About Peckerwood Populism
The following article was written by Thomas L. Knapp and published on the knappster.blogspotSeptember 24th, 2009.

About Peckerwood Populism, part 1 of ?

I’ve used the term “Peckerwood Populism” a few times now, but haven’t offered a coherent explanation of it yet. Since I expect to make defeating it a personal priority, I guess it’s time to offer more specifics about what I mean when I use the term.

First stab at a definition:

In terms of ideology, Peckerwood Populism is a marriage of libertarianism to “states rights” conservatism. In terms of political strategy, Peckerwood Populism is an attempt to gain support for that marriage by packaging it as a populist appeal with (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle) evocations of past and present cultural and racial animosities.

The term “peckerwood” seems to have originated as a racial slur used by southern blacks to describe poor southern whites. In the present day, some white separatist/supremacist groups have adopted the woodpecker as a symbol, presumably by way of affirming the stereotype of poor southern whites as themselves racist.

While the average Peckerwood Populist is probably not affiliated with overtly white separatist/supremacist groups, he buys into that stereotype of the voter he’s pursuing. He’s pitching his product to blue collar white voters. He believes that a successful pitch to that demographic will involve appealing to racism, xenophobia, homophobia and, in certain areas, a twisted sense of cultural heritage — “the Confederacy was right,” “the South will rise again,” “America is a Christian nation,” “One nation, one language,” etc.

The “populist” part of Peckerwood Populism is the construction of a populist class theory. Any populist class theory pits one class (The Righteous Masses) against another (The Power Elites). Peckerwood Populism tells blue collar white voters that they (and, by implication, they alone) are The Righteous Masses, and that their aspirations are being suppressed and put down by a Power Elite composed of politicians who conspire to empower blacks, immigrants, homosexuals, et al at the expense of “the regular guy,” i.e. the blue collar white voter — in bulk, The Righteous Masses.

In terms of pedigree, Peckerwood Populism is a direct descendant of the Dixiecrat movement and of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” As a matter of fact, it’s what I had in mind when I referred to Bob Barr’s 2008 Libertarian presidential campaign as “Dixiecrat” in approach. There are reasons, however, to coin a new term for the phenomenon.

– The Dixiecrats are fading into history, and we’re probably at the point where using the term is as likely to create confusion (or, in some cases, arouse nostalgia) as it is to be understood descriptively. The Dixiecrats’ last gasp was probably Barr’s glowing eulogy to the late Jesse Helms; Dixiecratism proper was already on its deathbed by the time Trent Lott got himself in trouble by opining that America would be a better place if 1948 Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond had won the presidency.

– The phenomenon is no longer specifically southern. Its center of gravity is moving west and north. Its explicit appeal to racial animosity, while weakening in overall power and becoming less explicit and more implicit, has spread. Its base of potential popular support has been widened by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment in the border states and anti-homosexual tub-thumping in the “values voters” heartland.

– Over time — starting in the 60s with George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, as a matter of fact — the Dixiecrat and Southern Strategy phenomena have bled out of the “major” parties and sought refuge in third party political organizations.

A new term is obviously required, and so I’ve come up with one. Maybe it will stick, maybe it won’t, but the phenomenon is real and to the extent that it is analyzed it has to be called something.

My own interests, of course, run to the role of Peckerwood Populism in the Libertarian Party specifically. It is by no means a new phenomenon in the LP. It’s always been there, usually as a minority undertone, but gaining in power as former Lester Maddox speechwriter Neal Boortz became an LP poster child and as some libertarian ideologues cast a baleful eye backward on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln as a way of explaining the Republican Party’s fundamental corruption (and falling from there into defenses of the Confederacy which often went beyond the justifiable).

Peckerwood Populism became a major force in the LP last year under the auspices of the party’s presidential campaign. Bob Barr announced on national television that “states rights is the essence of libertarianism” was one such incident. Vice-presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root gave a race-baiting interview to Reason magazine, an interview almost entirely dedicated to portraying Barack Obama’s successes as nothing more than a result of identity politics.

Root is now seeking the Libertarian Party’s 2012 nomination, and his current vehicle in that quest is his book The Conscience of a Libertarian: Empowering the Citizen Revolution with God, Guns, Gambling and Tax Cuts. I’m reading that book right now, and will write a full review of it when I’ve finished it. At 80 pages in, it’s hard to tell exactly where Root is going with his message — on his best day, Root is all over the map ideologically and tends to peg the success of his pitch more on the quality of his personal communication skills than on the actual content — but the numerous references to “states rights” and self-identification as a “citizen politician” (i.e. one of The Righeous Masses rather than a member of The Power Elite) aren’t encouraging.

Whether Root is angling toward a full-blown Peckerwood Populist campaign, or just trying to encompass what he considers Peckerwood Populism’s more useful elements into a more expansive package, I can’t say for sure. Either way, though, he’s playing with some pretty nasty fire — fire that will ultimately burn the Libertarian Party if it’s not put out.

About Peckerwood Populism, part 2 of ?

In the first part of this series, I tried to get a working definition of “Peckerwood Populism” into play, and explain that definition a bit. Now I’m going to start riffing on pieces of that definition to flesh it out. I’m going to start with this:

While the average Peckerwood Populist is probably not affiliated with overtly white separatist/supremacist groups, he buys into that stereotype of the voter he’s pursuing. He’s pitching his product to blue collar white voters. He believes that a successful pitch to that demographic will involve appealing to racism, xenophobia, homophobia and, in certain areas, a twisted sense of cultural heritage — “the Confederacy was right,” “the South will rise again,” “America is a Christian nation,” “One nation, one language,” etc.

