Can the right make a comeback?

December 4, 2009

The question seemed outlandish just a few months ago--but these days, not so much.

ONE YEAR after Barack Obama's historic election victory, a Gallup poll shows support for his job performance as president falling under 50 percent of the population for the first time.

The reasons for this aren't hard to discern. Official unemployment stands at 10.2 percent, up from 6.1 percent on Election Day 2008. The Obama administration has spent tremendous amounts of money since taking office, but that hasn't countered the deteriorating living standards for working people. The administration's main domestic priority--passing health care reform--is alive, but may yet go down to defeat. It's presiding over two unpopular wars, and ready to stoke one of them, in Afghanistan, into a multi-year disaster.

And finally, there's the perception--grounded heavily in reality--that Obama's economic team is in thrall to Wall Street. As the liberal Rep. Peter DeFazio put it in an interview with the New York Times, "There's tremendous concern about the lack of results on Main Street for all of the money that's been borrowed and spent."

Given all this--and following on the heels of Republican wins in the November 3 elections--many people are asking something that seemed impossible only a few months ago: Can the American right, so discredited after eight disastrous years in charge of the government, be poised for a comeback?

IF YOU read or listen to a lot of pro-Obama, liberal commentary, you probably think the notion is laughable. This strain of opinion assures us that no one in their right mind takes Sarah Palin seriously, that Fox News is a joke, and that the Republicans are about to tear themselves up in a "civil war" between Tea Party kooks and moderates.

To be sure, the most vociferous representatives of the right wing today--the people who make up the Tea Party constituency that overlaps heavily with the Republican "base"--are a minority of a minority.

A recent study by the liberal Democratic group Democracy Corps backed this up. From focus groups conducted with Republican base voters from Georgia, Democracy Corps researchers constructed a picture of this group--it believes that Obama is advancing a "secret" socialist agenda, it thinks that Fox's conspiracy-mongering Glenn Beck is a courageous truth-teller in a lying (and liberal) mainstream media, and it loves Palin, while disdaining most elected Republicans.

House Minority Leader John Boehner and Republican House members speak to reporters
House Minority Leader John Boehner and Republican House members speak to reporters

Democracy Corps concluded that these conservatives "stand a world apart from the rest of America." Yet it also points out that people like them represent about one out of five people in the U.S. electorate, and about two-thirds of Republicans.

This is more than enough of a base to inject into the country's political bloodstream such toxic notions as the idea that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. or that health care reform will promote euthanasia of the elderly--nonsense ideas that are, nevertheless, contributing to an "atmosphere of rage in America," according to a recent Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report on the right wing. This not only poisons the political atmosphere, but, as the ADL points out, it provides a climate in which the far right, like the militia movement, can grow.

Despite their isolation from the mainstream and their through-the-looking-glass world view, the forces of the right seem to recognize one thing that professional Obama defenders don't--there is a deep anger and frustration in the population against a government that seems willing to spend billions for bankers while counseling patience to workers.

It's worth noting that the conservatives are mostly agitating around economic issues, such as the deficit, taxes and health care, rather than their traditional turf of social issues like abortion and gay marriage. At the least, these right wingers aren't fools when it comes to figuring out what is making millions of people anxious today.

It doesn't matter that the right's solutions--like canceling government stimulus measures to pay down the deficit--make no sense. They are gaining a hearing for two reasons: First, the administration hasn't been able to improve the employment picture in any way that's tangible to the majority; and second, the liberal groups who could be kicking up a ruckus to push for genuine health reform or a real jobs program are instead playing the role of loyal soldiers to the White House's agenda.

Is it any wonder, then, that most of the opposition to Obama's program is coming from the right? As the radical commentator Paul Street put it on ZNet:

In the absence of meaningful anger and protest on the left, the dodgy Republican right wing and its still-potent "noise machine" is absurdly left to soak up and express much of the legitimate "populist rage" that ordinary Americans quite naturally feel over Washington's continuing captivity to concentrated wealth, corporate-direction and the military-industrial complex in the Age of Obama.

Resentment abhors a vacuum.

CAN THE conservatives make a comeback and maybe even put the Republicans back in the congressional majority next year? In a volatile political climate where millions will continue to feel economic pain, it's not as outlandish a thought as it once seemed. As Timothy Egan wrote in his New York Times blog:

A year ago, most people were open-minded about the ground-shaking changes that came with the economic collapse. Polls found a slim majority in favor of Wall Street bailouts to save the economy. They would listen, watch, wait. By this fall, the majority were not only against the bailouts, but in favor of curbing pay on Wall Street, and tightening government regulation of same...

If Congress steers through the Great Recession without responding to the thousand points of pain among average Americans, people will see them for what they are in bottom-line terms: an insulated club.

Note that Egan identifies popular support for policies and initiatives, like tighter regulation and capping Wall Street pay, that the right wing wants nothing to do with. But when the Democratic administration is a bulwark holding back tighter regulation and pay caps, the right can reap support on other grounds, such as opposing the bailout.

The Obama administration's performance will go a long way to determining the extent of the right's advance, as's Joan Walsh noted November 16:

[W]hile I'm not worried about President Palin, I remain worried about President Obama. I'm particularly concerned that his increasingly triangulating, anti-deficit administration will do the wrong thing, morally and politically, and move to the right, without understanding that some right-wing rage could be re-channeled by acknowledging its roots: That the economic system seems rigged for the have-a-lots vs. the have-a-littles, and despite their promises, the Democrats haven't done enough to change that.

Palin can't change any of that, but Obama can. There's still time for him to do so, but the clock is ticking.

Waiting for Obama to do the right thing is a fool's errand. That's why "politics" has to be conceived as something that goes far beyond electoral calculations. What's needed more than anything is activism and mobilization that blows open the narrow political space where anything progressive is associated with Obama and opposition to the status quo is monopolized by right-wingers.

Here, there is some good news to report. The National Equality March for LGBT rights in October marked the emergence of a new generation of activists who are unwilling to accept lip service from Democratic politicians or wait for their rights. The thousands of students up and down California who are protesting the state's draconian cuts are laying the basis of a network to defend public education. Grad student employees at the University of Illinois struck and won a victory from an administration determined to impose concessions. The Ford workers who voted down a concessionary contract the company and union wanted to foist on them showed that workers don't have to take anything because of the recession.

Many of these struggles are fragile, fledgling and still, by and large, defensive. But they provide the foundations for further organization to pressure the government to respond to the progressive majority--instead of a loud, right-wing minority.

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