American right-wing populism is an interesting phenomenon that's coming to the fore once again in its usual nativist and racist form, but also as smooth misrepresentation of "tax reform"; clever, misleading public relations messaging about fair trade; and some fairly outlandish paranoia about conspiracies to erase the borders. Various permutations of these fairly common right-wing themes abound among conservative politicians and thinkers alike. But conservative populism is an oxymoron.
As Phil Agre wrote in this much discussed article about the definition of conservatism, "Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy ... [it] is incompatible with democracy, prosperity and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world."
Modern conservatism's most successful strategy was to merge public relations and politics into a seamless operation in which it could use modern marketing methods to convince people to vote against their own interests. In that sense, right-wing populism is just another marketing campaign for the aristocrats. And it's working:
South Carolina has embraced foreign investment, with companies from BMW to Michelin transforming a state once dominated by the textile industry. Another aspect of the global economy hasn't gone down as well: immigration.
While an influx of money from overseas has made free trade palatable even as thousands of mill jobs have vanished, voters are growing increasingly hostile to undocumented foreign workers, polls and analysts say. As a result, illegal immigration is a top economic issue in the state's Jan. 19 Republican primary, a key test for the candidates since it's the first in the South.
"Trade is all right as long as everybody goes by the same rules," said David Robinson, 65, who recently retired from a job at a Michelin tire factory in Spartanburg and whose son works in a Hitachi Ltd. plant nearby. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, "is a big problem, and that's one you can get a handle on," he said.South Carolina only has about a 3 percent Latino population, both illegal and legal. It isn't actually a problem at all, much less a big one. The sad truth us that no matter how much "foreign investment" comes into their state, South Carolina manufacturing workers are still on a race to the bottom and they know it. But the conservatives have successfully misdirected them away from the real culprits by stoking latent (and not so latent) racism as an explanation for their insecurity. In a time of rising income inequality, a housing and credit crisis, and the ever more obvious fact of conservative corruption of epic proportions, the Republican Party has worked their rank and file into a frenzy over very poor people who work for next to nothing in hot, dirty fields, blood-soaked poultry plants and steaming restaurant kitchen sinks. It's quite an accomplishment.
But there's more to this than simple manipulation of the racist id. As Agre points out:
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.One of the ways that this modern aristocracy gets people to internalize that the aristocrats are better people is by stoking a fear that the "American Dream" is being threatened by hordes of undeserving interlopers. Who's looking out for the common man? Why, it's the conservatives, your liege lords, who want to close the borders and keep those people out!
That fellow in South Carolina thinks that trade is working for him now that foreign investment is coming to a state with low taxes and no unions to manufacture cars and other things for export. The weak dollar surely makes such things very attractive for those manufacturers at the moment, but it's not clear that this trade has been "fair" at all. South Carolina lost over 250,000 jobs since the '90s, not even close to the jobs it's gained from these plants. But conservatives truly believe that "their betters" have their best interests at heart, so they've come to believe these people are actually heroes of a sort:
Tiremaker Michelin & Cie. of France, which has invested $2.1 billion in the state since 1975 and employs almost 8,000 workers, said in August it would spend an additional $350 million over four years, generating additional jobs.
BMW North America, a unit of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG of Munich, the world's largest luxury car maker, said last month it would boost annual production of its X5 sport-utility vehicle and other cars in Spartanburg by 100,000 units by 2012. Germany's BASF AG and Japan's Fujifilm Holdings Corp. also have major facilities in the state.
"People around here are beginning to connect the dots that this area is increasingly tied to trade and exports," said Greenville's Mayor White, an immigration lawyer, adding that there's been little job displacement due to undocumented workers.According to this chart from the Department of Labor, however, manufacturing isn't adding jobs to the economy at all. In fact, it's been losing them for years. The losses have been slightly less catastrophic in the last couple of years, but they are losses nonetheless. (The biggest job provider in the state is actually government, which is somewhat ironic considering what a rock-ribbed conservative state it is.)
So these people, like most working Americans, are genuinely threatened, over a long period of time, by economic forces that are making a lot of people rich -- but not them. They are, however, inexplicably quite content with that state of affairs, but are upset by an extremely small population of foreigners who are doing dirty work for low wages. How does this happen?
Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought ...
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.
The main idea of public relations is the distinction between "messages" and "facts." Messages are the things you want people to believe. A message should be vague enough that it is difficult to refute by rational means. (People in politics refer to messages as "strategies" and people who devise strategies as "strategists." The Democrats have strategists too, and it is not at all clear that they should, but they scarcely compare with the vast public relations machinery of the right.) It is useful to think of each message as a kind of pipeline: a steady stream of facts is selected (or twisted, or fabricated) to fit the message. Contrary facts are of course ignored. The goal is what the professionals call "message repetition." This provides activists with something to do: Come up with new facts to fit the conservative authorities' chosen messages.It is no accident that illegal immigration has emerged as a theme at a time of epic corruption among the conservative aristocrats in business and government. Someone must be blamed for the fallout, and it isn't going to be them. This may seem counterintuitive, considering that business also likes cheap labor, but that's just commerce, and commerce is only a tool of the true conservative mission -- preserving the aristocracy.
Aristocracy is, by definition, un-American. The question is how many Americans will be "messaged" into believing they are doing the patriotic thing by behaving like subjects and hunting down the foreign invader on behalf of their betters.