As the campaign moves to New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is getting free advice on how to reach blue-collar Republicans from conservative talk radio host Howie Carr, a long-time fixture in New England media and politics who specializes in selling the party of the rich to the white working-class.
Carr is a veteran columnist for the right-wing tabloid Boston Herald and a perpetual antagonist of Boston's liberal political and cultural establishment. But his influence extends beyond Boston. His talk radio program, one of the top-rated in New England, reaches into southern New Hampshire and runs on other stations, making Carr a factor in the Granite State's quadrennial first-in-the-nation primary. For months, candidates in the upcoming January 10 Republican primary have been eager to get on the air with Carr as a way to reach not only his Boston audience, but also thousands of potential New Hampshire voters who tune into the show in its prime slot in late-afternoon drive time.
While Carr's show has played an important role in Boston politics for many years, it made national news recently when Romney, during an on-air interview, said that Barack Obama's uncle should be deported after a recent drunk driving arrest.
Anyone who wants to understand how the Democrats have lost so much ground with blue-collar white voters over the past generation should listen to The Howie Carr Show on Boston's WRKO-AM. The sneering, sarcastic host -- along with his guests and callers -- provides a perpetually updating archive of the race-, class- and gender-based resentments that animate the base of the Republican Party and drive right-wing electoral politics in the early 21st century.
Many people on the left dismiss conservative talk radio as an unsavory stew of bombastic hosts and angry, ill-informed callers. In addition to the unfairness of this caricature, talk radio remains a highly influential segment of media, reaching millions of listeners daily, clearly helping to shape conservative ideology as well as the Republican Party platform. Progressives and liberals who sneer at its vulgarity or sensationalism ignore it at their peril.
In order to understand why Carr's advice might be useful to Romney, it is necessary to have some background into Carr's ideology and public persona, and the role it plays in the politics of Massachusetts, the state Romney used to lead as governor.
Massachusetts has a national reputation for groundbreaking liberalism: the Massachusetts health care system is the most progressive in the nation; the state was the first to legalize gay marriage; the current Democratic governor Deval Patrick is only the second African-American governor in the country; and, of course, Massachusetts was represented in the U.S. Senate for nearly forty-seven years by Edward Kennedy, the most influential progressive senator of modern times.
But for all its liberal accomplishments and image, Massachusetts has always contained right-wing elements. It remains a point of pride among Massachusetts Democrats that the Bay State was the only state to vote for Democrat George McGovern over Republican Richard Nixon in 1972. But just eight years later Massachusetts voters helped elect Ronald Reagan president, and re-elect him in 1984. It turns out there were plenty of Reagan Democrats in Barney Frank's home state. Boston, of course, was also the site of some ugly white racism in the 1970s around the issue of court-ordered school desegregation. More recently, Tea Party activists in Massachusetts (along with right-wing money from out-of-state) helped propel Republican Scott Brown to a come-from-behind victory in a 2010 special election to fill Kennedy's seat.
But for anyone seeking insight into the social psychology underlying right-wing political ideology -- in Boston or anywhere else -- there is no better place to go than a broadcast of The Howie Carr Show. The radio program features caustic daily diatribes by the host against state and national Democrats, liberals, government employees, multiculturalists, environmentalists, intellectuals, feminists, and most of all for the past three years, President Barack Obama. The criticism does not simply reflect ideological disagreements. It often gets personal -- sometimes painfully so.
For example, Carr routinely launches verbal assaults on the character of people whose politics he dislikes. But he doesn't stop there. Like a classic schoolyard bully, he picks out certain physical characteristics in people and then taunts them mercilessly.
One of the fifty-nine-year-old Carr's favorite bullying tactics is to ridicule the manhood of male Democrats, something he does in the most juvenile manner imaginable. He has long referred to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as "Peewee." His name for the former Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger is "the corrupt midget." He calls former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich "the 59-inch Robert Reich." During the 2004 presidential campaign he relentlessly mocked John Kerry's military service, scornfully referring to him as "the War Hero."
His favored strategy to undermine the public sector is not to offer reasoned arguments against government spending, but to demean public employees as "hacks," a term he utters contemptuously and repeatedly on the radio and in his columns.
