Leaders who pander to a select ethnic or cultural group by demonizing others are hardly new. The United States has a long history of such ignoble characters—Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and Al Sharpton among them—who gain power by lighting a flame of blame and revulsion on a dangerous “other.”
In years past, we called them demagogues, rabble-rousers, race-baiters, and bigots. Such fear mongering was considered shameful and despicable. Until now. Demagoguery has been reinvented to fit a new era: Welcome to Identity Politics, 2012.
In popular media, the image of an intolerant extremist is cliché—a populist white social conservative from flyover country who objectifies women and hates gays, minorities and smart people. In truth, too many Michele Bachmanns and Todd Akins still exist, but thankfully more and more conservatives are disavowing their worst actors. As they should.
But here’s the rub. On the left, the rules have changed; today class, age, gender, religious, and ethnic chauvinism is cheerfully embraced by their elected leadership and loyal minions alike. During the DNC convention, prominent speakers ominously warned that there is a “war on women” and affluent Americans need to “pay their fair share.” Last month, Vice President Joe Biden did his best Stepin Fetchit impression to scare African Americans into thinking that wealthy conservatives are going to “put y’all back in chains.”
Just raw politics? In part yes, but the tone and tenor even off the campaign trail is becoming progressively bellicose. The Occupy Wall Street movement has been filled with hateful, anti-Semitic messages that its early boosters in Congress and the White House have yet to condemn. Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who delights in ad hominem character assaults, has tiptoed into the same veiled anti-Jewish rhetoric; her “neocon puppet masters” are the 21st century version of Coughlin’s “moneychangers in the temple” euphemism.
Likewise, Romney’s Mormonism has become fair game. In April, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell said “Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.”
Ugly stuff, yet utterly accepted.
With the headline, “The Grand Old Straight White Men’s Party,” New York Times writer Bill Keller (himself an old straight white man) this past week mockingly referred to Republicans who oppose gay marriage as catering to the “plain old white insurance salesmen” who wants to “keep gay Americans as second-class citizens.” Funny, Keller never criticized President Obama for holding similar views during most of his presidency…
Making sure that racial politics remains alive and well, MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews uses his crystal ball to detect latent racism by nefarious right-wingers at every turn. Clownishly, he recently equated the Republican’s reference to food stamps and Chicago as code for “black.”
On the other hand, members of the Tea Party movement are excoriated for their age and “lack of ethnic diversity” (in other words, being over age 40 and Caucasian). Not scary enough? Tea Partiers also have been smeared as murderous maniacs, as many Democrats implied after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and ABC’s Brian Ross asserted following the Colorado theater tragedy.
Latinos, African Americans, young people, women, gays…too many leaders on the left are tailoring the messaging to ensure that each of these constituencies fear and loathe right-wing bogeymen. Meanwhile, instead of outrage we hear crickets.
Foul to its core, rank demagoguery disguised as identity politics is neither innocuous nor acceptable. It is Coughlin and McCarthy with a New Age twist.