It took some time, but I finally got around to watching Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) by Stefan Forbes. It’s well worth a watch if you’re fascinated by the drama of American politics. In its focus on Lee Atwater the film individualises a serious problem, which is actually systematic, within the US political scene. This is both its weakness and strength.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, so-called rugged individualism has long been the dominant character of American politics. It’s part myth, and part reality. Personalities are more significant than parties. Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin coexist in the same party, but represent different ideas, constituencies and interests. But this can serve to obscure deep-rooted problems.
Undoubtedly, Lee Atwater is a significant figure in American political history. He arose just as the civil rights struggle had defeated Jim Crow in the Southern States and the anti-war movement was challenging US hegemony. Out of this period the gay liberation and feminist movements emerged in the 1970s. The executive power of the presidency was put under strain with the fall of Nixon in the wake of Watergate. It looked as if the establishment was seriously threatened.
What came next has to be understood as a period of reconsolidation for the American ruling-class. Jimmy Carter came into office as a candidate to win over the counterculture and bring them back into mainstream liberal politics. Once in office, President Carter installed Paul Volcker in the Federal Reserve, where he immediately hiked interest rates to soak the poor, and in foreign affairs pledged CIA support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua.
Once in office, Ronald Reagan inherited and expanded the Contras and the Mujahideen deepening the American commitment to devastating Nicaragua and Afghanistan. The Reaganites went as far as to sanction CIA drug trafficking to fund the illegal and immoral campaign of terrorism against the Sandinistas. This was the surrounding context of Atwater’s rise.
The Reagan campaign recycled the planks of Goldwater conservatism: small government, individual freedom, and anti-communism. This is where Lee Atwater entered. As one of Strom Thurmond’s storm troopers Atwater mastered the Southern strategy, which would allow the GOP to seize the South after the Democratic concessions to civil rights. He was adept at tapping into the copious reservoirs of Southern resentment. This is not just about the civil rights movement, it’s about the outcome of the American civil war.
Traditionally, the Democratic Party had been the representatives of white supremacy, as well as big business, and later the labour movement. The balance of this was first disrupted by the New Deal and then finally collapsed under the Great Society. This is the side of history that the documentary could have engaged. Instead, the film does little to critically engage with the Democrats, a flaw endemic to American liberals, which given their failures and complicity is pretty lax. The focus on Atwater allows the film to skip over the complicity of Democrats.
The film rightly focuses on the Bush campaign of ’88 and highlighted the use of race as a mobilising force. Atwater engineered the notorious Willie Horton adverts, which sparked controversy, in a blatant appeal to white racial-consciousness. Atwater transformed George Bush, the wimp wasp, into the defender of the white race. However, the documentary omits that it was Al Gore who raised the case of Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in the competition for the Democratic nomination.
In other words, the liberals played the ‘race card’ first only for Atwater to wield it against them. Much like how Harry Truman initiated the red scare which would later become McCarthyism. The capacity of establishment liberalism to undermine itself should not be underestimated. I’m not sure if the omission of this convicts Stefan Forbes of anything particularly egregious. It could be down to ignorance, or a choice to keep the focus on Atwater. In any case, this omission folds into another problematic assumption.
Forbes attributes a diabolical brilliance to the likes of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and, by extension, Roger Ailes. Out of these figures Atwater may have been the most effective, but it’s hard to judge as his rise and fall was so rapid. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Bush I was flushed out of the White House thanks to a tax pledge he made on Atwater’s watch. It’s clear Karl Rove offered George W Bush highly damaging advice on more than one occasion. Alexander Cockburn pointed this out a long time ago:
Since 9/11 where has been the good news for the Administration? It’s been a sequence of catastrophe of unexampled protraction. Under Rove’s deft hand George Bush has been maneuvered into one catastrophe after another. Count the tombstones: “Bring it on”, “Mission Accomplished”, the sale of US port management to Arabs. It was Rove who single-handedly rescued the antiwar movement last July by advising Bush not to give Cindy Sheehan fifteen minutes of face time at his ranch in Crawford.
As for Roger Ailes, the emergence of Fox News has largely allowed the mainstream media to pretend it is really objective – at least with Fox News there is little such pretense – when in many ways the US press (even without Fox) is awful. The New York Times, a regular feature in the Fox demonology, has long been a custodian of the establishment and its consensus. The soi disant objective media has always been far from inclusive. In fact, objectivity is by its nature exclusionary.
So the picture is incomplete. It lacks any critical account of the Democrats. It’s no coincidence that the culture wars were launched after the economic losses under Reagan were accepted as conventional wisdom. It’s not all down to the Machiavellian ingenuity of a rascal from South Carolina. The bicoastal elites were always vulnerable to cultural populism as class has long been a taboo subject in American politics. The assumed primacy of individuals leaves little room for systemic analysis. But it does allow space for sectional interests.
Originally this article was written and published at Living in Philistia on January 30 2015.