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

Us vs. them. It’s a staple of political campaigns, and it's been on display here in Iowa as the candidates joust for voters' support in the first stage of the GOP nominating process.

Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol argued in a recent book that at the root of the Tea Party worldview’s is one particular version of us vs. them politics: the deserving and un-deserving. But that dividing line isn’t just the preserve of the Tea Party-- it’s become the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

Here in Iowa over the past three days, I have been frankly surprised by the muted nature of the campaign. I expected much more full-throated, red meat rhetoric, particularly given the GOP’s nearly uniform hatred of the president. There’s been plenty of Obama-bashing, of course. But of the candidates I’ve seen – all except Rick Perry so far – only Ron Paul has spoken with evident fire and passion. Perhaps the toned-down nature of the candidates’ direct appeals is a result of exhaustion – the campaign is already almost a year old. Or perhaps it’s because, as the New York Times noted, they’ve outsourced much of the really nasty stuff to the super PACs that are blanketing Iowa’s airwaves with attack ads.

But notwithstanding the relatively tame nature of the candidates’ stump speeches – at least the ones I’ve seen - the theme of the deserving versus the undeserving has unmistakably been on display in the Iowa campaign, as it has throughout this already drearily long presidential election season.

For example, yesterday at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Jaspar county, Rick Santorum insisted that what made America great was not our form of government, or even our constitution. Instead, he said, it was “faith and families.” Santorum was then quick to add, “not just any families. Men and women, bonded by the desire to raise children and to pass along moral values to them.” In other words, only some kinds of families were legitimate and deserving of our approbation and respect. Later, Santorum attacked President Obama for saying earlier this year that what made America great was that we extend a helping hand, through social security, Medicare and Medicaid, to the elderly and the needy. Santorum argued that the President was, by implication, saying that America was not great before the passage of those programs – that only “welfare” made us great. Santorum said that what really makes America great is giving opportunity to those who are willing to work hard. (Nevermind that several studies released in recent years suggest that Americans enjoy significantly less upward mobility than do the citizens of a number of other industrialized nations.)

Similarly, at a glitzy, well-organized event just outside Des Moines last night, presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney raised the awful specter of America becoming like a “European-style social democracy” (yes, I know many would shudder at the prospect of longer lives, less crime and shorter work weeks). Why is European social democracy so loathsome? Not because of the debt crisis, problems with the Euro or any of the other recent headline-making problems confronting the continent. Instead, what most discomfits Romney is that in contrast to the founders’ vision of a “merit society where people could succeed by virtue of their accomplishments,” European social democracy is a place “where the government takes from some to give to others.”

In recent years, as a more Randian vision of the social contract has pervaded the American right, expressed concern for the morally corrosive effects of welfare for the recipients themselves has been replaced by a sentiment that not everyone deserves to be taken care of. In this context, it’s worth noting that the rightwing has finally found a group of Americans they actually think are under-taxed – the poor. But more to the point, the clear message is that “they,” the recipients of those handouts, are holding “us” back and, in the process, undermining America’s greatness.

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.


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