A new CNN poll of the Nevada Senate race shows Harry Reid trailing Sharon Angle by 2%. Without question there’s some truth to the popular wisdom about the state of this race, namely that voters are willing to support anyone rather than support Harry Reid. But the Sharon Angle race has me thinking about the relationship between the concepts of “qualifications” and conservative politics over the last twenty years or so.
You may recall that Republicans made significant gains in Congress in 1994 running on a platform that poked at long simmering white discontent with the legislative reforms of the civil rights movement. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich became national spokesmen against the failures of the “liberal welfare state” arguing that it had produced a “culture of dependency” and served to keep African Americans enslaved to the Democratic party, rather than liberating them. They drew distinctions between the white “working class” who had earned the privileges that came with their racial identity and African Americans who needed government “handouts” to succeed. Yuck, ugly stuff right?
If you can bear to think on that period for a moment longer you may also recall that one of the primary targets of white resentment were affirmative action policies. I know right, blast from the past. Despite their near total absence from national political discourse this millennium (until the last Presidential election, but more on that in a bit) affirmative action used to be a political boogeyman on the level of abortion, gay marriage and raising taxes. Jesse Helms won one of his final senate bids with the ingeniously evil “hands” advertisement. Here’s a link, its great for curing steady blood flow and chronic good moods. The logics at play in ads like this were an offshoot of the larger conservative criticism of the “welfare state.” Namely that it “handed” African American workers an advantage in employment opportunities leaving “hard working” and “more qualified” white workers on the unemployment line(not that they would ever go on unemployment benefits, workers don’t do that remember). Conservatives took advantage of education gaps between white and black workers to suggest that African Americans were taking high skill jobs they were not “prepared” for and could not have earned on their own. Indeed, the right clung so tightly to the concept of “qualification” and “education” because these were race neutral concepts that allowed affirmative action opponents to deflect criticisms that their dislike of affirmative action was race based. Ever hear anyone make a fool out of themselves by claiming to “not care if you’re black, green, purple or red, as long as you can actually do the job.” Exactly.
Why bring all of this up? Because I see a pretty upsetting irony in the tea party’s promotion of candidates like Sharon Angle, Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell and of course Sarah Palin for public office primarily on the argument that they lack political experience and formal education. To be sure, populism isn’t anything new on the American political scene. But there’s something new happening with these tea party candidates. They aren’t just outsiders to GOP political structure, they’re actively refusing to demonstrate their competency to voters in their state. Sharon Angle and Harry Reid still have not had a televised debate and I’m not holding my breath this next one’s actually going to happen. Neither have Christine O’Donnell and Coons. The mania over the so-called “liberal media” has reached a point that tea party candidates are even wary of appearing on Chris Wallace’s Sunday Morning talk show, choosing only to appear on the editorial programs like Hannity or Greta n’ em. A perusal of pro-Sarah Palin websites (I’m doing God’s work people, trust me) reveals that her supports countenance any suggestion, even from other conservatives, that she needed to complete her job as Governor of Alaska in order to prove she may be ready to be POTUS as a declaration of political warfare.
If there’s anything productive to be learned from the right’s sudden jettisoning of their discourses around the importance of “qualifications” is that it reveals how much white supremacy is at the heart of the tea party movement. And I’m not suggesting that any of them are actually running on passing laws that would codify racialized second class citizenship (except those candidates who support the Arizona immigration law. Wait, what that’s all of them? How awkward). But considering that most of these candidates are running principally to oppose Barack Obama’s “socialist” policies, my argument is that the ferocity with which tea partiers defend their candidates right to be inarticulate, to fabricate their educational histories and to be ignorant on a range of issues effecting their constituents merely suggests how strongly they feel that white folks, any white folks are worthy opponents of the “Affirmative Action President.”