Over the past 7 years, the splenetic rage that has been nurtured by the political right in America against President Obama has splintered off into a number of separate, but not mutually exclusive, strands that highlight the various issues driving modern-day conservatives. Of all of these streams of vitriol that have been aimed at Obama during his time in office, the most glaring and venomous is most assuredly the one concerning the president’s blackness. From the obsession with his non-existent affiliation with Islam and the manufactured birther controversy to the more standard slurs and offensive caricatures, race has been at the forefront of much of the antipathy towards Obama and has been, along with a strong nativist streak, the fuel for Donald Trump’s recent ascent. However, instead of focusing on the overtly race-based hatred towards Obama, it might be useful to look at the socioeconomic enmity that was cultivated by conservatives and a decent number of white, working-class Democrats which can be distilled into a pointed, 4 word statement: You didn’t build that.
During the 2012 election, the right wing in America had a collective conniption fit when, during a campaign appearance, President Obama uttered the sentence: “If you have a business—you didn’t build that.” The soundbite quickly became a staple on Fox News and in attack ads by Mitt Romney and conservative PACs supporting him, proof positive that the President Obama didn’t value the American worker or the free market economy and that he wanted to use big government to take jobs away from hardworking (read: white) Americans. If there was any truth in this, it would have certainly been an alarming thing for the President to have said and worthy of some consternation. However, the accusations agains Obama were dubious at best as, when you look at the sentiments surrounding that sentence, it becomes abundantly clear that the President was clumsily trying to get across the point that robust infrastructure and support from others is necessary for any enterprise to succeed. For example, you might have created a wonderful small business for yourself, but in order for customers to be able to utilize it, they need to drive on publicly built roads.
All in all, there’s nothing in what Obama said in that speech, or throughout the entirety of his presidency, that attacks the neoliberal core of 21st century America. There isn’t anything inherently distasteful to the vast majority of Americans in the idea that the government should probably fix things like bridges and roads. Sure, there are free market zealots who want to privatize everything from fire departments to pothole fixers, but most folks don’t go around getting worked up over the intrusive hand of basic public infrastructure unless the person advocating it is from a different political party or race. The idea that a business wouldn’t exist in its current form without governmental help in the form of infrastructure projects is certainly much less palatable, but that argument was designed to rally Obama’s Democratic base and not to suggest veering from the neoliberal path of the past 30 years, as evidenced by the fact that part of that infamous speech was taken from his 2011 State of the Union address, where the President delivered a paean to the free enterprise system and American exceptionalism. Even Obama’s signature achievement as President, the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, increases access to health insurance for the poor in a way that further establishes the role of private insurance companies and for-profit medical companies in our nation’s healthcare system, all while making them boatloads of cash.
Yet, despite a presidency that has consistently stressed private sector growth to the detriment of the public sector and which has favored large private institutions during the bailouts of the the big banks and the big three automakers, along with the championing of the extremely corporation-friendly Trans Pacific Partnership, Barack Obama has been tarred and feathered by many on the right as a socialist or communist. Had this line of attack continued into the 2016 campaign, it might be possible to find some kernel of validity—or at least ideological consistency—to the right’s characterization of President Obama, but thus far, it has been largely absent. Despite having tax proposals that would essentially be a continuation of the Obama administration’s policies and positioning herself as the de facto standard bearer for Obama’s accomplishments, conservatives have never really followed through with the “Hillary as commie” narrative in the way they did with Obama. Instead of focusing on the politics of distribution (be they real or perceived), the barbs thrown Clinton’s way have generally been ones dealing with her perceived level of trustworthiness (“Hillary lied – 4 Americans died”, The e-mail server scandal, etc…). It’s easy to say that the right has simply switched out their racially-motivated vitriol towards Obama for a gender-centric hatred towards Clinton, but the perception of Hillary as this leftist other never really made the transition.
On the other side of the Democratic aisle, Bernie Sanders—a man who is a self-described Democratic Socialist and who has made distributive politics the centerpiece of his campaign—has managed to attract much of the liberal white working class vote that Hillary held against Obama in 2008 and is garnering a not insubstantial amount of support from many of the same independent and Republican voters who bought into the idea of Obama as communist trope that has been peddled over the past 7 years. So, how can we reconcile the fact that a significant segment of the independent/conservative voting public can paint Barack Obama, a free market-friendly moderate Democrat, with a red brush while supporting a man whose platform is based on universal healthcare, universal college education, government regulation of financial markets and wealth redistribution? The answer lies in the fact that, in America, skin pigment trumps policy when it comes to politics.
