Monday, November 01, 2010

The Unwashed

I watch the current electoral folderol with mixed feelings. As for my local charade, I'm voting Yes for most Democrats (but not Jerry), Yes on legalizing pot, Yes on removing the 2/3 super majority vote to pass a state budget, No on most else, and a bothered No on Prop D in San Diego, which asks for a half cent sales tax increase, but only after the mayor has satisfied certain conditions for regulating the city budget, chief of which are union busting and outsourcing. The money gathered is not allocated for correcting any of the budget shortfalls, such as public safety staffing or reductions in public services, and is tied to a midnight pigs-at-the-trough deal with the state giving large sums of city money to a redevelopment agency that has some ethics problems with keeping track of the dough. Isn't Prop D the Stadium Initiative? is how one local small business person (runs a very nice restaurant in my neighborhood, in fact) discusses the proposition, which in this formulation manages to get cover for putting local people out of a job (the union-busting) and hand bags of cash to the local Republican-dominated developer elite who want their downtown taxpayer funded football stadium, damn it!

Back to the unease.

My formal training in political science in the 80s and 90s had a unique flavor. The chief goal of the liberal democratic theorists was to demonstrate how indifferent but dutiful voting at regular intervals for middle of the road parties was the genius of the American political system. Not for us the division of parliaments or (worst) passionate public displays. Rioting in the streets is what connected the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the Chinese Revolution to the Nazis and the Fascists (except for that nice Franco fellow who kept the Commies out of power in Spain...). The dirty fucking hippies of the 60s were presumed to be the bad-mannered inheritors of this dangerous approach (William Ayers one of the poster children for it, as a matter of fact), and that all public protest was by definition of questionable legitimacy because they lay outside the rationalized order or petitioning your political representatives to perhaps address a few nagging problems. The Unwashed need to clean up and stop making a fuss.

The trouble with this lies in what actually happens under such circumstances. Despotic governments are not run by mobs in the street (that's anarchy) nor by protesters at the gates (that's, um, democracy), but by compact cadres willing to use violence to enforce power structures in their favor. A divided and unconnected populace makes it easier for the organized to dominate. The model is tribal, not institutional, and very much relies on personal connections (ties of blood, bonds or oaths to a gang, etc.) for cohesion. You have only your constant performance of loyalty to demonstrate your place in the band, and thus does obedience support increasingly depraved acts to demonstrate adherence to the ways of the tribe.

The current hoopla over the Tea Party tries to make them into this kind of a group, and serves to fuel the heated rhetoric from both sides - that it is an unstoppable movement of righteous outrage (on the Right) and that it is a growing threat to civilization (on the Left). It is the Unwashed off-leash, run for your lives!

Except that they aren't. They are the side-show distraction. They, like the dirty fucking hippies before them, are the scapegoat to justify reaction. The cadre that needs to be watched is the Movement Conservatives who will parlay the coming electoral victory into some type of "mandate", using the threat of voter dissatisfaction to claim greater authority and threaten more dire consequences if not given their way. Just read Krugman on this.

Fear of the Unwashed is the theme of our current politics and has been since 2008. It can be a winning argument on the Right because they just need to encourage anger to get marginal political gain, and goading people to "Vote the bums out!" is an easy electoral meme. It is a devastating argument on the Left because it relies on demonization of otherwise disempowered groups to try to encourage a fear reaction in enough elite members of the tribe to eke out marginal victories, but at the cost of long-term damage to and disaffection of non-elite constituencies.

My unease comes from the deep suspicion that the power elite in each major party has fundamentally agreed between themselves that the losers can stay lost, and are now organizing their politics to mobilize fear of the unwashed to provide the thin margins of support necessary to retain their hold on power.


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