Sociologists tell us that the populations from which most reactionary activism arises are those who perceive themselves to be most vulnerable to being overtaken economically by groups below them in social class. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have always been comprised mainly of lower-middle class and working-class men, not the poor. Similarly, most anti-abortion activists are baby boomers who make less money than their parents.
But economics is only part of the picture. Myth — narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about whom we are not — provides the connection to the facts, as well as to the emotional energy, the rage, that drives us.
For their entire lives, white Americans have received mythic instruction (through the media, schools, churches, etc) that regularly, daily and continuously re-affirm two main aspects of our identity:
1 — The Hero: the potency and competency of the free, lone individual (separate from family or community) and his capacity for achievement, creativity and productivity.
2 — The Other: the priviledge of being accepted as a member of the innocent, well-meaning, Christian, middle-class, masculine, mobile, upwardly-mobile, and most importantly, white citizenry. This means to identify as not black, brown, yellow, red, gay, female or poor.Americans uniquely confuse social class with race.
Simultaneously, however, we have also been subject to three more subtle messages:
1 — For three to five generations, we have been subject to unrelenting, sexualized commercialism that has pre-determined both the nature of our goals and desires and also their essential unavailability. Americans have been tantalized by the carrot and stick temptations of the media that keep them striving for more symbols of success.
2 — Since the mid-1970s, in sociolo-economic terms, the efforts of most Americans to achieve the material proof and evidence of both their potency and their membership in the “in-group” of the middle class has been failing. And the economy has shrunk at the same time that the Other (blacks, browns, gays) has attempted to move into the mainstream.
3 — For much longer and at a deeper level of awareness, we have been instructed by those same mythic materials that failure at any level is our own fault. This is an unacknowledged but profoundly powerful aspect of our Puritan heritage. To fail economically is not simple failure but — in America — it is moral failure. Jerry Falwell — for a time, our best-known preacher — actually said, “This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault.” Surveys show that the majority of Americans deeply believe that losers are bad and morally corrupt. We have internalized the shaming messages of many generations of white, Protestant Euro-Americans.
In this mythic dead-end, one can only be a hero or a victim, and the self-perceived victim will search for one of two things:
1 — A solution to his pain through culturally-approved individual behavior.
2 — A solution to his pain through collective action.
Sooner or later, however, the individual, non-political behaviors (consumerism, addiction or even religious fundamentalism) prove to be either unavailable or ultimately unsatisfying.
As for the collective solutions: one of the primary objectives of the corporate media and other mythic instructors is to distract Americans from identifying both the true spiritual and economic sources of their pain, and the the actual opportunities for addressing them.
Therefore, the victim who cannot be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats. Some will do so with energy derived from their thwarted desire to play the hero, so they will organize collectively as victims, but with truly “heroic” enthusiasm.
This is right-wing activism: deeply committed, emotionally intense, sustained effort under the identification as victim — despite their unacknowledged white privilege — with their targets being precisely those categories (race, gender) whom they have been educated to perceive as questioning or contesting that privilege.
Hence, we have, and certainly not for the first time in our history, groups of relatively well-off people who actually perceive themselves to be the victims of people who have far less than they do.
When the wealthy engage in conservative politics, they do so in a rational attempt to maintain their own wealth. They do not perceive themselves as victims. But — only in America — millions of economically insecure white people serve the interests of the rich because to do so is to feel accepted among the elect andnot “the Other.”