Due in part to the 24-hour news network dominated, poll-driven media environment that shapes our collective perception of the American political landscape, it has become accepted as gospel that conservatives—and rural, poorly educated white conservatives in particular—are vehemently in favor of small government and the private sector. This view, which has been critical to the marketing of the red state/blue state dichotomy in America, is actually a fairly recent development and the only way we can understand the contemporary political climate in the US is by examining what the country looked like 80 years ago, when red states were blue, blue states were red, and today’s conventional wisdom looks patently ridiculous.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the American South has traditionally been the domain of the Democratic Party, who dominated the political landscape in Dixie from the end of Reconstruction through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the presidential level, the party’s dominion over the Southland was so complete that not a single ex-Confederate state voted for a Republican between 1880—the first election without nominal Federal enforcement of voting rights for people of color—and 1916. In fact, with the exception of support for Republican Herbert Hoover outside of the deep south in 1928, the South was solidly Democratic all the way through World War II, when Strom Thurmond’s States Rights Party run gave a preview of political trends to come.
During this time period, Southern whites had no problem voting for progressive candidates and those who were flirting with democratic socialism, as is evidenced by the overwhelming support the region gave to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As I’ve mentioned before, the degree to which the South supported FDR is staggering, given the Republican, small-government fanaticism that has become the norm below the Mason-Dixon line in recent times. No Republican, not even Ronald Reagan, ever approached the level of southern support garnered by FDR, who took in a staggering 89.9% of the popular vote in the deep south during the 1936 election against Alf Landon. And, it should be noted, all of this was at a time when the specter of Communism and the Soviet Union was a very real threat to Americans in a way that it isn’t today. So, why were Southern whites (and working-class whites in general) so willing to support a man who embraced big government like no American President before or since? The answer’s fairly simple, and it’s that Southern whites were fine with government assistance so long as whites were the only ones being assisted.
As the 2016 election has progressed and Bernie Sanders has gone from punchline to legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination, a lot has been made of the social democracies of Scandinavian countries, which have been seen as blueprints for much of what Sanders wants to implement, should he become President. And, while many of his social democratic goals, from $15/hr living wage and universal health care to universal higher education, are both laudable and already implemented in nations like Norway and Finland, the hard truth is that they will be exponentially harder to realize in the United States because, unlike Scandinavia and many other Western European nations, the US is ethnically heterogeneous.
Ever since the rise of populism and the birth of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, the ruling classes have used racial and ethnic differences to divide and control the the general populous. Very early on, men like Thomas Watson and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman learned that the surest way to get elected in the South was to demonize some “other”, which wound up being blacks 9 times out of 10. Segregationists like Thurmond and George Wallace took that philosophy to its apogee in the 50s and 60s, building careers on the bedrock of white racial animus and, beginning with Ronald Reagan up until the very recent past, dog whistle racism proved more than enough to satiate conservative leaning white voters. Only recently, with the ascendency of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have we seen a return to more blatant race-baiting and the uncomfortable reality that the bigotry we had pegged as a more or less southern phenomenon was not bound by any sort of geography, especially when it came to Islamophobia.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may be on different sides of the same populist coin, but at the heart of their appeal isn’t a specific policy or ideological framework, but an anger at and rebellion towards a system that is increasingly rigged in favor of a small, wealthy elite. The righteous indignation of these two non-establishment candidates is predicated on their whiteness (and, to a lesser extent, their maleness). Had Barack Obama taken a similar approach to the 2008 election, he wouldn’t have broken single digits in Iowa and New Hampshire, because blacks are not permitted the luxury of populist rage in American politics. The fact that Sanders’s legitimate socialist leanings have been played off by his Republican opponents as somehow comical and unworthy of sustained attack while Obama’s simple history as a community organizer turned him into the next Che Guevara in the eyes of the right tells you all you need to know about the perception of “socialism” and “communism” in America.
Much like it was at the heights of McCarthyism, the label of communist is one more or less bereft of substantive meaning in our popular discourse. It’s a sort of shorthand for describing someone who wants to diversify the application of the American dream and take away the power that whites have traditionally held throughout the country’s history. It is only through this lens that a fairly moderate Democrat like Barack Obama could be portrayed as this radical left wing revolutionary and, it is the only explanation for how Obama the communist could be effortlessly conflated with the trope of Obama the foreign muslim tyrant. President Obama could have signed the doubled the Bush tax cuts and privatized Social Security and the right wing would’ve still portrayed him as a socialist. It’s about skin pigment, not policy.