By John Stoehr
1:07 PM EST, January 25, 2012
Progressives are once again gnashing their teeth over the dog-whistle politics of Republican Newt Gingrich. In Iowa, the former House Speaker hammered away on poor kids, food-stamp recipients and other red-meat issues, and the Tea Party faithful, ever attuned to the misery of the undeserving, appeared to respond. He did it again in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when he told a black journalist that a Barack Obama was a terrific “food stamp president.” Cue the racist delight of an audience gone wild.
Yet Newt's race-baiting hasn't much improved his standing in the polls. According to the latest Rasmussen survey (which leans rightward), Mitt Romney remains the runaway favorite among primary voters at 35 percent. Gingrich is second at 21 percent. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul each have 16 percent for third place.
With so many Americans jobless, debt-ridden or out of their minds with worry over the health insurance company’s fighting over every nickel, it's stunning that voters are reacting to Newt’s brand of plantation politics?
But what's striking about Gingrich's strategy in South Carolina hasn't been the race-baiting. Pot shots like those come cheap. What's striking is that a stunning $5 million is being used to portray the quarter-billionaire Romney as a capitalist robber-baron straight out of the Gilded Age.
Gingrich’s well-heeled supporters could have used that $5 million to assail Romney’s Mormonism, his record as governor of a blue state, “Romneycare,” his Yankee pedigree or his bionic mien. There’s so much material here to make even Romney regret a corporation’s cash-flush right to freedom of speech.
Instead, his supporters chose to depict Romney, the former head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, as a Wall Street tycoon responsible for sending jobs overseas and destroying lives. The short film on Bain echoes charges made by the Occupy Movement: that market fundamentalism, which pledges allegiance to low taxes and deregulation, is not the solution but the very source of everyone's problems.
With this attack, Gingrich is still aiming to stir up resentment among white middle-class voters over 50. But it's more than resentment steeped in racism. It's a resentment that the political left has been trying to build a coalition around since forever — the resentment of class. And with that, he seems to suggest Republicans are aware of the fallacy of their own ideology.
I don't mean the ideology of low taxes and deregulation. I mean something more fundamental. The GOP uniformly believes that one's worldview determines one's material conditions. A good outlook, they would say, equals a good paycheck. Failure, then, is a personal problem. Individuals need reforming, not social systems.
Anyone who has traded his labor for money knows this is false. A superlative attitude isn't going to magically generate upward mobility. Failure, then, is largely structural. Social systems need reforming, not individuals.
Progressives have long dreamed of building a coalition that cuts across racial divides to unite workers in solidarity. Republicans, and some Democrats, don't. Yet they have no answers to pressing economic issues. The only way they can win is to divide and conquer using the deep entrenchments of race, and they have been doing that successfully for 30 years.
Gingrich parlayed racial resentment into a Republican takeover of the House in 1994, a game-changing coup. But it should come as no surprise that he was able to do that at the dawn of the most rapid expansion of the economy in U.S. history. But that might not work now, no matter how hard Gingrich tries to invoke Nixon's Silent Majority. The economy has languished too long. The Cold War has faded; civil rights are integrated, if not fully honored, into the fabric of civil society. “Socialism” now isn't even a bad word for a majority of young Americans.
Gingrich’s suicide-bombing of Romney’s campaign may signal a shift in our national social conscious. The culture war was always illusory and it took the worst recession in 80 years to strip the veil from voters' eyes to see what oppresses them: those who control the means of production.
Thanks to Gingrich, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Romney if envy fueled the debate over income inequality and economic injustice — and Romney said yes! President Obama got a great gift that day.
Let's hope he makes the best of it.
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