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Us Versus Them: The Politics of Grievance Are on Brilliant Display at the Iowa Caucuses

In Iowa, the deserving/undeserving divide has married antipathy toward Muslims, illegal immigrants and gays with contempt for recipients of government programs.

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Anxiety over status and social distinction are not new features in American politics. Richard Hofstadter, the eminent historian, wrote about them decades ago. What’s striking about the Republican Party today, however, is the degree to which all of their ideological and policy energy flows toward drawing such clear boundaries between the deserving and the undeserving, the “real” America, as Sarah Palin put it, and everyone else. Two years ago, I co-wrote a book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, which argued that the major dividing line between the two political parties had come to be psychological in nature. In particular, Authoritarian-minded individuals, with a strong belief in order, antipathy toward difference and ambiguity and a desire for black and white thinking, have been increasingly gravitating toward the GOP, creating an increasingly homogeneous base in terms of outlook and worldview. In the process, less authoritarian-minded individuals were being driven out of the party. In the original formulation of the argument, cultural issues and matters of racial and ethnic difference took center stage in driving the two parties apart.

But the deserving/undeserving divide has shown the way to marrying antipathy toward Muslims, illegal immigrants and gays with contempt for recipients of government largesse more generally. Low-income non-traditional families, and especially disfavored minority groups are to be penned off and marked with the scarlet letter “U.” In order to bait on issues of race, it is no longer necessary or desirable to make explicit references to ethnicity. Opposition to welfare carried the water for those who wanted to appeal to more deep-seated prejudices. Nowadays, it’s arguably true that the construct of deserving versus undeserving provides even more diffuse cover for appeals to our base fears of diversity.

As I’ve watched Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum and Romney appeal to virtually entirely white crowds, populated largely by folks over the age of fifty, I can’t help but think that the explicit focus on economic security, jobs and handouts is a new kind of dog whistle, one that appeals not only to racially conscious white Southerners, but more broadly to the folks Sarah Palin referred to as the “real” Americans, with the listener able to fill in the blank with their own preferred out group. The Americans to which GOP candidates are appealing (and in this context I would say that Ron Paul represents a complicated partial exception) believe that they’ve earned the “right” to decent, respectable lives. They believe that liberals’ promiscuous reinterpretations of the bible, the constitution, or both, have opened the flood gates for the undeserving to undermine the real Americans’ entitlement to a safe and secure existence and that the demands of the undeserving constitute a zero-sum threat to those Americans who earned the right to live well.

Jonathan Weiler is a Professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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