I read several newspapers and numerous blogs every day, but I think my understanding of the 2008 presidential election has been shaped most deeply by a few books I read many years ago.
Here’s a short list of books that were written long before Sarah Palin entered our collective consciousness (the oldest is from 1933, the newest is from 1974), that help explain the social forces at work in the 2008 election:
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
Why do Americans hate smart people? Why does Barack Obama need to downplay his Ivy League education, his Harvard Law degree and his presidency of the Harvard Law Review, while Sarah Palin’s ignorance about foreign policy, science, American history, and just about everything else is actually a positive on the campaign trail? What are the roots of the Sarah Palin frontier myth, in which knowing how to hunt a moose is a more important leadership qualification than knowing how to read the Constitution?
Published in 1963 and inspired by the McCarthyism of the 1950s, this book traces the historical basis of the McCain-Palin attack on Obama as an intellectual and elitist, and the roots of that attack in Puritanism and evangelical Protestantism. Hofstadter analyzes the 1952 presidential election in which Democrat Adlai Stevenson was positioned by the Republicans and the media as an elitist intellectual against the plain-speaking soldier Dwight Eisenhower — which calls to mind Marx’s famous quip that while history may repeat itself it does so “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” A book that reactionaries still love to hate.
Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century.
Why are Americans so stupid? What is the correlation between crappy jobs and crappy people? Why is the South so Red? Why is Obama having such a hard time with blue collar voters in the Rust Belt and Appalachia? Why is it that we can be pretty sure that nearly all of the redneck imbeciles who thought it would be a great idea to ride out Hurricane Ike in their mobile homes are voting Republican?
Braverman’s 1974 book establishes a correlation between the drastically reduced skill level, knowledge, and creative intelligence required for workers in the modern economy and the resulting drastic reduction in the workers’ ability to think for themselves. He wrote about the rise of the factory system and the assembly line, but the degradation of work he describes has even more chilling consequences for our McJob “service economy.”
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
Why do Americans worship the very powers that cut their wages, keep them without health care, ship their jobs overseas, foreclose on their houses, and send them to die in unnecessary wars? What is the social-psychological basis of the sadomasochism inherent in the McCain POW mythology? Why do Republicans and Country-Western singers act like fiercely independent tough guys while they slavishly prostrate themselves before authority figures and nationalistic symbols like the flag? Why do white Americans love to hate black people, gay people, Jews, and Mexicans while they irrationally identify with and suck up to the powerful white people who are stepping on their necks?
Writing during the early years of the rise of Hitler, the Nazis and the fascist mass movements in Europe, Reich puts the blame on sexual repression, pervasive sexual abuse, the patriarchal-authoritarian family, patriarchal-authoritarian religion, and a totalitarian education system. There’s lots of crazy stuff here, but also brilliant insights into the authoritarian psychology that pervades the Republican Party and much of the media, and that keeps Karl Rove in business.
Herbert Marcuse, Repressive Tolerance.
Why do crack-smoking, tattooed, heavy-metal listening, bail-skipping Wal-Mart shoppers overwhelmingly support McCain-Palin? (The latest Rasmussen Report: “McCain leads 58% to 38% among those who regularly shop at Wal-Mart while Obama leads 61% to 36% among those who don’t frequent the retail giant.”) How did a society where almost everything is allowed (and shown on TV) produce the militaristic, sexually repressed, resentment fueled deformities on display at the Republican convention? How does the “objectivity” of the mainstream media regarding political and moral choices (even when real) favor the repressive, bellicose Right?
Written in 1965 with a post-script written in 1968, Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance” incited the ire of some 60s radicals for critiquing as fundamentally repressive and authoritarian the then-nascent drug culture and sexual revolution of what would later be called the Woodstock generation. Marcuse writes: “The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.”
Or, as I’ve told a right-wing biker friend of mine: “The 60s died when assholes like you started smoking pot.”
Marcuse’s essay helps explain why.