Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Populist Xenophobia Reborn, or, Has It Really Ever Gone Away?

2009 and 2010

When the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about those vocal right wing critics of Obama’s domestic policies including healthcare reform and Obama’s foreign policy he almost always mentions how they are the most recent expression of a populist strain in American political culture. And he has a point. What Brooks fails to mention, however, is that American populism has long had xenophobic strains within it as well as Richard Hofstadter and others realised some sixty years ago.

You can hear this xenophobia in the populist claims that Obama and his supporters are not “real Americans”, that they are instead “un-American” “socialists”, “traitors”, even “Nazis”. This "un-American" discourse, of course, goes back to the foundations of the nation if not before and has expressed itself in anti-Catholicsim, anti-Mormonism, anti-Shakerism, anti-Jehovah’s Witnessism, anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, Anti-Germanism in World War One, anti-cult rhetoric, and the long history of anti-immigration "nativist" mania in the US. You can hear present day echoes of it in populist claims that Obama was not born in the USA (Obama as foreign other). You can hear it in the claims that “illegal immigrants” will be covered under the new “Obamacare” (“illegal” immigrants as foreign others).

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