I tried to choose my words very carefully, but let me elaborate:

I’m not saying that the average white, blue collar voter is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate.

For that matter, I’m not even necessarily saying that the Peckerwood Populist agitator is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate.

What I am saying is that the Peckerwood Populist agitator believes that the average white, blue collar voter is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate, and believes that he can get his hooks into the voter by playing on those assumed sentiments. The agitator may believe that because he’s a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate himself and assumes that white, blue collar voters share his views — or he may just be an opportunist who believes that he can tap into sentiments he doesn’t necessarily share for the purpose of raising money and getting votes.

Past flirtations with Peckerwood Populism exploded in the face of Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination with the “NewsletterGate” scandal. Those flirtations seem to have been of the opportunistic variety. From the linked Reason article:

The most detailed description of the strategy came in an essay Rothbard wrote for the January 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report, titled “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement.” … Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an “Outreach to the Rednecks,” which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. … These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an “unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.” Anyone with doubts about the composition of the “parasitic Underclass” could look to the regular “PC Watch” feature of the Report, in which Rockwell compiled tale after tale of thuggish black men terrifying petite white and Asian women.

This was a very bad idea in so many ways. It was morally repugnant and it didn’t work, and if it had worked no sane person would have welcomed the outcome. The thing was going to go one of two ways — it could fall flat on its face and come back to haunt its architects later, or it could succeed and usher in a new era of, at best, Jim Crow Lite.

It did fall flat, and it did come back to haunt Paul, who had used his newsletters to pursue it. It didn’t cost him the presidency or the GOP nomination — he was never in a position to win either one — but it certainly embarrassed him and took some wind out of the sails of what was, by early 2008, a “Ron Paul R3VOLution” which looked a lot more like a Rainbow Coalition event than a Klan rally.

Peckerwood Populism’s second appearance on the 2008 election stage came not in the form of past scandal but of current effort — Bob Barr’s 2008 presidential campaign on the Libertarian Party’s ballot line. The racist, xenophobic and homophobic elements of that campaign were somewhat more subtle than the Ron Paul “NewsletterGate” flap — often taking “wink, nudge” form — but they were visibly present.

At the LP’s presidential nominating convention in Denver, Barr apologized for his role in authoring the “Defense of Marriage” Act and shepherding it to passage. Less than a week after his nomination, however, he was defending DOMA on “states’ rights” grounds — and asserting that “states’ rights is the essence of libertarianism” — on national television.

When former US Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina died in July of 2008, Barr publicly eulogized him as “one of the finest, most courageous and deeply principled men to ever serve in the United States Congress.” Helms’s record as a a racist political agitator is just too extensive to go into in an already over-long blog post — see Wikipedia for the gory details.

When Barr decided to go on the attack versus Ron Paul and hold his own press conference instead of attending the one he’d been invited to and said he’d be at, who did he single out for an excuse? Not the (white) sitting congressman with his own racial perception problem (Paul). Not the (white) Know-Nothing, protectionist, theocrat Baptist minister (Chuck Baldwin). Not even the (white) congenital liar and “consumer advocate” who became rich by manipulating stock prices through his attacks on “big business” (Ralph Nader). None of those. Barr, said campaign spokesman Andrew Davis, “didn’t want to dilute his message by being on the same stage as people like Cynthia McKinney, who is completely opposite of what a Libertarian is” [emphasis mine].

What’s Cynthia McKinney “like?” What makes her “the opposite of a Libertarian” in a way that the others are not? According to a Freedom Democrats issues survey, McKinney voted with Ron Paul 80% of the time on civil liberties issues in Congress — more often than any Republican, and more often by a damn sight than Bob Barr, so it wasn’t ideological. It certainly wasn’t a matter of stature or of tenure in public office, either — McKinney had served more terms in the US House than Barr had, and neither Nader nor Baldwin had ever held partisan political office. She was an avowed lefty and the candidate of the Green Party, but Nader is a lefty and had run for president as a Green before, too. She probably wasn’t even the best known of the people on stage (Paul and Nader probably both had a name recognition edge on her).

Only two things visibly distinguished McKinney from all others on the stage: She was black and she was female. Wink, nudge.

Over the course of his campaign, it became abundantly clear that Barr’s target audience was white southern voters who didn’t really want to pull the lever for John McCain, but who under no circumstances would be voting for “someone like” Cynthia McKinney Barack Obama. Wink, nudge.

Barr’s campaign never gathered enough momentum for his Peckerwood Populist appeal to become an issue of intense public interest. Any future Libertarian presidential candidate who does manage to attract significant attention, however, will likely be called upon to “explain” that appeal … and it won’t be any prettier in reprise than it was the first time around.

If the Libertarian Party goes for a repeat performance by nominating 2008 vice-presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root — who carried his own share of the race-baiting load in 2008 and has already begun positioning himself as a “states’ rights” candidate for the 2012 cycle — it will no longer have the luxury of pleading ignorance or of portraying the Barr campaign as an aberration or an isolated incident.

It’s certainly possible that Barr’s Peckerwood Populist play was an exercise in opportunism rather than an expression of deeply held beliefs on his own part … but I don’t see how that translates into anything like an up side. Peckerwood Populism is an old, degrading hand grenade with the pin already pulled. If you start tossing it around, you can pretty much count on it exploding in your face sooner or later.

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