The alternative to a ‘right wing nutcase’: Buying off poor whites

Let this sink in for a moment:

[T]he Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces.[1]

In that passage, Kim Messick is writing about those I label authoritarian populists. Earlier today, I published a post arguing that Hillary Clinton would be the third Democratic president in a row to face an intractable polarization and that the prospect of another four or eight years of such polarization ought to give voters pause.[2] So I had this coming: A faithful reader fires back that the alternative is a “right-wing nutcase.”

There are a couple problems here. First, it’s true that we have a bipartisan political system in which we often have a choice of two awful candidates. Usually, this results in a constrained political choice as any position outside the boundaries staked out by those candidates comes to be seen as unserious. Howard Zinn argued that it served elites by insulating them from any serious threat to the status quo.[3] This year, it very much appears not to be working out that way as the functionalist conservative Republican elite faces a sustained challenge from an authoritarian populist and social conservative right wing both in Congress[4] and in the presidential primary.[5]

This is a right wing whose outrage the establishment has nurtured and exploited for decades even as it has propelled ever more conservative presidential campaigns. It is unreceptive to any elite, including academia,[6] and is therefore unwilling to recognize when its advocated and cruel policies are failures.[7] And so a deeper question arises quite apart from a transitory political campaign: How do we address a lack of education when those we would have as students reject the value of education?

Sometimes, a good response is to go to the likes of Paulo Freire and to ensure that education is in fact relevant to the communities it is supposed to serve. Freire largely assumed that education was being used as a means of subjugation rather than liberation.[8] While authoritarian populists might well indeed see it this way,[9] this approach requires that we view authoritarian populism as a liberation movement which it clearly is not.

In my dissertation (forthcoming), I argue that conservatives and the rest of us do not even agree on epistemology, which is to say that we do not even agree on what knowledge is, what forms of knowledge are to be valued, and how knowledge is to be obtained. As a result, we can point to the failures of right-wing ideology until we’re blue in the face but conservatives will not even acknowledge the evidence on which we base our claims. And, really, vice versa. And there is simply no way for our political system to ameliorate the difference.

This is why I argue for a break-up of the United States. Benedict Anderson argues that a nation’s projected identity demands the suppression of dissenting minorities as disloyal.[10] But right-wing dissent in the United States is too substantial to suppress (and we’re not even really sure that it’s a minority) and, as Messick effectively argues in the quotation I lead this posting with, is unreceptive to any beliefs other than its own.[11] This has led me repeatedly to a conclusion that as a country, we need a divorce.[12] Short of that or a strong autonomy, the country has to bend itself to accommodate them. Which would mean accommodating a group whose intolerance would exclude many of the rest of us.

If we are to preserve the fiction—and at this point there should be no question that it is a fiction—of a United States, then the very minimum action that can be taken is to at least make poor whites’ lives tolerable. This is an approach historically used to suppress Blacks, to prevent them from uniting with poor whites, and to protect elites from an underclass challenge.[13] The only presidential candidate who seriously addresses economic inequality is Bernie Sanders. If he got his way, poor whites might at least be bought off for a while.

But the Democratic Party establishment acts as though it is determined to ensure that this does not happen. They want Hillary Clinton to be their nominee and there is considerable suspicion that they are rigging the contest to protect Clinton from challenge,[14] even though, as I have argued, she is a terribly weak candidate who is extraordinarily unlikely to prevail in the general election, even against Donald Trump.[15]

So while it is obvious that the Republican Party establishment is failing to prevail against a grass roots uprising, in truth, the Democratic Party is evading a similar dilemma. Either Democrats adopt radical action, of which the barest minimum would be nominating Bernie Sanders and working to enact his policies, or we have a “right-wing nutcase” elected as president.

