Newt Gingrich's new tactic is a gift to Barack Obama

The candidate has taken a break from dog whistles to stir up class resentment with his latest attack

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.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit