Recently, US liberals have been struggling to understand the current upsurge in radical right-wing sentiment. A number of people have offered their opinions (see here and here for some insightful posts). Some say it's an “astro-turf” movement promoted by corporations and special-interests. Others claim that the movement is composed of far-right nut-jobs who have hijacked the political debate. Yet another view (recently dismissed by the administration) holds that there is an underlying racist element to the movement. It seems to me that all of these explanations hold some truth, but all of them are partial and none of them provides a method for combating what has proven to be an extremely influential movement.
Not knowing any of the demographics for people involved in the various protests – whether it's anti-healthcare, anti-stimulus, anti-government or just anti-Obama – my sense is that these are not the people who would generally be consider to be right-wing extremists. These are not the people who have bunkers and weapons caches in their back yards; who paste big American flags to the back of their trucks and hang out along the Mexican border hunting for illegal aliens. Instead these are ordinary citizens whose political views would ordinarily be described as right-leaning moderate. What has driven them further away from the center is an existential uncertainty and perhaps even resentment which has crystallized around an antipathy for the persona of President Obama and his moderate-left policies.
Certainly, special interests are active in this movement, and there are definitely some extremists involved as well. Latent racism is also a contributing factor. However, my sense is that there is no over-arching motive behind these protests, rather, what we have here is a heterogeneous collection of individuals and groups, each with their own unique ideology and social-political motivations, which have been drawn together to oppose the current administration. This process has been catalyzed by media sensationalism and corporate funding, but these could not be considered primary driving forces – they merely hasten a reaction that already existed in the background.
The result is what is referred to by William Connolly (drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri) as a resonance machine – an
“...energized complexit[y] of mutual imbrication and interinvolvement, in which heretofore unconnected or loosely associated elements fold, bend, blend, emulsify, and resolve incompletely into each other, forging a qualitative assemblage resistant to classical models of explanation” (his italics). The same kind of mechanism could be said to have been behind the conservative revival of the 1980s and 90s as well as the election of Barack Obama himself.
The danger in allowing this resonance machine to continue uncontested is the potential for a revival of the neoconservative policies of the 1980s and 90s which have left a lasting scar on the face of the U.S. that has only just begun to heal. Its effects can be seen in the state of the media, in the economic crisis, in the environmental crisis, in health care, and in many other domains as well. With increased media attention and faster methods of communication, the current resonance machine has the potential to be more far reaching and dramatic than the prior. One does not have to be a supporter of Obama or his policies to recognize this threat – it goes against our own basic self-interest and the necessity of moving ahead with important socioeconomic and environmental reforms.
Because they have a foundation in affective thought, a resonance machine cannot be countered with rational arguments. Nor can they be picked apart and contested piece by piece. Town hall meetings may have some impact, but are also insufficient, and any concessions made may further catalyze their growth.
What's needed is a counter-resonance machine. One that disarms the influence of the first, halts its self-organization and redirects the energy into a more positive set of goals. In order to resist the underlying fear and resentment of the current machine, the counter-machine would have to be based on mutual respect and responsibility as well as a sense that there is great potential in uncertainty. The strategy for building such a resonance-machine would have to be long term – incorporating the current debates over health care and environmental regulation, but looking beyond them as well – and involve a number of tactics including education, policy, outreach, grassroots organizing, activism, and outright resistance.
There is no way of knowing exactly what tactics will work best or what end-form the counter-resonance machine will take. Experimentation will be key. In order to be effective, though, it must not center around the persona or policies of President Obama – doing so would make it too fragile and easily disbursed. As with the current machine, it will have to be a heterogeneous assemblage with no single underlying motive or ideology, but, rather than halting the search for solutions to our challenges, our machine will move them forward in a positive direction, possibly resulting in ideas that are different from those promoted by the administration.
While democrats and the media fumble around trying to understand and explain the growing anti-Obama movement, the resonance machine continues to grow. The consequences of leaving it uncontested or of taking a limited approach to resisting it are socio-political stagnation at best and, potentially, a return of the neoconservative policies of the 1980s, with greater force and greater potential for harm. Working to build a positive counter-resonance machine will not only halt the current resonance machine but will also help to propel the US into a brighter, healthier, and happier society.