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The Right Wing Inside

The insidious story of how abortion and sexuality came to dominate so much of our nation’s politics is familiar to any student of the 20th century: In order to woo first the Catholics and then religious racial minorities away from their traditional commitment to voting based on left-leaning economic and moral values—pro-union, pro-minimum wage, pro global justice and fair trade, concerned about poverty, etc.—the right wing began to harp on the small handful of areas that divided this constituency from the more liberal part of the democratic party—abortion, gays, sex ed, prayer in schools, euthanasia. But mostly abortion and gays.

In a nutshell: It worked. We all know what it looked like and what was done on the economic and civil rights front while this distraction was running.

Until this last election, when the economy had gotten so bad it came back to trump other concerns. Or so it seemed.

I’ve seen a couple of pieces talking about the death of the religious right, or at least of its era in power. I’m glad to hear it. But I also wonder.

One of the reasons that botulism is so dangerous is that what kills you is a toxin secreted by the bacteria—so even if you kill off the bacteria in contaminated food, the food will still kill you.

As I watch waves of reaction to the new administration echo around the Internet, I have to wonder if the religious right hasn’t left behind its toxic priorities even as it weakens.

What do I mean?

I don’t mean that reproductive freedom and gay rights are not very important.

I do mean that I saw approximately 500 times the outrage and activism around the choice of Rick Warren for inauguration preacher—a role that had no actual effect on policy—than I have over our government bailing out banks with no transparency and no accountability.

Keith Olbermann’s emotional gay marriage “special comment” (yes, I cried at it too) seemed to get a lot more attention, at least in my circles, than Jon Stewart’s utterly brilliant destruction of Jim Cramer as the representative of mealy-mouthed financial “journalists” and the crooked system they are apologists for. And Cramer and CNBC, as real financial journalist Mary Kane has pointed out, are merely the tip of the iceberg, the easy pickings.

I’ve seen so much more creative and activist energy poured into a state-level constitutional challenge to an admittedly awful ballot referendum or a showdown about domestic partner benefits than I’ve seen go into keeping the administration we elected with such high progressive hopes from leading us down a path that looks destined to save the asses of financial executives but not really change the rules or learn any lessons from how we got here. We managed to get worked up over some AIG bonuses, but not about the underlying problem: We’re bailing out irresponsible banks (including all of AIG’s trading partners, quietly, through AIG), and expecting nothing in return—all gain to the speculators, all risk to the taxpayers! (Doug Henwood, bless him, calls this being a “pro-bullshit investor.”)

Without more spine than that, all of us regular folk—gay and straight, married and unmarried—are headed quickly up a certain creek without a paddle.

But it’s so much easier to fight those other fights. Many of the reasons these wedge issues worked so well for the right aren’t dependent on what side you take: Specifically, they are fairly easy to understand, with well-defined positions staked out. People from the same cultural niches rarely disagree with their buddies on what should be done. And, let me repeat, they are genuinely important.

In the case of gay marriage, I think it’s also nice to feel like you’re fighting on the side that’s going to win in the long run.

Advocates for economic justice, sustainable economic recovery, and neighborhoods still being destroyed by foreclosures can’t say that so much right now. Their cause is so much harder to sum up. Even right here in this column, as a decided non-expert, I don’t know how to summarize a month’s worth of reading about fiscal policy to be as compelling as any call for family equality I’ve made before.

I haven’t given up on Obama. There’s plenty being done right. Even when it comes to Wall Street and bailouts and the financial system, I think Obama wants to be responsive. Thing is, the people who feel confident talking to him about the financial system are mostly the same numnucks who got us into this mess; unfortunately, some of them got put into key administration positions. Most of the economic activists I know aren’t touching these debates, focusing instead on (crucial) budget fights or health care, not treasury policy.

But I think someone has to figure out—quickly—how to summarize and communicate what ought to happen on/to Wall Street and rally us behind it. I’m looking at you, MoveOn, TrueMajority, Democracy for America, People for the American Way. Think big, or we won’t have another term during which to enjoy arguing the details of everything else.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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