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Who Really Benefits from Right-Wing Populism
Since Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the “populist” aspect of his program and whether or not it can be meaningfully separated from his racist politics. For instance, there was a big controversy over a piece in The American Prospect that took Carlson’s anti-establishment antics at face value. I think a lot of people have pointed out the problems with that piece already, but I want to look at a pertinent example of how the combination of racist and so-called populist appeals actually function in American politics and society.
During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1990. After many protections had been weakened by a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late ’80s, the bill was meant to strengthen employees’ ability to sue for discrimination and harassment. It easily passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities. But Bush vetoed the bill saying it would introduce racial “quotas” into hiring decisions. This label—“quota bill”—was affixed to the CRA and stuck. With midterm elections less than a month away, Bush’s adoption of that language was echoing the election pitch of the most conservative faction of his party.
Republicans had also been unsettled by the rise of the former Klan wizard and neo-Nazi David Duke in Louisiana. Despite furious denunciation by the party leadership and the lending of vast RNC resources to a local race, Duke won a state legislative seat running as a Republican in 1989. In 1990, he ran for Senate and got 44% of the vote, including nearly 60% of the white vote. His pitch was against welfare, taxes, and affirmative action “set asides” for minorities. It wasn’t that much different of a shpiel than many conservative Republicans gave at the time, just a tad more openly racist. Louisiana had dealt with an almost decade-long economic slump from the collapse of the oil industry and this “populist” appeal that said essentially that blacks were getting handouts while white workers suffered had a strong constituency, especially among working class and lower middle class whites, many of whom were still registered Democrats. Now, the entire country was in a recession. On top of that, the American middle class had been essentially hollowed out over the course of the ’80s: manufacturing and other “routine” jobs were disappearing en masse and being replaced with lower paid service industry jobs. There was a palpable sense of anger and despair, which pundits labeled “populism” or “anti-incumbency feeling” or “voter rage,” beginning to bubble up around the country.
When Bush vetoed the CRA, the Senate tried to override the veto and came short by one vote. David Duke was lurking in the visitor’s gallery for the vote and bragged to the press that he had helped sink the bill. Not to give Duke too much credit, but there was something to that. Republicans wanted to harness the angry mood of white voters, while simultaneously distancing themselves from David Duke the person. In North Carolina, Senator Jesse Helms—no stranger to race politics—was running for reelection against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat who would’ve become the Senate’s only black member at that time and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. The race looked extremely close, with Gantt leading in some polls. A few weeks from election day, Helms ran an ad featuring a white man’s hands, coded as working class in his flannel shirt, angrily crumpling up a job rejection. The announcer intoned, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.” Helms won reelection and many commentators credited this racial turn in the last days of the campaign with putting Helms over the top.
This is right-wing populism, right? Well, let’s take a close look at who opposed the bill. As the Washington Post reported at the time, “Business groups strongly opposed the legislation and a coalition that includes the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and several dozen smaller groups worked against it, agreeing that it would impose too complex and severe a burden on employers.”
(A quick sidebar: the participation of NAM is particularly interesting to note here: this was traditionally one of the most conservative business groups in the country. They represented many of the small and medium manufacturers most strongly opposed to the New Deal. NAM helped launch the post-war conservative movement. Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, once sat on the NAM board. To be fair, NAM’s record on affirmative action and civil rights compliance is more complicated than this lineage might suggest, but this was guided by the calculation of avoiding further Federal intervention and the gradual replacement of the NAM’s old guard with corporate executives who accepted more tenets of mid-century consensus liberalism.)
Back to 1990: This business consortium, calling itself the “Fair Employment Coalition” hired a slick D.C. public relations firm who developed a strategy to saddle the CRA as “the quota bill:” “In a memo obtained by The Washington Post, the firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery goes into extensive detail to describe how it orchestrated a campaign against the bill on behalf of a group of business organizations known as the Fair Employment Coalition, shaped the debate over the bill and played a big role at one point in preventing the White House from signing it.” The firm bragged about getting even the liberal New Republic—as the old chestnut goes—to come out against the bill. For his part, Helms was no champion of the workingman either: he had once been director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and started his political career writing editorials for a newspaper called The Tarheel Banker. When he wasn’t race- or red-baiting, his time in the Senate was given to protecting “free enterprise.”
This is an almost perfect case study in the uses of racist demagoguery: in a situation where workers are under pressure it creates an enemy that is not business. As we can see here, it can even work more directly in capital’s interest, helping to defeat measures that employers find onerous, even enlisting a section of worker support to do it. “Worried about your job? It’s those goddamn liberals and blacks at it again! Nevermind what the bosses at the plant are doing in D.C.” Here is one of those cases where vulgar Marxism is pretty much right on the money, no pun intended.
But I don’t want to oversimplify too much or let liberals off the hook here entirely either. With the decline of union power, one of the only ways workers have protection is through litigation like that made possible by laws like the Civil Rights Act. But this interest-group liberalism is intrinsically fragmented. Instead of workers organized tout court, you have this individual worker or maybe a class action qua some legally protected category suing their employer. This fragmentation is visible in the panoply of civil society groups that came out in favor of the legislation: the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP, People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. (Organized labor also supported the CRA, by the way.) On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with these groups advocating for their constituencies. This is just how policy is made. On the other, the way the political field is structured allows right-wing populism the space to function, to create wedge issues, and appear to stand for “worker’s” concerns against whiny “special interests” and fancy-pants liberal elites. Don’t get me wrong: I’m strongly in favor of the Civil Rights Acts and the protection of minority employees, but from a certain perspective, these options also reflect the political and legal limitations created by our current system. I believe a genuine social democratic politics would move from representing fragmented series of economic and corporate interests to a stance of national leadership, which is kind of what right wing populism is attempting (and apparently failing) to do with its “nationalism.” Right-wing populism attempts to make a narrow interest look universal and broad; the trick is not to allow it to make genuinely universal and broad interest look narrow and particular.
By the way, the next year President Bush, now facing reelection and afraid of being connected with David Duke, signed a revised version of the bill. This drove the Republican hard right absolutely bonkers, which lead to Pat Buchanan trying to primary Bush. For the rest of that story, you’ll have to wait for my book. But I will just say that nobody but employment lawyers even know that there is a “Civil Rights Act of 1991” and I’m given to understand that even some of them are not aware of it.