Mark Naison: Who Are the Real Elitists? Michael Moore, Barack Obama, And The Resurgence of American Liberalism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]

Ever since the late 60's, conservatives in the US have done a brilliant job in portraying liberals as self righteous elitists who are out of touch with hard working Americans who keep the country going and defend it from its enemies

. George Wallace pioneered this approach in his two presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968 . By attacking liberals as "pointy headed intellectuals" and describing himself as the voice of the "hairdresser, the cop and the construction worker" Wallace made huge inroads into traditionally Democratic constituencies in the Northeast and the Midwest and gave conservatives a rhetorical weapon that they have used effectively ever since. From Spiro Agnew to Bill O'Reilly, conservatives have devoted so much time and energy to denouncing liberals as "tools of special interests" and themselves as the voice of "real Americans" that many liberals have become ashamed to publicly identify themselves as such.

But although some liberals live in middle class enclaves like the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, or in university towns like Cambridge, Ann Arbor or Berkeley, there has been another, less publicized group of liberals who have been anything but sheltered from the real problems of the society. Teachers, social workers and union organizers, priests and nuns in the inner city, public interest lawyers, teachers in community colleges, elected officials and ministers in minority communities, they have been there, year in, year out, when their cities and neighborhoods were buffeted by factory closings, savaged by drug epidemics and aids, and alternately revived and challenged by new waves of immigrants. While capital and resources were systematically withdrawn from their communities by banks corporations and the federal government, they were the ones who stayed to bear witness, comfort the afflicted, and set the stage for rebirth. If you didn't regularly visit Brownsville of the South Bronx, spend time in Youngstown, Baltimore or Buffalo, or go to church services in North Philadelphia or the Central Ward of Newark, you might never know they were there. But little by little, they are beginning to register successes in their work and project their voice into national politics

One of the major signs of their success has been the astonishing presidential campaign of Barack Obama, but years before George Bush self destructed and Barack Obama became a national figure, the demystification of American conservatism was undertaken, with tremendous energy and effectiveness by a fat, ugly, film maker from Flint Michigan who emerged as the nation's most effective tormenter of the National Rifle Association, the Religious Right, Corporate America, and George W Bush- Michael Moore.

What gave Moore's attacks their moral force was his unabashed use of the experiences of his hometown- one of the most decayed and battered industrial cities in the entire nation- as a reference point for judging conservative rhetoric and policies. Moore may manipulate information to get his message across, but the images of Flint's abandoned factories, ragged neighborhoods, and struggling, suffering people which he put in all his films are all too real.

In showing these images, Moore revealed conservatism's dirty little secret- when the factories closed, and people lost their jobs; when the banks redlined neighborhoods, and landlords abandoned their properties; and when millions of people were left without police protection and decent schools and adequate health care-conservatives were MIA. They weren't there in the food pantries helping families of the unemployed; they weren't there in the union halls fighting to protect workers pensions; they weren't there picketing banks to get them to reinvest in redlined neighborhoods.

Instead of rolling up their sleeves and helping deal with the consequences of deindustrialization, conservatives made a cottage industry of attacking the poor, blaming welfare, sexual immorality, and single parent families for the travails of the inner city. It is not so much that their arguments were always wrong- preaching personal responsibility is not a terrible thing- but that they didn't back up their words with actions that gave substance to their preaching.

What job programs do conservatives operate in the nation's poorest neighborhoods? What health centers do they run? What schools for poor children do they teach in? What AIDS clinics do they staff? What libraries and arts programs have they opened? What welcome centers have they opened for recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America?

Whenever real life, on the ground programs can be found to help immigrants, displaced workers, the elderly and victims of corporate greed and neglect, the people on the front lines are almost always "liberals." Not rich liberals. Not pampered liberals. But tough, resilient, hard nosed people who work day in day out to make a better life for people who have been had some tough breaks.

For more than 15 years, Michael Moore has given voice to millions of people who are sick and tired of conservatives painting themselves as the voice of practicality and patriotism when they have abandoned the nation's most vulnerable communities and done nothing to help its most vulnerable people

Now, the tide is beginning to turn An unashamed liberal named Barack Obama, who began his career as a community organizer, is making a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination and has an excellent change of being elected President of the United States.

