American culture was constructed during the nineteenth century on the basis of white male supremacy. The roots of the rage evoked by the Obama administration lie in the reunification of the nation after the Civil War. The nation lacked any social or cultural traditions from which an inclusive polity could emerge, and so by 1900 the majority of “white” Americans had reunified the nation on the basis of white male supremacy. White men held exclusive, culturally sanctioned political sovereignty.
That sovereignty was obvious in the Jim Crow laws that developed in the former Confederacy. It was less obvious, and therefore more pernicious, in the myriad ways in which it became built into the structure of American culture in the meritocratic system. Under that system, all access to middle class status included controls that excluded women and non-whites.
In a crucial paradox of meritocracy, although white men, as white males, were entitled to privileged access to social, economic, and political power, they did not experience themselves as privileged. American meritocracy depends on the presumption that everyone starts outside the system and earns inclusion on the basis of demonstrated merit. We each begin with nothing but the assurance that we can each become what we want to be. What we are is never sufficient.
The experience for every white male, therefore, was not privileged inclusion but the same exclusion experienced by everyone else and the presumably universal need to earn inclusion by demonstrating merit. White men therefore did not experience their entitlement as a privilege that set them apart from others.
That entitlement was not merely personal. The legitimacy of the government of the United States was integrally related to the entitlement of white men. Thus, while we think of the revolution of the 1960s in terms of gains in civil rights and women’s rights, the truly revolutionary event was the loss of white male status. White men, as white men, were marginalized, and the basis of legitimate political, social, and economic power was weakened and confused.
That loss of race and gender status caused many white men to experience a serious loss of power. That loss of power was and still is experienced primarily by those white men who had least power to begin with. In practical terms, the political, economic, and social power of the nation remained securely under the control of white males. What was lost was the legitimacy of white male power that included even the most humble white man.
The loss of legitimacy has been the central political issue in the United States since 1968. Beginning with the presidential campaign of 1968, national politics became a struggle between those who sought a new basis for political legitimacy (the Democratic Party) and those who sought to restore the legitimacy of white male power (the Republican Party). Richard Nixon, with winks, nods, and code words, attempted to vest political legitimacy in a presumed “silent majority,” a code for white male America.
For Nixon, the encouragement of white male legitimacy was an electoral strategy, not a considered political philosophy. Only in 1980 did the issue of legitimacy become explicit, as Ronald Reagan mounted an effective counter-revolution. Reagan revitalized the claims of the white male tradition through his skillful evocation of imagery from white supremacy’s national narrative, the Western. Highly effective as campaign rhetoric, scraps of Western traditions amounted to gobs of red meat thrown out to the culture warriors, white people whose loss of status and power kept them fired up over issues of gender and race.
But Ronald Reagan cared little about either gender or race. Beyond the bare minimum needed to keep his political base happy, he worked consistently not to revive the legitimacy of white male power but to shift legitimacy from white males to money and from government, where the challenge of non-whites and women had real strength, to the private sector. The claims of wealth, regardless of the color or gender of the owner, trumped all other claims. Since white men had most of the money and power, Reagan’s policies looked enough like a restoration of white male entitlement to sustain the political support of those who yearned for that restoration. They did nothing, however, to help those who had experienced the loss of power, and they have done much to increase the losses suffered. The Reagan counter-revolution betrayed most of those who supported it.
The Reagan counter-revolution was ascendant for a quarter century, but since 2005 those who believed in it have found themselves betrayed. The creeping stagnation and decline in incomes of working people showed that wealthy white men were not concerned about the welfare of less prosperous white men. The fiasco of the response to Hurricane Katrina, which revealed that competent government is important, was the first alarm that no one could escape. The economic collapse of 2008 has revealed that the wealthy could not be relied on to manage even the private sector with competence.
We see in the hatred and threatened violence since Obama’s inauguration the rage of those who were thus betrayed. Promised a renewal of the legitimacy of white males, they must instead face the wreckage of their world view.
Given the role of racism in the construction of our political culture, we should not be terribly shocked that the election of a half-black President would make him personally a metaphoric object for the rage of the betrayed. We must not, however, let ourselves be distracted by race. The determining problem today is the power of money, underscored by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling on corporate campaign contributions.
There are two obvious struggles now that are testing the power of money to overrule the welfare of the people. The first is the continuing assertion of the primacy of the financial sector, apparent most recently as the institutions that required hundreds of billions of dollars of public money to survive will be paying out tens of billions in bonuses to those who created the problem. The second is the struggle over health care reform, in which the claims of existing business interests are trumping the physical health of the people.
After twenty-five years, money has proven that it is not a legitimate source of political power, but no effective alternative has been asserted. If the Obama administration and Congress fail to check the power of money now, however, the future will be grim indeed. The sense of betrayal is climbing the social ladder.
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