Alex Massie

Obama’s Culture War

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All American Presidents are elected on a platform of hope and change. Each arrives in Washington promising to be, in the words of George W Bush, "a uniter not a divider". But few took possession of the White House quite as heavily weighed down by the burden of expectation as Barack Hussein Obama. The hopes that accompanied Obama's election were so extravagant that it became all but inevitable that the 44th President would prove a disappointment once the campaign ended and the torturous business of government began.

Even by that standard, however, Obama's first year in office could be considered under-whelming. His approval rating, once comfortable, has hovered around the 50% mark for months and there is a growing sense that the President is not the transformative figure he once promised to be. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts was the last straw for a Presidency that, pundits tell us, is now all but doomed.

Despite that, the headline figures are misleading. According to one recent poll the President is popular in most of the country. In the north-east, more than 80% of voters approve of his performance. In the midwest 62% of voters have a favourable view of Obama and so do 59% of voters in the west. Only the south bucks this trend. There, 67% of the electorate has an unfavourable view of the President. There are still, as John Edwards would put it, "Two Americas" and Barack Obama's popularity in one is matched, almost exactly, by the scale of his unpopularity in the other.

Among the many consequences of Obama's victory is this: the south has been humbled. For the first time in decades southerners are almost entirely excluded from senior administration positions and the Congressional leadership. For half a century the south (including Texas) and the west have dominated the White House; Obama is perhaps the first President elected since John F Kennedy who has no relationship with, or instinctive sympathy for, the white working class culture of the south that has been a dominant influence on American political life. It is unsurprising, then, that his Presidency has reopened and renewed America's Culture wars. With a vengeance.

The populist backlash against Obama is startling. A survey of local Republican party officials provides an intriguing look into the hearts and minds of the conservative movement's foot soldiers. Asked "What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama's presidency?" one Virginia county chairman warns, "It appears the president is preparing to become dictator." Another local party chief shudders that "Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty". Another declares that "This guy is pushing an unconstitutional, socialist agenda and I never see it mentioned." It is but a short hop from these sentiments to the "Birther" movement that questions whether Obama was even born in the United States and, thus, eligible for the Presidency.

Such views have been disseminated and fanned on the internet and, especially, Fox News. Rupert Murdoch's channel has become, by the standards of cable news, a ratings powehouse as it becomes a kind of unofficial opposition to the White House. Its most popular prsenter, Glenn Beck, airs nightly rants about the looming marxist takeover of america. Channelling Howard Beale in Network, he reminds the American people that they should be mad as hell and asks how much longer they're prepared to put up with the steady encroachment of Big Government power. There is, he suggests, an agenda to destroy the United States as they have been known and loved by all right-thinking, red-blooded patriots.

The facile assumption is that race explains the fury of the populist backlash against Obama. But while it would be foolish to suppose that race has no bearing on these matters, it is an insufficient explanation for alienation felt by many conservatives. This alienation is most keenly felt in an arc that swings from the Appalachian mountains in the east to the Ozarks in the west. These, broadly speaking, are the only parts of the country in which John McCain won by wider margins than George W Bush had in 2004. Culture, as much as race, helps explain Obama's unpopularity amongst white voters in south-west Virginia, western North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. White voters in these areas voted for McCain in much the same numbers as they voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when his opponent, Walter Mondale, was, like Obama, a northerner possessing impeccable liberal credentials.

These are the voters - many of them descended from Scots-Irish immigrants - who tell the US Census that, far from belonging to any "ethnic" group, they are "American-Americans". Their relationship with the political establishment in Washington is a hate-hate one that has its roots in a culture war that dates back to the founding of the Republic itself. Broadly speaking, it may be summarised as New England vs Virginia. That is, it is a tussle between the elites and the populace.

If the north has traditionally dominated business and academe, the south has had the whip hand in cultural terms. The Western, the greatest of all American cinematic genres, really began as a southern story as the Scots-Irish first spread west across the Appalachians. And while the western often glorifies a certain rugged individualism, it's also a struggle between the periphery and the centre in which the freedom of the frontier is controlled and then tamed by the civilising forces of law and order. The long arm of the state reaches all the way from Washington to the Pacific ocean and the Rio Grande. Even freedom must be regulated.

