United States:: Right-wing attack as liberals retreat

Issue 

The heat is on the administration of US President Barack Obama.

An energised conservative base has taken over town hall meetings on health care. There are "birthers", "deathers" and just pure haters.

Obama has been condemned as a racist, socialist, communist, Stalinist, fascist, Nazi, Pol Potist, foreigner and every other name the right finds in its vocabulary.

When Obama led the US delegation to Copenhagen to get his home town of Chicago the 2016 Olympics — and failed — the right gleefully cheered.

The "country-first" crowd forgot that a Chicago Olympics would be in the US.

Two weeks later, the Nobel Prize for Peace was given to a surprised Obama. Again the conservatives attacked Obama, saying his "peace prize" would deepen polarisation in the country.

It was as though Obama arranged the award.

Much of the world, of course, sees Obama's move away from the unilateralism of the Bush-Cheney administration as a step forward — even though Obama continues Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senior citizens are panicked by accusations that Obama's attempt to bring about near universal health coverage is a threat to their own —government-run — Medicare program.

Some veterans under a single-payer Veteran Administration program complain that "socialism" is behind Obama's health plans.

Racism

Former president Jimmy Carter called these right-wing attacks "predominantly racist" in nature. Others reject this, saying Bush was demonised too.

But no previous president was ever attacked because of his race or had lawsuits filed asserting he was not born as an American.

Obama has downplayed the issue. He quipped to a late-night TV host "I was Black before the election".

As the first president who is African American, Obama has had to play down his race even when discussing racism and discrimination.

Obama's July speech to the 100th anniversary convention of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organisation, strongly defended the civil rights movement.

He pointed to the US's long history of slavery and racism.

Yet the speech was barely covered by the mainstream media, which tends to downplay the race issue except when used as a slander by the right.

The shrill attacks on Obama by the right have a strong tinge of racism.

Institutional discrimination is the hardest to uproot — and the refusal of the government to ever apologise or reject its past of slavery and legal segregation shows the deep-rooted problem of race in US politics.

The issues the right uses to attack Obama are the deep world recession and health care. They weave in race to play off white anxieties.

Van Jones and ACORN

The viciousness of the right-wing forces is most evident when the demagogues go after Black activists like Van Jones.

Jones was forced out of his environmental advisory job for the White House in September. He was attacked for derogatory comments about Republicans and for signing a petition in 2004 that questioned why the 9/11 terrorist attack took place.

The community organising group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was targeted by the Republicans in 2008 for its voter registration efforts in poor communities.

Slanders and lies of voter fraud were played up by the right, then picked up by the mainstream media. The right has even falsely claimed Obama worked for ACORN.

By the scale of the4 attack, one would think ACORN had committed torture and other crimes against humanity.

The assault led to the entrapment of ACORN by conservative activists in September that caused most liberals to drop their support for the organisation.

Congress, banks and others that had worked with ACORN on housing and voter issues broke ties. Congress voted to "defund" the organisation.

Formed in 1970, ACORN has registered more than one million poor, mostly African American, voters over the years. It has helped thousands facing foreclosures.

Neither Van Jones nor ACORN have ever been convicted of crimes like those committed by the war contractors, such as the private security firm Blackwater — still employed by the State Department and the Pentagon.

Yet most liberals quickly capitulated to the right instead of opposing the attacks.

What's outrageous is the failure of the Obama administration and mainstream liberal allies to stand up for those being demonised.

The real crime of Van Jones was not his comments, but his history of militant activism. ACORN's rap sheet is that it fights for the poor.

Roots of anger

It is important to recognise that the superheated attacks on Obama are not primarily due to consciously thought-out Klan-type bigotry.

An undercurrent of deep racism does exist. But it would be a mistake to read all the anti-government supporters as racists.

The anger is mainly spurred by the "liberal agenda" (support for more government intervention) promoted by Obama and most liberals.

For 30 years, Republicans and then Democrats have denounced "big government". This ideological shift to the right allows the conservative extremists to confuse most US people, particularly whites, to believe the government is the problem.