The Conservative run is over. Thirty years of Conservative rule have brought us the world's largest prison population, the world's largest gap between rich and poor, a bloody, expensive war against a nation that never attacked us, and a recession and a credit crisis that threaten to drive millions of people out of the middle class.

In the hope of promoting economic growth, Conservatives handed control of the economy to owners of private capital, who used that power to enrich themselves to a degree unknown in modern American history. The last time that happened was during the Great Depression, and in that situation,the American people knew exactly what to do- they elected Liberals to office who used the powers of government to make sure the wealth the nation produced was distributed fairly and reached most Americans.

Despite all that is going on in this campaign- the race baiting, the attacks on Barack Obama's patriotism, the misplaced focus on the political views of Rev. Wright- I am confident that the American people will do exactly the same thing as they did during the Great Depression, and call upon a Liberal, who has both vision and compassion, to set things right..

That is why Barack Obama is going to be our next President.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Rodney Huff - 5/15/2008

No doubt some conservatives give generously to charitable causes. However, liberals have traditionally devoted their time not only to charitable causes, but also - and more importantly - to addressing the economic and structural issues that create the conditions under which charity is sorely needed.

As Martin Luther King said:
"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

Traditionally, liberals are concerned primarily with root causes of social problems, not symptoms.

Meanwhile, conservatives traditionally have sought to reduce social problems to individual-level problems. For Conservatives, social problems don't exist. Individuals have problems, and usually it's their own fault for having them.

Jesus, by the way, is arguably the most famous liberal of all time. He favored redistribution of wealth, chided those who worshiped Mammon, and ultimately championed the poor and sick people - precisely the people "Conservative" politicians routinely leave behind with their policies.

Arnold Shcherban - 5/10/2008

Liberal, my dear friend, is not the one who's weak in dealing with crime and terrorism ((as conservative is not the one who is strong on those), but the one who cares about those whom
conservatives (especially - right conservatives) abandon - lower and middle class. The corporate wealth started to get tough on inner city crime, 'cause lately it began to reach their domain (within which they have much more to loose than others), so speak, while previously it affected almost exclusively the lower societal strata and communities.
Essentially one can explain all ideological and social priorities of
right conservatism by following the money and power. It is true not only for internal, but also for external "consumption". Life is certainly more versatile that such an approach and one who follows it is bound to be (sometimes) wrong in details, but always right in essense.
That is what science calls theoretical

Jim Williams - 5/10/2008

You ignore faith-based organizations like Chuck Colson's Prison Ministries, Samaritan's Purse, Teen Challenge, etc. When my public college sent teams to help clean up after Katrina, we had to work with faith-based organizations. They were "the only game in town." Such folks do work with food pantries. In my area, such faith-based "conservatives" form a major portion of the volunteers for the "Open Door Mission". Studies published in mainstream media have also shown that conservatives give more of their income to charitable causes than liberals.

Jeff Donnelly - 5/9/2008


Jeff Donnelly

Michael Davis - 5/7/2008

I love you Mark, but give me a break.

I suppose you loved the "liberal" run New York City of the late 60s, 70s and 80s? The city was an open sewer. (I laugh at the nostalgia today for that "grittier" time.)
Did you ever think that maybe you can walk the streets here in NYC safely at night DUE TO THE FACT that our prisons are full?
"Liberals" have had control of the House of Representatives, and most urban cities for the majority of our modern times. How the Democrats are still a majority party after the years of Giuliani and Pataki turned the city and state around, I'll never know. Me thinks it is a reflexive, blind love for anyone with a capital D behind their name.

I would like just one time for you, or Michael Moore, to explain how you expect to save manufacturing jobs in our age of Globalization? How are unions to compete? Surely not with protectionism. As you already know this is what exacerbated our Great Depression.
I know Bill O'Reilly and Rush are to be blamed for all of our ills (sarcasm,) but how is President Obama going to get around our fiscal mess? There is absolutely no money for any of his schemes. Social security and Medicare will be consuming the entire federal budget 20 year hence. Just letting the Bush tax cuts expire is not going to solve the problem. Raising corporate taxes (when our corporations are already the second highest taxed in the world) will not help either; that would actually hurt.

The next eight to ten years are going to be fun to watch!