I’m morbidly fascinated by the political culture of the American right and someday hope to do work on it, though I’m not sure what form that might take. In the 10 years or so I’ve been keenly following American politics, it’s got progressively weirder and shows no signs of abating. In fact it reached a new level of inanity. Consider the results of this poll:
Almost one in four Republicans suspect that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. That’s one of the most astounding findings from a notably stunning new online poll from Harris Interactive. Majorities of Republicans also believe that Obama is a socialist (67 percent), that he wants to take away Americans’ guns (61 percent), is a Muslim (57 percent), has done “many” things that are not constitutional (55 percent), and wants to turn the country over to a one world government (51 percent).
In fairness to the GOP the poll indicates that the country generally seems to have become a bit unhinged. Overall, 40 percent of Americans think Obama’s a socialist, 32 percent think he’s a Muslim, and one in four think that “he is a domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of.
Even on the most charitable interpretations Republicans are, at least, complicit in the growth of these bizarre views:
Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) held another lively town hall meeting this weekend, playing host to a constituent who accused President Barack Obama of “sedition” because he had allegedly lied to voters about his true political allegiances to “socialism, communism and Nazism.”
In a discussion about health care reform, a woman told Walsh that she believed the United States was losing its freedom because of elected officials who were falsifying their ideologies to get elected.
“It is sedition. I mean, they did it underground. If they are honest brokers and they believe in what they’re saying and where they want this country to go, like Obama, then you’re right. He should have said it before he was elected, and said ‘I’m a socialist, I believe in socialism, in communism, Nazism,’ whatever, and say ‘this is where I want to lead the country’ — not do it underhandedly,” she said.
And many (including myself) would argue that they’re wilfully fuelling them for their own short term gain. It’s the intensification of a longer standing strategy and it risks becoming almost indescribably self-destructive, as the Republican party is now driven by true believers who have been motivated to join the party largely because of their acceptance of this nonsense. But could something similar happen here? I would have thought not and yet the last few weeks would seem to suggest that an attempt is being made. After all, it’s seemed clear to me for some time that the current government have been reading from the Republican playbook for the last few years (e.g. ideologically motivated deficit hawking has been a driver of party politics for longer there than it has here) and there are demonstrable links between UK right-wing think tanks (in which the Cameroons are deeply entwined) and their American equivalents. Owen Jones offers a great analysis of this in yesterday’s Independent:
That in mind, I wonder what Ralph Miliband would have made of his son’s transformation from a “laughable blank sheet of paper” to “frothing-at-the-mouth Communist who is going to nationalise your mother quicker than you can say ‘Friedrich Engels had a cracking beard’”. Ed Miliband’s suggested crackdown on land-banking (once endorsed by Boris “Commie” Johnson) and a temporary freeze on energy prices (backed by arch-Leninist Tom Burke, the former Tory special adviser on energy) have provoked comparisons with undesirable elements ranging from Robert Mugabe to the Bolsheviks. After he stood on a soapbox in Brighton and indulged a bystander asking when he would “bring back socialism”, the British right have behaved as though Labour are planning to finish what Lenin was doing before he was so rudely interrupted.
In part, it is the sinister red-baiting of Ed Miliband through his dead father, culminating with the Daily Mail accusing the Labour leader of planning to drive “a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us love”. Pass the spliff, Mr Dacre. “Like a good Marxist,” writes The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore, “he detects the cowardice latent in capitalists,” accusing Miliband of being “part of an ideology” which is “ultimately pauperising and totalitarian.” Jeremy Hunt odiously endorsed the Mail’s lunacy, arguing that “Ralph Miliband was no friend of the free market and I have never heard Ed Miliband say he supports it.” George Osborne, meanwhile, accuses Ed Miliband of making “essentially the same argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital.”
This is what is really going on. The right are so drunk on three decades of free-market triumphalism, so used to the left being smashed and battered, that they believe even the mildest deviation from the neo-liberal script is unacceptable. They thought all of these battles had been won, that they were rid of all their turbulent priests, and now they are incandescent at the alleged resurgence of defeated enemies. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be dead? It’s not even the most moderate form of social democracy that the right are trying to drive from political life. Anyone who does not advocate yet more aggressive doses of neo-liberalism – more privatisation, more cuts to the taxes of the wealthy, more attacks on workers’ rights – is liable to come under suspicion, too.
The British right’s strategy is pretty clear. They want to do to “socialist” what the US right have done to “liberal”: turn it into an unequivocally toxic word that no-one in public life would want to associate with, and use it as a means to smear political opponents deemed to deviate from Britain’s suffocating neo-liberal consensus. Bemusing, to say the least, given Labour first officially declared itself a “democratic socialist party” under Tony Blair in 1995 as a sop to the left in the party’s new revised Clause IV. He even wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet entitled Socialism. Yes, granted it meant nothing more to him than motherhood and apple pie, and he had more leeway than Miliband because it was rather more difficult to pin him down as a heartfelt lefty, but the point is even New Labour could happily bandy “socialism” about.
I struggle to fathom the depth of the demonstrable stupidity I’m presented with when encountering someone who believes Ed Miliband is a socialist. Which leads me to assume that they don’t really mean it. Or by ‘socialist’ they mean someone mildly to the left of New Labour orthodoxy. When I encounter Obama being called a Islamic Commie Nazi (etc) I can find it kind of funny (less so with a potential US default imminent) because of the distance. But it worries me a lot that this toxic political culture could be willingly inculcated in the UK. I’m pretty certain some are making the attempt but I doubt it could take root. I’m less sure of this then I used to be though.