  1. [1]Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “No kumbaya for Clinton,” Not Housebroken, December 29, 2015,
  3. [3]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  4. [4]Dan Balz, “For Republicans, questions of who can lead them and can they govern?” Washington Post, September 25, 2015,; Eric Cantor, “The G.O.P., After John Boehner,” New York Times, September 25, 2015,; Elizabeth Drew, “Congress: Reign of the Implacables,” New York Review of Books, October 9, 2015,; David M. Herszenhorn, “Hard-Line Republicans Flex Muscle as Election of House Speaker Looms,” New York Times, October 7, 2015,; Laurie Kellman, “Boehner slams some GOP hard liners as ‘false prophets’,” SFGate, September 27, 2015,; Allegra Kirkland, “Rep. Pete King: Boehner’s Resignation Is ‘A Victory For The Crazies’,” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015,; Gregory Koger, “The revolt against John Boehner: Worst. Plan. Ever,” Vox, September 16, 2015,; Cristina Marcos, “Furious Boehner allies lash out,” Hill, September 26, 2015,; S.A. Miller, “Tea partyers fume over Paul Ryan’s spending bill, seek conservative challenger,” Washington Times, December 24, 2015,; Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, “John Boehner and His Patience Are Tested Anew by GOP Lawmakers,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2015,; Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, “GOP Discontent That Helped Sink John Boehner Isn’t Easing Up,” Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2015,; Amber Phillips, “Get ready: Experts say a government shutdown is now even more likely,” Washington Post, September 14, 2015,; Todd S. Purdum, “The Cannibal Party: Being a GOP House speaker might be the worst job in Washington,” Politico, September 25, 2015,; Tierney Sneed, “Anti-Abortion Hardliners Not Budging In Shutdown Fight With GOP Leaders,” Talking Points Memo, September 15, 2015,; Tierney Sneed, “Republicans Openly Wonder: Will Kicking Boehner To The Curb Change Anything?” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015,; Jennifer Steinhauer, “John Boehner, House Speaker, Will Resign From Congress,” New York Times, September 25, 2015,; Jennifer Steinhauer, “Latest Unease on Right: Ryan Is Too Far Left,” New York Times, October 12, 2015,; Scott Wong, “Republicans worry new Speaker could face old problems,” Hill, October 1, 2015,
  5. [5]Jennifer Agiesta, “CNN/ORC poll: GOP voters want more Trump,” July 26, 2015,; Dan Balz, “What have Bush, Clinton learned from voters’ attraction to the outsiders?” Washington Post, September 5, 2015,; Dan Balz and Scott Clement, “Trump leads, Carson second as GOP voters favor change over experience,” Washington Post, November 21, 2015,; David Frum, “The Great Republican Revolt,” Atlantic, January, 2016,; Nick Gass, “Poll: GOP three times as angry at government,” Politico, November 23, 2015,; Janet Hook, “Voters’ Mood: Surly Side Up, With a Side of Optimism, Poll Shows,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2015,; Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015,; Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, “Time for GOP panic? Establishment worried Carson or Trump might win,” Washington Post, November 12, 2015,; Niall Stanage, “Nightmare scenario for establishment: Trump or Cruz,” Hill, December 10, 2015,; Matt Taibbi, “Inside the GOP Clown Car,” Rolling Stone, August 12, 2015,
  6. [6]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  7. [7]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Paul Krugman, “Doubling Down on W,” New York Times, December 28, 2015,
  8. [8]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  9. [9]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  10. [10]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).
  11. [11]Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013,
  12. [12]David Benfell, “A divorce for the United States,” Not Housebroken, December 14, 2009,; David Benfell, “Why divorce when you can instead disintegrate in the most painful way possible?,” Not Housebroken, September 7, 2010,; David Benfell, “A national divorce,” Not Housebroken, September 8, 2015,; David Benfell, “No, we cannot all just get along: The dangerous delusions of the status quo,” Not Housebroken, September 20, 2015,
  13. [13]W. E. B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 242-245.
  14. [14]Alexander Bolton, “In wake of Sanders standoff, key DNC official warns of schism,” Hill, December 19, 2015,; Christian Drake, “New Information Shows DNC Violated Its Own Rules When It Shut Down Sanders Campaign Data Access,” Addicting Info, December 19, 2015,; Jonathan Easley, “Dem rivalry takes nasty turn,” Hill, December 19, 2015,; Lauren McCauley, “Thumb on the Scale? DNC Backs Off Bernie But Questions of Neutrality Linger,” Common Dreams, December 19, 2015,; Greg Sargent, “The DNC needs to restore Bernie Sanders’ access to voter data — fast,” Washington Post, December 18, 2015,; Caitlin Yilek, “Ex-Obama adviser: DNC ‘putting finger on scale’ for Hillary,” Hill, December 18, 2015,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Two thumbs on two scales,” Not Housebroken, December 19, 2015,

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