Progressives are once again gnashing their teeth over the dog-whistle politics of Republican Newt Gingrich. In Iowa, the former House Speaker hammered away on poor kids, food-stamp recipients and other red-meat issues, and the Tea Party faithful, ever attuned to the misery of the undeserving, appeared to respond. He did it again in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when he told Juan Williams, black journalist, that Barack Obama was a terrific "food stamp president."
Cue the delight of the audience. Yet Newt's apparent race-baiting hasn't much improved his standing in the polls. According to the latest Rasmussen survey (which leans rightward), Mitt Romney remains the runaway favorite among primary voters at 35 per cent. Gingrich is second at 21 per cent. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul each have 16 per cent for third.
With so many Americans jobless, debt-ridden or out of their minds with worry over the health insurance companies fighting over every nickel, it's stunning that voters are reacting to Newt's brand of plantation politics. Gingrich had no practical solutions. He thinks he can jumpstart the economy by changing the Federal Reserve's monetary policy from being partly focused on inflation to being entirely focused on it. Forget about full employment. Let the market decide that.
What's striking about Gingrich's strategy in South Carolina hasn't been the race-baiting. Pot-shots like those come cheap. What's striking is that an astonishing $5m is being used to portray the quarter-billionaire Romney as a capitalist robber-baron straight out of the Gilded Age.
Gingrich's well-heeled supporters could have used that $5m, which goes a long, long way in South Carolina, to assail Romney's Mormonism, his record as governor of a blue state, "Romneycare," his Yankee pedigree or his bionic mien. There's so much material here that it could make even Romney regret a corporation's cash-flush right to freedom of speech.
Instead, his supporters chose to depict Romney, the former head of Bain Capital, as a Wall Street tycoon responsible for sending jobs overseas, closing down factories and destroying lives. The short film focusing on Bain echoes charges made by the Occupy Movement: that market fundamentalism, which pledges allegiance to low taxes and deregulation, is not the solution but the very source of everyone's problems.
With this attack on "vulture capitalism," Gingrich is still aiming to stir up resentment among white middle-class voters over 50. But it's not just resentment steeped in racism (and as Gingrich's attack of poor blacks illustrates, racial resentments are obviously a part of his larger mode of politicking). It's a resentment that the political left has been trying to build a coalition around since forever -- the resentment of class.
It seems that Gingrich is obliquely conceding that the American class system isn't a figment of a liberal's imagination. His attacks also suggest that Republicans are aware of the fallacy of their own worn-out ideology.
I don't mean the ideology of low taxes and deregulation, though these are never far from their minds. I mean that the GOP uniformly believes that one's world view determines one's material conditions. A good outlook, they would say, equals a good paycheck. Failure, then, is a discrete and personal problem. Individuals need reforming, not social systems.
Anyone who has traded his labour for money knows this is false. A superlative attitude isn't going to magically generate upward mobility. Failure, then, is structural. Social systems need reforming, not individuals.
Progressives have long dreamed of building a coalition that cuts across racial divides to unite workers in common cause. Republicans typically don't. Yet they have no answers to pressing economic issues. The only way they can win is to divide and conquer using the deep entrenchments of race, and they have been doing that successfully for 30 years.
Gingrich parlayed racial resentment into a Republican takeover of the House in 1994. But it should come as no surprise that he was able to do that at the dawn of the most rapid expansion of the economy in US history. When the economy was good, voters could afford racism.
But that might not work now, no matter how hard he tries to invoke Nixon's Silent Majority. The economy has languished too long. The Cold War has faded; civil rights are integrated, if not fully honoured. "Socialism" now isn't even a bad word for a majority of young Americans.
Progressives, including Democrats, have called Gingrich's suicide-bombing of Romney's campaign a sign of the GOP's ideological end times. That may be true. More importantly, it may signal a shift in our national social conscious. The culture war was always illusory. It is supremely ironic that an old culture warrior like Gingrich may end up removing the veil from voters' eyes to see what truly oppresses them: those, like Mitt Romney and Wall Street firms like Bain Capital, who control the means of production.
Thanks to Gingrich, NBC's Matt Lauer asked Romney if envy fueled the debate over income inequality -- and Romney said yes! President Obama got a great gift that day. Let's hope he makes the best of it.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.