From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Know-Nothings to the reborn Militias of the 1990s, the eastern establishment has always had reason to fear the expression of a certain kind of cussed American individualism that rebels against what it sees as the encroachments of the state. The populist backlash against Obama's presidency is entirely consistent with this earlier, frequently repeated, pattern. When Obama spoke of "bitter" people (he meant working-class whites) who "cling" to their guns and their religion he all-but-guaranteed a populist revolt against his presidency.

Thomas Frank's celebrated book "What's the Matter With Kansas" complained that working class white voters voted Republican even though their economic interests were, he claimed, better represented by the Democratic party. What Frank failed to appreciate properly, was the power of the anti-government ideal and the extent to which culture trumps economics. This, for all his faults, was something Bill Clinton understood. Obama, by contrast, struggles to communicate with these voters, not least because, with some reason, they see him as an unreconstructed northern, elitist.

Unsurprisingly, now that Obama's presidency has coincided with a sharp uptick in gun sales, Richard Hofstadter's celebrated 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" has often been recalled in recent months. But in truth there are two, complementary, styles of paranoia in American politics: the paranoia of the outsider is matched by the paranoia of a centrist establishment that fears, and sometimes cannot abide, a certain raw and unashamed American populism that, yes, is often expressed by its commitment to the Almighty and the Second Amendment in equal measure.

This uneasy balance between the establishment and the populace is built into the Constitution itself. The House of Representatives, elected every two years, gives voice, in theory, to the passions and passing prejudices of the people; the Senate, elected on a six year cycle, is designed to cool and even douse those passions. But with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, southern conservatives have reason to feel shut-out. The concern that, somehow, the very insitutions of the state are imperilled is hardly novel. The great Kentucky Senator Henry Clay complaiend that President Andrew Jackson threatened "A total change of the pure republican character of the government and...the concentration of power in the hands of one man". Today, ironically, Jackson has become a symbol for populist government.

But the fact that Jackson still remains, more than 150 years later, the go-to President for populists is a reminder that, while populism has often prevailed in the culture wars it has rarely triumphed in the political arena. Among the many questions the Republican party is faces whether it wants to embrace populism or pragmatism. Victories in Virginia and New Jerseys's gubernatorial contests showed the merits of a problem-solving approach that downplayed social conservatism and elevated "pocket-book" issues. As in Massachusetts, local factors were an issue in each contest, but the GOP's victories owed much to their candidates emphasis on pragmatism and fiscal rectitude.

All of which is some way from the populism of a Sarah Palin which, while wildly popular within the conservative movement is actually rejected by, polls suggest, some 70% of the country. Palin is the populist candidate par exellence. She may hail from Alaska, but she appeals to what she calls "Real America". That is, the south.  Her book tour didn't include Boston or San Francisco. Palinism has to a large extent captured the contemporary Republican party. Even a politician such as Mitt Romney, ideally-credentialled to run as a can-do technocrat, feels compelled to discover his inner-populist and pander to the party's nationalist base. Palinism and Fox News conservatism espouse a politics based on gut-feeling not reason. The Republican party is not divided between moderates and conservatives so much as it is split between pragmatists and ideologues.

But while a populist revolt against "government run health care" or bail-outs for Wall Street and General Motors offers ample scope for satisfying posturing and positioning, it is, in the end, a recipe for electoral defeat. It is a protest, not a platform for government. At present, however, it has captured the Republican party. Voting against Obama's health-care plans, for example, Congressman Pete Hoekstra said "I will vote no," he explained, "because that's the vote that says 'I love my country.'" A good soundbite perhaps, but not much of an alternative strategy for fixing a health care system that everyone agrees needs reform. 

No-one doubts the conservative movement's patriotism, nor its current infatuation with populism. And that can, as we have seen, earn victories. But there are different types of victory: the short-term and the long-term; the illusory and the significant, th emid-term and the Presidential. The Culture Wars will always be a feature of the American political lndscape, but power in Washington tends to be won by those who transcend the culture, not those held captive by it.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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