Michael Fellman: Coded racism and faked populism. Can US politics ever pull free?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Fellman is an historian of U.S. politics and war and a cultural critic who lives in Vancouver. He will be writing for The Tyee from time to time about the 2008 U.S. elections.]

... [A]ll the candidates -- United States senators all -- come from a tiny elite at the very apex of American society. In class terms, they have nothing in common with the struggling masses.

A nation in denial

But American politics has long been grounded in class denial as well as covert racism -- American political rhetoric is deeply debased and so dishonest that whenever someone ventures any truth-telling about the hidden injuries of race or class, she or he is roundly denounced as out of touch and elitist.

Thus Obama recently ventured that many economically marginal whites turn to Jesus and their guns in bitter frustration. He should have added "and to racism" to his analysis, but he encoded this element of his discussion even when he was being relatively frank.

And didn't Clinton jump to that tune. Straight away it was into the bar, onto gun culture and pretend identification with all those white people -- ilk of her ilk -- unlike that elitist snob Obama. She didn't have to add that he was being an uppity nigger -- that was understood in the fraternity of plain white folks Clinton pretended to represent.

This is a good example of the pseudo-populism of American political rhetoric and presentation of self. George W. Bush, a rich oilman who comes from an aristocratic Connecticut family and attended Yale, pretends to be a down-home, drawling wood-chopping Texas rancher. (It worked for the actor and General Electric shill, Ronald Reagan, on his California ranch.) Nelson Rockefeller, third generation Standard Oil scion and the most important American collector of African Art, Modern Art and fancy mistresses, used to campaign at Coney Island in rolled up shirtsleeves, slapping people on the back awhile saying "Hiya', fella." Harry Truman, an excellent amateur pianist who worked hard to master Rachmaninoff, would only play the Missouri Waltz in public.

You get the picture. What you hear ain't what you get.

An old and proven game

As I am an American history professor as well as sometimes journalist, let me venture into deep background on pseudo-populism.

In the first three decades of the 19th century, the Jeffersonian party -- precursor to the Democrats, broadened the suffrage to include all white males, not just property owners or taxpayers, as in the past. However, most of these men did not vote. Indeed the Jefferson Democrats had basically eliminated their aristocratic Federalist opponents, and they nominated their presidential candidates -- all from Virginia as it happened -- in their congressional caucus. Few voters bothered to show up at the polls, as there was no real contest.

That changed after the election of 1824, in which Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn Tennessee slaver-holder and popular Indian-killing war hero, was denied the nomination by the caucus in favour of John Quincy Adams, son of a president and gentlemanly Massachusetts statesman. In 1828, Jackson ran against the eastern establishment, claiming to represent the little people against the effete, out-of-touch snobs. Voter participation swelled dramatically and Jackson won big. In office, he then destroyed the Bank of the United States, the symbol of aristocratic control, running against Chestnut Street (the Philadelphian predecessor to Wall Street). And he did this all in the name of the little guy.

In fact Jackson represented big slaveholders and state and local bankers who chaffed at the control of any central bank. He accomplished the first economic deregulation of the sort that modern Republicans favour, which led to wild inflation and the crash of 1837. The pseudo-populist Jacksonian rhetoric was power to the people and democratic equality. The name of the actual game was rapid wealth accumulation by the rising American economic elites displacing the old-fashioned and more restrained merchant elite.

By 1840, after three years of depression, the opposition gentlemen re-gathered, but they ran their candidate, a Virginia aristocrat named Harrison, as a man born in a log cabin and given to drinking hard cider (the boilermaker of 1840). They mimicked the pseudo-populism of the Jacksonians, thus proving it had become the dominant political discourse.

Pandering elites

American political rhetoric and ideological clarity has never recovered. Pseudo-populism has been the language of political elites ever since. If I were a really tedious political historian I would give you chapter and verse of this dreary history, but I will resist.

Pseudo-populism is dishonest because American politicians feel compelled to pretend to be just folks rather than the elite power holders they are. And it offers phony identification and panaceas. And it is duplicitous because it serves to cover race and class discrimination, while the wealthy aggrandize their power and privileges.

On this score, Canadian politicians pander nearly as dreadfully. However, I sometimes think back fondly of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an elitist, aristocratic Platonic elder, who rarely pretended to be just like us. Remember when he rolled down his car window and told protesting strikers to eat shit? No American politician would get away with such open contempt for working people, however indifferent or hostile they are in their hearts and in the legislation they propose and refrain from proposing.
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