  Carl Paladino, like Sarah Palin before him, has not made his name in the media by his coherent fiscal conservatism, but by his social conservatism; it was left to the comedic goldmine of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party to bring legitimate, everyday economic concerns to the table.

What obviously unites the Tea Partiers is a profound mistrust of government as a tool for social welfare, or for anything other than national security (which is one area where we really SHOULD be worried).  This is reflective, in large part, of the Tea Party’s relative affluence, whiteness, and maleness — this group, contrary its purported populism or inability to access power through means other than public demonstration, is simply opposed to any kind of vaguely redistributive government program.  Throughout most of the world, government is the ultimate and bluntest tool used to flatten the impact of capitalism upon the lives of its citizens, and populist protests occur more in support of that purpose than against it.

Any notion of governmental redistribution carries with it, in America, absolutely unavoidable entanglements with questions of race, and to suggest otherwise is deeply disingenuous.  For some explicit examples, we can look to Grist Magazine, a progressive online publications that deals with the environment.  Environmental issues may not seem a likely locus for age-old racial tensions to play out so clearly, but check out their reportage on our chronically underfunded school lunch programs.  If that doesn’t do it for you, how about a discussion of the old ‘cities versus suburbs’ debate?  The very fact that Obama is an urban president, who created a task force devoted to cities, would be enough to racialize his administration regardless of skin color.  For the most explicit admission of the racial politics involved in urban planning, try this interview on for size.  William Lind is a conservative champion of public transit, but of a particular kind: only rail, never bus.  Why?  Because, as he openly describes in the interview, black people use buses, and rich white people won’t ride buses with black people.  (That the black people are also poor is such an intrinsic assumption for Lind that he does not even feel the need to clarify it.) 

What does this have to do with the Tea Party?  Nobody in the Tea Party, or at the forefront of American conservatism, cares that the rent is too damn high, because any governmental intervention into housing policy or rent control is more likely to be redistributive — minorly so — than not.  And white disaffection with policies geared towards social equality remains motivated by racial animus.  Far from being a post-racial society, the contemporary political discourse has simply found more sophisticated rhetoric in which to couch its racial discomforts (as least as far as black and white are concerned; as regards Mexicans and Muslims, we are as openly hostile as ever).  Poverty is, of course, hardly a uniquely African-American affliction, and the continuing racialization of class issues is destructive to people of all kinds and colors — but racial language, or Glenn Beck’s more subtle linguistic art of referencing racial memory, keeps the same old divisions alive and allows entrenched power structures to thrive even in the twenty-first century. 

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