Yesterday, I pondered why the Republicans would want to distract people away from the lousy economy. I quickly received heaps of comments here and on facebook suggesting that the GOP is equally implicated by the "Great Recession," and that surveys show that the public has more negative views of Republican handling of the economy than the Democrats. Pretty hard to achieve, but there you have it. In talking this over with my wife, I suddenly realized an interesting parallel--the GOP with an extreme right-wing party in Romania--the Greater Romania Party.
The Greater Romania Party, I found in researching For Kin or Country, is not as loudly irredentist as one might have expected with that name. Instead, over the course of the post-communist period, it has been a party that has focused its nationalism on xenophobia--on the internal targets or "others" rather than the external "us" in Moldova. What is more interesting and relevant for the US today is how the Greater Romania Party was quite flexible in changing targets as some "others" had more friends or were seen as being less useful for rabble-rousing.
The Greater Romania Party started out being quite anti-Semitic, but this was not so easy to sustain, given how few Jews remained after the Holocaust. During my interviews several years ago, everyone noticed that Vadim Tudor was taking a very different stand--proclaiming himself to be a philo-semite (whatever that means) by visiting Auschwitz and by taking on an Israeli campaign coordinator. Focusing on the large Hungarian minority was also a part of the Greater Romania Platform, but as Romania sought membership in the European Union and as Hungary made it in first, the party needed to dump this component of its nationalist rhetoric to appear more suitable as a party that could lead Romania into the EU. The good news for the party was that there were three or four groups left to target: homosexuals, Roma, Muslims and immigrants. I am guessing that the party figured that they could target each of these, but especially Muslims and immigrants without too much opposition from the EU or from Romanian parties worried about threats to the EU membership process because the members of the EU were not and are not big fans of Muslims or immigrants (or Roma). We have a party seeking to divide the electorate and gain support based on emotional appeals to an imagined pure nation of the past, promising policies that discriminate against those that are seen as belonging to the Romanian nation. And this worked to some degree, as this party finished second and third in the early to mid Aughts.
And the Republicans, fighting to maintain a vote share in desperate times (mobilized minorities, declining percentage of whites in the US, etc.) have made a similar move, emphasizing one set of identities and then another, alienating one minority and then the next in the quest for more support for more extreme candidates. The anti-Semitism has not been so prominent, but it is there. No accident that George Soros is portrayed as an agent of bad stuff by both the Greater Romania Party and the Republican Party. Republicans focused a bit on race, proving that Obama's Presidency does not mean we live in a post-racial America. They focused on gays and lesbians, but found that Americans have grown far more tolerant to rise to this bait as enthusiastically as in the past. The Arizona laws on immigration played upon fears of Latino immigrants committing an ever-increasing number of crimes (despite all trends to the contrary). So now, rather than taking the new ruling on Prop 8 and running with it, the focus is now on the 14th amendment's born in America proviso (as opposed to the equal protection component): this combines Islamophobia with anti-Latino xenophobia. Terror babies, indeed!
When I teach about ethnic conflict, the starting point is always that there are multiple identities and that the salience of each one (and the meaning attached to each divide) varies according to the political context. It is striking that the Republicans have taken this bit of social science thinking seriously and have moved from one identity/set of cleavages to the next, trying to mobilize the base in this election. Since the base of the GOP is white rural Christians, the use of identity politics can work in the short term precisely because the demographic balance of the US is shifting. The 2010 elections may lead to big Republican victories, but my best guess is that this is a short term outcome, as the combination of different targeted minorities will ultimately produce majorities. The GOP can win California only with a Republican who is one in name only. In Presidential elections, that diverse state is lost for the near and medium term. Colorado is now a toss up state. Arizona, well, that should be interestingly ironic down the road. How about Texas?
Indeed, we may have our answer for why using Islamophobia--to distract from the previous waves of anti-gay, anti-African-American, and anti-Latino stands. But it is unlikely to work for long. The Republicans should take a look at the Greater Romania Party to see what the future contains--as the the Romanian extremist party is now getting very few votes and having few seats after it has gone through its menu of targets.