Thursday, September 24, 2009

About Peckerwood Populism, part 1 of ?

I've used the term "Peckerwood Populism" a few times now, but haven't offered a coherent explanation of it yet (until I attempted to do so from a standing start last night on OverGround RailRoad). Since I expect to make defeating it a personal priority, I guess it's time to offer more specifics about what I mean when I use the term.

First stab at a definition:

In terms of ideology, Peckerwood Populism is a marriage of libertarianism to "states rights" conservatism. In terms of political strategy, Peckerwood Populism is an attempt to gain support for that marriage by packaging it as a populist appeal with (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle) evocations of past and present cultural and racial animosities.

The term "peckerwood" seems to have originated as a racial slur used by southern blacks to describe poor southern whites. In the present day, some white separatist/supremacist groups have adopted the woodpecker as a symbol, presumably by way of affirming the stereotype of poor southern whites as themselves racist.

While the average Peckerwood Populist is probably not affiliated with overtly white separatist/supremacist groups, he buys into that stereotype of the voter he's pursuing. He's pitching his product to blue collar white voters. He believes that a successful pitch to that demographic will involve appealing to racism, xenophobia, homophobia and, in certain areas, a twisted sense of cultural heritage -- "the Confederacy was right," "the South will rise again," "America is a Christian nation," "One nation, one language," etc.

The "populist" part of Peckerwood Populism is the construction of a populist class theory. Any populist class theory pits one class (The Righteous Masses) against another (The Power Elites). Peckerwood Populism tells blue collar white voters that they (and, by implication, they alone) are The Righteous Masses, and that their aspirations are being suppressed and put down by a Power Elite composed of politicians who conspire to empower blacks, immigrants, homosexuals, et al at the expense of "the regular guy," i.e. the blue collar white voter -- in bulk, The Righteous Masses.

In terms of pedigree, Peckerwood Populism is a direct descendant of the Dixiecrat movement and of Nixon's "Southern Strategy." As a matter of fact, it's what I had in mind when I referred to Bob Barr's 2008 Libertarian presidential campaign as "Dixiecrat" in approach. There are reasons, however, to coin a new term for the phenomenon.

- The Dixiecrats are fading into history, and we're probably at the point where using the term is as likely to create confusion (or, in some cases, arouse nostalgia) as it is to be understood descriptively. The Dixiecrats' last gasp was probably Barr's glowing eulogy to the late Jesse Helms; Dixiecratism proper was already on its deathbed by the time Trent Lott got himself in trouble by opining that America would be a better place if 1948 Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond had won the presidency.

- The phenomenon is no longer specifically southern. Its center of gravity is moving west and north. Its explicit appeal to racial animosity, while weakening in overall power and becoming less explicit and more implicit, has spread. Its base of potential popular support has been widened by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment in the border states and anti-homosexual tub-thumping in the "values voters" heartland.

- Over time -- starting in the 60s with George Wallace's presidential campaigns, as a matter of fact -- the Dixiecrat and Southern Strategy phenomena have bled out of the "major" parties and sought refuge in third party political organizations.

A new term is obviously required, and so I've come up with one. Maybe it will stick, maybe it won't, but the phenomenon is real and to the extent that it is analyzed it has to be called something.

My own interests, of course, run to the role of Peckerwood Populism in the Libertarian Party specifically. It is by no means a new phenomenon in the LP. It's always been there, usually as a minority undertone, but gaining in power as former Lester Maddox speechwriter Neal Boortz became an LP poster child and as some libertarian ideologues cast a baleful eye backward on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln as a way of explaining the Republican Party's fundamental corruption (and falling from there into defenses of the Confederacy which often went beyond the justifiable).

Peckerwood Populism became a major force in the LP last year under the auspices of the party's presidential campaign. Bob Barr announced on national television that "states rights is the essence of libertarianism" was one such incident. Vice-presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root gave a race-baiting interview to Reason magazine, an interview almost entirely dedicated to portraying Barack Obama's successes as nothing more than a result of identity politics.

Root is now seeking the Libertarian Party's 2012 nomination, and his current vehicle in that quest is his book The Conscience of a Libertarian: Empowering the Citizen Revolution with God, Guns, Gambling and Tax Cuts. I'm reading that book right now, and will write a full review of it when I've finished it. At 80 pages in, it's hard to tell exactly where Root is going with his message -- on his best day, Root is all over the map ideologically and tends to peg the success of his pitch more on the quality of his personal communication skills than on the actual content -- but the numerous references to "states rights" and self-identification as a "citizen politician" (i.e. one of The Righeous Masses rather than a member of The Power Elite) aren't encouraging.

Whether Root is angling toward a full-blown Peckerwood Populist campaign, or just trying to encompass what he considers Peckerwood Populism's more useful elements into a more expansive package, I can't say for sure. Either way, though, he's playing with some pretty nasty fire -- fire that will ultimately burn the Libertarian Party if it's not put out.

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