By John Stoehr
4:05 PM EST, January 31, 2012
I lived there for almost a decade, so I'm familiar with the challenge of covering politics in the American South. Specifically, the challenge of that region's peculiar social phenomenon: double consciousness.
During the GOP primaries in South Carolina, I smiled to myself when I read reporting that was awed by churches that look like shacks, trios of wooden crosses mounted on roadsides and highway billboards admonishing drivers that they must be born again. I was reminded ofH.L. Mencken, ever the cosmopolitan aesthete, failing to comprehend the pentecostal essence of public life there. And like Mencken, the reporting I read was factual, credible, and sometimes funny, but often unable to see through the veil of culture to concrete truth.
The former House Speaker from Georgia was on his home turf. He is master of the Southern language, a complex vernacular rooted in centuries of saying what you don't really mean and meaning what you're not really saying, or a combination thereof that was perfected in order to maintain power over black slaves who vastly outnumbered their white masters. Gingrich assumed of his GOP wingers a kind of shared culture of bigotry. He didn't have to explain what he is; instead he could spend this time attacking. He redirected the ever-present anxieties of his supporters toward straw men whom he theatrically set aflame for their pleasure.
And yet, in this deepest of economic nadirs in eight decades, even racists worry about where their next paycheck comes from. Among the salient facts that emerged after Gingrich's victory (41 percent to Romney's 27) is that four-fifths of voters said they were concerned about the economy, according to the Associated Press. Some of these voters roared when Gingrich dressed down Juan Williams, a respected black journalist, for asking whether his comment about President Obama's being a "food-stamp president" was "racially insensitive"; some of these voters booedCNN'sJohn King for asking Gingrich about his second wife's allegations that he once demanded an open marriage. How can voters applaud a culture warrior like Gingrich and yet be nearly statistically unanimous in their concern over the Great Recession, a hugely important issue that Gingrich is uniquely qualified to mishandle? "Cognitive dissonance" is one way of describing it. Another is double consciousness.
The inestimable W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase in an essay written years after Reconstruction had given way to Jim Crow apartheid. He was trying to understand the psychological trauma wrought by centuries of chattel slavery and white violence. The result, he wrote, is a two-ness, a sense of self that is not of the self but a self that comes "through the eyes of others." Blacks are "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings." They are American and not American, and African-American history is "the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." Du Bois expressed hope that African Americans might one day move forward as a people into what these days we'd call self-actualization.
I don't mean to compare Du Bois and African-Americans to Gingrich and his supporters. Far from it. Yet doubleness sheds at least some light on why some white Southern voters are so often smitten by the likes of Gingrich while at the same time expressing deep-seated anxiety about their economic self-interests, and it explains why journalists, many of them dispatched by editors in the Northeast, often can't see through the haze of race-baiting and Bible-thumping to what's really happening.
Self-actualization, after all, isn't built on bigotry and faith but on concrete things, like jobs, health care and education. From economic security springs forth individual freedom, not the other way around. Meanwhile, South Carolina has a jobless rate of nearly 10 percent. Of those on food stamps, 15 percent are white. Of those in poverty line, 30 percent are children. The state is ranked 10th with the most foreclosures.
What does Gingrich have to offer?
Tirades on poor children, the immorality of food stamps and the evils of the media. In terms of policy, Gingrich has said he believes that jobs will magically appear if only the Fed would focus completely on keeping inflation low, even though that very policy has yielded little since 2009.
Yet even in the South there's only so far a guy like Gingrich can go using the rhetoric of tribalism. Eventually, a serious candidate for president must stop saying what he is not and start saying what he is, and in doing so, he must clearly outline what he will do to address the basic human needs that we all have, whether we're racist or not.
That might be impossible for Gingrich.
Eventually, voters, even the racist ones whom liberals love to hate, will stop allowing Gingrich to assume a shared culture, because a shared culture only gets you so far when you're sick, out of work or struggling to build a better future for your children. After all, many a Southerner said he hated the New Deal until they realized the New Deal's social programs would yank the South out of feudalism and into modernity.
Gingrich told his supporters what he thought they wanted to hear, but he wasn't hearing what they are really saying. The economy. It's bad. We need help. He believes in rhetoric alone instead of the substance that rhetoric is supposed to reflect. Such is the irony of the South's peculiar form of double consciousness. Even a master of the language can become its slave.
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