"Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear."  Alan Paton

Aparthood. It is the American translation of the South African, Afrikaaner apartheid.  It is a good word to describe the fundamental mission of the Right: the creation of a minority class of privileged rulers over a politically disenfranchised and economically subjugated majority.  Among the tools of aparthood are barriers to voting, destruction of the civil justice and public education systems, and the "legal" theft of the nation’s wealth.

The Right has used the election of Barack Obama to once again light the skies with its cross of fire. Suddenly, the terms "states’ rights" and "secession" are current. Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Tancredo and others hurling charges of "reverse racism." Somehow, they want us to believe Obama was bused to the White House.

Issues of race are deeply implicated, but the agents of aparthood also exploit a great tension in America’s collective psyche. On the one side is the drive to stand apart as sturdy, self-reliant individualists. On the other side lives the love of neighbors, the recognition of our common humanity, the understanding that the self is made whole by relations with others.

This mighty struggle was expressed at the very dawn of European culture’s arrival in North America. John Winthrop, in his speech to the colonists aboard the ship Arbella in 1630, urged his followers to understand that "that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection." But he also said God ranked us naturally in a hierarchy of rich and poor, noting that acceptance of the divine will guarantees that  "the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against and shake off their yoke."

Winthrop helps us see how the contemporary Right reconciles a contradiction alive in its midst. How is it that Creationists can preach the tenets of Social Darwinism? All is resolved through the divine will, they say. A common view of authority and morality unites what seem like contradictory views.

The Right believes humankind is sorted naturally upon a ladder. The Left believes we walk together upon a bridge.

For the Right, freedom means the recognition of a natural, hierarchical order.  By "democracy" the Right means a system that makes sure the "poor and despised" do not usurp the power of those above them on the ladder. The Right says it does not seek to "eat up the poor," though the enforced euthanasia of our health care system puts the lie to that claim.

The Right’s worldview is not just an ad hoc, cynical justification of selfishness. It is a meaningful, if destructive, worldview, a worldview that produces aparthood as a reasoned solution to the unpredictable dangers of our lives together in a hostile universe.

As we run up against the resource limits that betray the pacifying illusion of movement up their ladder of life, the Right is panicking.  That is why their more subtle tactics of deregulation and anti-tax demagoguery must give way to increasingly aggressive enforcement of their natural order: voter suppression through regressive identification requirements; the privatization of public education; the dramatic rise in public university tuition; the trashing of the civil justice system; the privileging of basic health care.

The Right presents all these tactical advances toward aparthood as efforts to protect the sanctity of the self-reliant individual. That is why they call Obama a socialist. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks of secession, he is signaling the fearful that the natural order is threatened, that extreme steps might be necessary to restore it. For many, the security of a place on the ladder, the reinforcement of worldview, is much more emotionally powerful than superficial measurements of material self-interest.

The Right has a powerful message. We shouldn’t be lulled to sleep by Americans’ apparent rejection of the message today. The collective deprivations of a deep, worldwide recession have temporarily put the Right at a disadvantage, much as happened during the Great Depression. A soup line is shaped more like a bridge than a ladder.

But the Right has history on its side. The agents of aparthood have long had the advantage over the bridge-builders, in part because the Left is reluctant to burn bridges, even bridges to the Right. The Right’s misleading language of freedom and democracy, the "individualist" tug many of us feel in our hearts, the media’s legitimizing of absolutist hierarchies, the persistence of racism and the wishful thinking that racism is somehow a disease of the past – all combine to hide the drive for institutionalized aparthood.

The alternative to absolutist hierarchy is not anarchy, as the Right claims. Authority and solidarity are not mutually exclusive. Take human empathy, which allows us to see through the eyes of others. Recent studies in cognition and emotion show us that even individually we have the ability to over-ride empathy. We don’t automatically empathize and empower abusers. We possess an inner-authority that guards against abuse. Together, we possess an outer-authority to guard us against collective abuse. We don’t oppose authority.  We oppose abusive authority.  Solidarity in the face of abusive authority, made possible by empathy, is the authoritarian’s greatest fear. That’s why the Right attack’s Obama’s mention of empathy, of course. George Lakoff explains in more detail here.

Human sociality is full of ladders and bridges. The theoretical genius of American democracy lies in this recognition. The Right shares the Framers’ skepticism of the masses, but rejects the Framers’ much more alarmed skepticism of unchecked authority. The Framers understood that human nature was not an unchanging thing, that humans could not be fixed to permanent, isolated places on a ladder the powerful lower from above.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith