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.

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times