The bully is back in American politics. Intimidation, dismissal of majority opinion, denial of scientific facts and aggressive scapegoating — these tactics have once again taken center stage. Blatant propaganda feeds fear and distrust, and the powerful and the privileged wallow in the spoils.
Though it never quite disappeared, the mean guy persona took a back seat in the Clinton era. Clinton's oft-repeated "I feel your pain" obscured some hard-hearted policies, like welfare reform and the relentless drug war. But the Clinton style was one of subtle strangulation, not public muscle. Clinton took enough principled stands to make him hugely popular in the African-American community and to reassure many that the barbarians had not yet reached the gate.
That feeling of reassurance has rapidly and dramatically evaporated. Yes, President Bush's policies are far more conservative than he articulated while running for office. But it's the in-your-face way his administration promotes a ferociously partisan agenda that has left many Americans gasping.
Think back to the bullying of junior high school, when intimidation ruled over reason; when kids were cruel for their selfish reasons; when power had a complete lack of empathy. In many ways, this is how conservatives and corporations behave in America and around the globe. Personal power, fortune and the bottom line run roughshod over democratic principles of justice and fairness.
Today's high-profile bullies in politics and business offer a rare opportunity. By taking inventory of their shared traits and tactics, we can put our finger on what makes these bullies tick ... and how they exercise "Scary Power."
Scary Power is bullying and brute strength exercised in the public sphere. It's the freedom to threaten millions of people's safety and well being, say by manipulating California's power supply. It's the ability to cheat hundreds of thousands out of large sums of money, as CitiGroup did with predatory lending practices. It's the clout to risk environmental disaster by blandly denying reams of scientific data, such as ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, who holds that global warming doesn't exist. It's an immense iron fist in a velvet glove — the chemical industry simultaneously blocking safety tests for newly developed chemicals and convincing the public that such testing is routine.
In recent history, we saw flashes of Scary Power during the Newt Gingrich revolution, when the Republicans controlled both wings of Congress and shut down the government. A meaner version surfaced when the conservatives went after Clinton's personal behavior, much against the will of the people. Now, with control of the White House, political bullies seem ready to use their Scary Power without fear of redress.
Why Scary White Guys?
OK, you're wondering: Can't black guys in power be scary? Can't women be scary? Yes, sure they can — but not real scary, not jaw-dropping scary.
To be truly scary, a person first needs a strong and unadulterated will to exercise power over others. Then add assets that not many can muster: ready access to a whole lot of money; equally ready access to the media; and a surrounding network of allies and talent — lawyers, lobbyists, PR agents, political operatives, pollsters, etc. — who can execute orders and get the dirty work done.
How many African-Americans have this combination at their disposal? Maybe Colin Powell, but he seems to be one of the least scary members of the Bush cabinet. What women can halt funding for family planning clinics around the world? Reality check: It's only the white guys (actually a certain breed of older, rich white guys) who have Scary Power.
Also, white guys with Scary Power are almost always supported by other white guys. A breakdown of voting by race in the last presidential election tells the story loud and clear. Fully 90 percent of Bush voters were white, as opposed to just 69 percent of Gore's. Gore carried the Latino vote 62 to 34 percent, the Asian vote 55 to 41 percent, and the Black vote a whopping 90 to 8 percent. The gender gap was also significant: Gore won 54 percent of all women voters, 57 percent of women with college degrees and 64 percent of women with advanced degrees.
In other words, the only group that voted for Bush was white males. However, white guys supported him so overwhelmingly that, in the election fiasco, they managed to bring him — and a whole crop of other scary white guys — into power.
What are the characteristics of this rare breed, the scary white guy (heck, they deserve their own acronym: SWGs)? At a minimum, the SWG has some or all of these characteristics:
He is a bully who uses intimidation as a regular tactic. He is destructive, in that he kills possibilities and destroys human aspirations. He is self-centered, egocentric and selfish. He is an exploiter, employing his power to the greatest possible advantage. He is greedy in that he seeks more than he could possibly need. He is a denier who refuses to acknowledge disagreeable realities. He is corrupt, dishonest, bending the rules for personal or political gain. He is a scapegoater, adept at pitting people against each other and blaming victims for their suffering.