Many middle-class minorities hold the same view.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between right and left populism. Rightist critics of capitalist inequities see the government independent of class.

The government is viewed as the real enemy, stealing hard-earned money from working people to redistribute to the undeserving and shiftless poor (read: undocumented immigrants, Blacks and Latinos).

That demagoguery taps into the bigotry of an extreme white racist minority — now a smaller proportion of US society than ever in history.

In 2008, Republicans used the race card, calling Obama "the other" and accused him of "palling around with terrorists".

But it didn't work.

The bulk of anti-government opposition is aimed at corporate welfare programs (millions to Wall Street and Corporate America) while the working class suffers home foreclosures and job losses.

The right has been able to tie anger at Wall Street and fear of government together — and seize centre stage.

The infamous town hall meetings in August organised by so-called non-profit conservative foundations tapped that misguided anti-government sentiment.

They mobilised many white working- and middle-class people. The theme was simple: stop a government takeover of everything.

Fox News, owned by Australian-born billionaire Rupert Murdock, has promoted the "tea party" revolt, including a September 12 march on Washington.

Glenn Beck, a far-right Fox talk show host, summarised the sentiment as: "Wall Street owns our government. Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged."

Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, hits on many of the same themes.

Moore — an ardent and genuine liberal — directs his criticism at both the Republicans and Democrats. He fingers all those who have been bought and paid for by the banks, insurance companies, drug cartels and other wealthy corporate interests.

The difference is Moore sees government playing a positive role in health care and for society as a whole.

Contradictions

Another source of white anxiety is the changing demographics of the country. The trend is not new, but in times of economic uncertainty it becomes an easy target of right-wing demagogues.

In 1970, whites made up 87.5% of the US population. In 2000, whites were 77.5% of the population. The decline continues as the African American, Latino and Asian American populations grow.

The conservatives take these statistics and twist them to warn white people they are "losing their country".

It is a "fact" to older whites that to be "American" means to be white with a Euro-centric outlook. Everyone else is a hyphenated American.

Obama's election shows younger generations reject that narrow-minded pre-civil rights attitude. Most young whites see "Americans" as an ethnic rainbow — based primarily on citizenship.

Unfortunately, the left has failed to tap working-class anger and focus it against the system, pushing for progressive policies. The reason is the left itself is divided between the socialist left and the much larger liberal left.

The liberal left looks to the Democratic Party to lead the fight back and have responded meekly to the right-wing campaign against universal health care, women's rights, gay rights — and many other issues concerning Blacks, other minorities and society as a whole.

Liberalism versus left politics

The ideology of left liberalism cannot stand up to conservative extremism.

Liberalism, like conservatism, supports the free market system and the "right" of Wall Street to make a decent profit. Liberalism supports a "fairer" market system.

It is very difficult to build a left-wing movement that concedes the "goodness" of capitalism.

Genuine left-wing politics cannot be rooted in liberal ideology. Left wing (or socialist) politics must be based on the working class and progressive forces — seeking to take control of the economy, the government and crucial institutions for the good of society as a whole.

The illusions in Obama and his neoliberal-centrist ideology have made the liberal left (energised into action by Bush) take a wait-and-see approach to government policies.

This has conceded the streets and town hall meetings to the right.

There continue to be important protests against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars demanding immediate withdrawal of troops, and supporting single payer healthcare.

However, much of the effort is restricted to lobbying and hoping that Congress will stand up to the right.

The weakness of the trade union movement and the lack of a viable independent third political party make it difficult to provide a political alternative to the Democrats.

The impasse of Obama's brand of liberalism is not surprising. He's doing what he promised to do — protect and defend the interests of the US political and economic system and its imperial foreign policy.

A left-wing movement marching for its issues and against the right is well overdue.

Unless that begins to develop, the rightist forces, including those with incipient fascist ideology, will continue to make political gains — no matter how nutty their views may seem.

History teaches us the perils of underestimating reactionary forces.

[Malik Miah is an editor of Against The Current and supporter of the socialist organisation Solidarity in the United States.]