And why do we keep blaming the wrong people?
Mobs disrupt town meetings. Glenn Beck amplifies a careless remark by a mid-level White House staff member into a threat of a national communist takeover. The right wing spin machine creates a parent revolt over a presidential pep talk to students urging them to study hard and stay in school. Meanwhile, the Party of No blocks action on health care and climate disruption with lies and distortions and declares President Obama's stimulus package a socialist plot and a failed waste of taxpayer money.
There is a common thread. Each of these media events has diverted attention from Wall Street's responsibility for crashing the economy, taking trillions of dollars in public bailout money, and then rewarding itself with outlandish bonuses.
The Wall Street corporations funding the front organizations that orchestrate these and other diversions hope we will forget that America's number one problem is Wall Street—and the overpaid Wall Street casino gamblers who destroyed our economy in a reckless test of the theory that markets can self-regulate and that the unrestrained pursuit of individual greed is beneficial to society.
Wall Street's greatest fear is that the public might demand Congress and the president shut down the casino. Any issue that shifts attention away from Wall Street and pins the blame for job loss and mortgage foreclosures on President Obama works in its favor.
The right wing media campaign would have us believe that President Obama, not Wall Street, is the nation's #1 problem. He's a socialist. He's an irresponsible spender. He isn't really patriotic (remember, he didn't wear a flag pin). America's lost jobs and the mortgage foreclosures are his doing. Never mind that he was still living in Chicago working as a civil rights lawyer and then an Illinois state senator while Wall Street was putting together the high-risk financial instruments that ultimately brought down the economy.
Every controversy that gains media attention, including such peripheral issues as President Obama's talk to students and a green jobs advisor who once signed a controversial petition, helps to push Wall Street off the front page and distract the White House, congress, and the public from the real issue.
Because Van Jones, the green jobs advisor who was the object of a withering smear campaign funded by the corporate right, is a valued friend and colleague, I followed the outlandish attack on him with far greater attention than I normally give to the right wing noise machine. I watched in amazement as it elevated him from being a mid-level White House advisor to being one of the most powerful and dangerous players in Washington, the leader of a socialist plot to take over America. Van was a perfect surrogate for Obama, because he is a charismatic black man with a gift for oratory similar to Obama's—and is an outspoken advocate of social justice and environmental responsibility.
Van's message is one that I should think any loyal, caring, thoughtful American would celebrate. Yet I watched as Glenn Beck in full red-faced bluster translated a video clip of Van Jones calling on his audience to be more caring in our relationships with one another into a subversive plot to turn America into a socialist state. I was aghast. Would Beck have condemned Jesus as a socialist and cheered those who led him off to his crucifixion?
Much of my academic training is in psychology. As a student, I was fascinated by studies of the psychological dynamics that allowed Hitler to take control of Germany and more generally lead people to enthusiastically support racist, fear-mongering, authoritarian demagogues. There is a general pattern. Successful demagogues provide a message of certainty in uncertain times that turns fear and self-doubt into a sense of purpose, power, and self-worth for people called to join an army of the righteous to rid the world of some real or imagined evil.
Another of my African-American colleagues, Harry Pickens, recently shared with me his compelling assessment of how this dynamic is playing out currently in America.
He notes that most Americans, until quite recently, grew up within a culture that assigned each of us our place in a social hierarchy that placed men over women, whites over people of color, rich people over poor people, and humans over nature. Knowing one's place offered a certain sense of stability and security even for those on the bottom.
Unless one has a secure sense of identity independent of these categories, the breakdown of the hierarchy can introduce extreme uncertainty that is both confusing and threatening, even in times of economic prosperity. The civil rights, women's, and environmental movements all challenged the hierarchy and threatened the established system of authority and identity.
Then came the ultimate shock—a black president whose intelligence, poise, talent, and charisma set him apart even from most of America's former presidents. With him came the strong, intelligent, beautiful, and charming Michelle, who has the potential, like Hillary Clinton, to be a future presidential candidate in her own right. Horror of horrors. The only thing that might present a greater threat to the old social order than a black male president from a modest class background is the specter of a black female president. For some it has been a shock too great to bear.