Friday, September 25, 2009

About Peckerwood Populism, part 2 of ?

In the first part of this series, I tried to get a working definition of "Peckerwood Populism" into play, and explain that definition a bit. Now I'm going to start riffing on pieces of that definition to flesh it out. I'm going to start with this:

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.

I tried to choose my words very carefully, but let me elaborate:

I'm not saying that the average white, blue collar voter is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate.

For that matter, I'm not even necessarily saying that the Peckerwood Populist agitator is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate.

What I am saying is that the Peckerwood Populist agitator believes that the average white, blue collar voter is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate, and believes that he can get his hooks into the voter by playing on those assumed sentiments. The agitator may believe that because he's a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate himself and assumes that white, blue collar voters share his views -- or he may just be an opportunist who believes that he can tap into sentiments he doesn't necessarily share for the purpose of raising money and getting votes.

Past flirtations with Peckerwood Populism exploded in the face of Ron Paul's 2008 campaign for the Republican Party's presidential nomination with the "NewsletterGate" scandal. Those flirtations seem to have been of the opportunistic variety. From the linked Reason article:

The most detailed description of the strategy came in an essay Rothbard wrote for the January 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report, titled "Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement." ... Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an "Outreach to the Rednecks," which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. ... These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an "unholy alliance of 'corporate liberal' Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America." Anyone with doubts about the composition of the "parasitic Underclass" could look to the regular "PC Watch" feature of the Report, in which Rockwell compiled tale after tale of thuggish black men terrifying petite white and Asian women.

This was a very bad idea in so many ways. It was morally repugnant and it didn't work, and if it had worked no sane person would have welcomed the outcome. The thing was going to go one of two ways -- it could fall flat on its face and come back to haunt its architects later, or it could succeed and usher in a new era of, at best, Jim Crow Lite.

It did fall flat, and it did come back to haunt Paul, who had used his newsletters to pursue it. It didn't cost him the presidency or the GOP nomination -- he was never in a position to win either one -- but it certainly embarrassed him and took some wind out of the sails of what was, by early 2008, a "Ron Paul R3VOLution" which looked a lot more like a Rainbow Coalition event than a Klan rally.

Peckerwood Populism's second appearance on the 2008 election stage came not in the form of past scandal but of current effort -- Bob Barr's 2008 presidential campaign on the Libertarian Party's ballot line. The racist, xenophobic and homophobic elements of that campaign were somewhat more subtle than the Ron Paul "NewsletterGate" flap -- often taking "wink, nudge" form -- but they were visibly present.

At the LP's presidential nominating convention in Denver, Barr apologized for his role in authoring the "Defense of Marriage" Act and shepherding it to passage. Less than a week after his nomination, however, he was defending DOMA on "states' rights" grounds -- and asserting that "states' rights is the essence of libertarianism" -- on national television.

When former US Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina died in July of 2008, Barr publicly eulogized him as "one of the finest, most courageous and deeply principled men to ever serve in the United States Congress." Helms's record as a a racist political agitator is just too extensive to go into in an already over-long blog post -- see Wikipedia for the gory details.

When Barr decided to go on the attack versus Ron Paul and hold his own press conference instead of attending the one he'd been invited to and said he'd be at, who did he single out for an excuse? Not the (white) sitting congressman with his own racial perception problem (Paul). Not the (white) Know-Nothing, protectionist, theocrat Baptist minister (Chuck Baldwin). Not even the (white) congenital liar and "consumer advocate" who became rich by manipulating stock prices through his attacks on "big business" (Ralph Nader). None of those. Barr, said campaign spokesman Andrew Davis, "didn’t want to dilute his message by being on the same stage as people like Cynthia McKinney, who is completely opposite of what a Libertarian is" [emphasis mine].

What's Cynthia McKinney "like?" What makes her "the opposite of a Libertarian" in a way that the others are not? According to a Freedom Democrats issues survey, McKinney voted with Ron Paul 80% of the time on civil liberties issues in Congress -- more often than any Republican, and more often by a damn sight than Bob Barr, so it wasn't ideological. It certainly wasn't a matter of stature or of tenure in public office, either -- McKinney had served more terms in the US House than Barr had, and neither Nader nor Baldwin had ever held partisan political office. She was an avowed lefty and the candidate of the Green Party, but Nader is a lefty and had run for president as a Green before, too. She probably wasn't even the best known of the people on stage (Paul and Nader probably both had a name recognition edge on her).

Only two things visibly distinguished McKinney from all others on the stage: She was black and she was female. Wink, nudge.

Over the course of his campaign, it became abundantly clear that Barr's target audience was white southern voters who didn't really want to pull the lever for John McCain, but who under no circumstances would be voting for "someone like" Cynthia McKinney Barack Obama. Wink, nudge.

Barr's campaign never gathered enough momentum for his Peckerwood Populist appeal to become an issue of intense public interest. Any future Libertarian presidential candidate who does manage to attract significant attention, however, will likely be called upon to "explain" that appeal ... and it won't be any prettier in reprise than it was the first time around.

If the Libertarian Party goes for a repeat performance by nominating 2008 vice-presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root -- who carried his own share of the race-baiting load in 2008 and has already begun positioning himself as a "states' rights" candidate for the 2012 cycle -- it will no longer have the luxury of pleading ignorance or of portraying the Barr campaign as an aberration or an isolated incident.

It's certainly possible that Barr's Peckerwood Populist play was an exercise in opportunism rather than an expression of deeply held beliefs on his own part ... but I don't see how that translates into anything like an up side. Peckerwood Populism is an old, degrading hand grenade with the pin already pulled. If you start tossing it around, you can pretty much count on it exploding in your face sooner or later.

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