With his encyclopedic knowledge of Massachusetts politics and bullying sense of humor, Carr clearly sets the tone for his show. But his callers make an important contribution as well. A popular segment is the "chump line," where callers leave recorded messages 24/7 that Carr replays in prime time. Under the cover of anonymity caller after caller (almost all men) take cheap shots at Democrats, make coded racial slurs, tell crude jokes and otherwise mirror the petty political and personal vendettas of the host.
Racial animosity is central to Carr's worldview, and to his popularity with his core (white) audience. Here again, he not only opposes affirmative action on philosophical grounds -- he mocks it as a way that guilt-ridden, "politically correct" elitist liberals punish hard-working whites. He derides recipients of government aid as freeloading "gimme girls" -- his version of the racist and sexist "welfare queen" trope that Ronald Reagan popularized to such winning effect in the late 1970s and 1980s.
A long-running theme on his show and his Boston Herald column is the conventional conservative narrative that starting in the 1960s, middle- and upper-class liberals deserted the white working-class in favor of the black and Latino poor. He fashions himself a kind of right-wing populist, a regular guy who's sticking up for the little (white) guy who was left behind when liberals embraced multiculturalism and gender and sexual diversity.
Carr is a master of the conservative cultural politics of class resentment. In his moral universe, the enemies of the white working-class are not the forces of capitalist greed in the finance, banking and insurance industries. They are "the Birkenstock crowd" and "the kind of people who ride bicycles," go to bookstores in Cambridge, and vote Democratic. In fact, his career as a conservative media figure over the past several decades provides a useful case study of how the right has been able to deflect the angry passions of white working-class voters away from the true sources of growing income and wealth inequality and aim them instead at poor and dark-skinned people, and their liberal advocates in politics and academia.
When Ted Kennedy died and countless voices in media praised him as a tireless champion for working people, Carr wrote a dissenting column where he reiterated his contempt for Kennedy and accused him of forgetting about the white ethnics.
As a native Bostonian and talk radio aficionado who has logged countless hours listening to his show over the years -- and who also happens to have grown up in a blue-collar, white ethnic family -- I can't remember ever hearing Carr explain how it was possible that Kennedy and "the liberals" had forgotten the white ethnics when those same liberals were the driving force behind the creation and maintenance of unemployment insurance; successfully expanded access to affordable public higher education for children of the middle and working classes; expanded insurance coverage for families that lacked the means to afford health care; fought to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions; pushed corporations to pay workers living wages; passed laws which mandated that businesses adhere to workplace health and safety regulations; made paid sick leave the law of the land, and promoted a myriad of other liberal policies that provide tangible and sometimes life-saving benefits to working-class people of all races and ethnicities.
For Howie Carr's brand of right-wing populism to make any sense to his listeners and readers, he has to refrain from pointing out any of this, because it would contradict his central message and he would risk losing his audience. Much safer to stick to the tried and true narrative: blacks get special preferences; dark-skinned immigrants are taking "our" jobs; liberals think (white) working people are uneducated yahoos. Why abandon a lucrative talk radio formula and winning political strategy?
Which brings us to Carr's interview with Mitt Romney, the one-percenter who has a problem appearing believable in the role of populist hero. Carr cheered when Romney said he would deport Obama's uncle if he was here illegally. "This is the kind of red meat GOP primary voters want," Carr advised Romney in a follow-up column.
For anyone who persists in thinking that Romney's pandering and Carr's cheerleading are about their mutual desire to see the enactment of fair and humane immigration policy and not about the electoral politics of race, consider what Carr said next in his column the day after the Romney interview.
"The fact that the president of the United States has not one, but two relatives who came into the country illegally tells you absolutely everything you need to know about Barack Obama," Carr wrote. "You don't need to ever bring up his birth certificate issue as long as you keep Auntie Zeituni and Uncle Omar out there front and center."
And so it has come to this: Mitt Romney, an upper-class private equity manager who made his fortune in part by killing blue-collar jobs in order to enrich the investor class whose interests he primarily serves, comes trawling for votes in white working-class communities with the assistance and advocacy of a cynical media personality who supports the economic policy agenda of the one percent while fashioning himself a spokesman for white working-class grievances.
Let's hope that if Mitt Romney makes it through the Republican primaries and proceeds to the general election, these are among the many contradictions that an impassioned progressive blogosphere and an energized Obama campaign -- not to mention a mainstream media willing to do its job -- will somehow force him to explain.