It's Not Tyranny; It's the Re-distribution, Stupid

11/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

In this crazy political season, when stay-in-school speeches are transformed into demonic efforts at socialist indoctrination, expanding health care is viewed as the step just before the gas chamber and raising taxes on the wealthy is the open door to the Gulag, it's worth remembering this: the rabid right, as expressed by its leading organs, whether congressional Republicans or the talking heads Limbaugh, Beck and so on, is not concerned about tyranny per se, but only a very specific type of it. These high organs of the right cheered on eight years of significant erosions of civil liberties - warrantless wire-tapping, torture and the demonizing of anyone who had the temerity to criticize a "war president."

The profoundly anti-democratic (that's small "d" for those scoring at home) character of contemporary right-wing ideology is too plain to dispute and, as Marc Hetherington and I show in our new book - Authortarianism and Polarization in American Politics - is especially pervasive precisely among authoritarian-minded individuals who have, in turn, become the base of the Republican Party.

The point may seem obvious, but every time you hear another right-wing ring leader, whether it's the aforementioned Limbaugh or Beck, or Michelle Bachmann or Sean Hannity lament the loss of freedom and the imminent imposition of tyranny, it's important to remember what galls the modern American right about Obama is not the loss of freedom itself, but the extent to which he represents, in their collective imagination, the loss of prerogative (what folks used to call "status anxiety.") They believe that Obama's redistributionism means less for them and their kind - the true, deserving "real" Americans - and more for those who should know their place rather than despoil America with their grubby insistence on government entitlements. Whether it's illegal immigrants, gays, or brown-skinned people more generally, the modern right may have some sympathy for individuals in need, but as collective groups, it's an outrage that government wants to help them at the expense of the real Americans.

This contempt for the other is key to understanding why the concrete erosions of basic American freedoms during the Bush years were cheered on by the American right. In the popular imagination, the face of those whose freedoms were being denied was a brown one, specifically a Middle Eastern one. In the worldview of the contemporary American right, those faces are not a legitimate part of America (even when they're full-fledged American citizens). In fact, that effort - to de-legitimize brown skin as a fundamental part of the American fabric - has become a core feature of the contemporary right (or at least, to make sure brown skin knows its proper place). It's at the heart of the insane birther movement - the entirely baseless claim that the current president was not born in America. Needless to say, Obama's place of birth isn't the problem. It's the double indignity of a mixed race, brown-skinned man with a Kenyan father insisting on the proposition that the government can, and should, do something to aid those less fortunate, including many who do not fit the right-wing's view of authentic Americans.

A close friend recently asked me whether there was not, in fact, valid concern about a government purporting to do good but, in the process, simply taking over more and more power of our daily lives. In principle, this is a discussion worth having. Modern governments, including ours, have extended their reach into more of our daily lives. And some principled libertarians are genuinely concerned about ever-expanding American militarism (which Obama will do nothing to check), the growing American surveillance state and intense collaboration between government and major private economic interests at the expense of the economic well-being of the majority of Americans.

But the contemporary American right is lustful about expanding our military power, enthusiastic about erosions of civil liberties, especially as long as a non-white face can be affixed to those curtailments and has no credibility whatsoever on the issue of how government is used to perpetuate the prerogatives of American corporations.

Recall that the above-mentioned Beck, the new hero among the raconteurs of right-wing resentment, solemnly agreed earlier this year with a complete nutjob that America actually needed to suffer a mass casualty attack in order to get through its thick, collective skull, that we could no longer afford basic liberties. One is unlikely to find a more direct endorsement in major American media of Stalinist terror in the service of Stalinist erosions of freedom than that.

That's because "tyranny," as most folks ordinarily understand that term, is not the problem that so vexes and exercises the high priests of the contemporary American right. It's the outrage of a government that seems not to give a fig about "ordinary" Americans and is willing to steal their just desserts and transfer them to the undeserving.

So that no one misunderstands me, not every opponent of Obama, or health care reform, or government re-distribution is a closet member of the Klan. But what gives the movement its fuel, what propels its outrage and anger at what are, in the end, rather tepid policy proposals, is not "tyranny" in any traditional understanding of that term. It's the blinding indignity of the wrong kinds of people using government to help everyone except those that legitimately deserve it. That's what allows people to howl in protest against a "government" take-over of health care while insisting on that same government keeping its hands off their Medicare. It's not government that's the problem - it's the proposition that government might help the "other" and might do so at the expense of "real" Americans.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, is just out from Cambridge University Press. He blogs daily about politics and sports at