In the closing weeks of the Georgia Senate runoffs, Republicans charged that the Democrats would cancel Christmas, ban hamburgers, and destroy the fabric of America. Democrat and preacher Raphael Warnock would be “America’s first Marxist senator”; his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff was compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. Now, I’m no expert on Christmas, hamburgers, or fabrics, but I am somewhat of an expert on Chinese Communism and Marxism—so I can say with some confidence that these claims are, in technical parlance, completely bonkers.
Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, despite being incumbents, are not running for something; they are running against the impending onslaught of socialism, which, by their telling, is basically already here. (This would be news to the DSA, but nevermind.) With only rare exceptions, the Republicans’ campaign is about warding off the arrival of some sort of invasive species that feeds on the blood of innocent Americans and will overrun the state of Georgia in copies of Das Kapital and veganism. Nevermind that Loeffler is a billionaire whose husband owns the New York Stock Exchange and Perdue is a millionaire corporate executive whose policy priorities of promoting outsourcing are anathema to rural Georgians. Loeffler and Perdue (and Donald Trump) claim that they are on the side of Georgians against “people who don’t share your values.” In other words, as one of their mailers says, “Joe Biden, the Hollywood Elite, and DC Liberals Want to Steal Your Future.”
Regardless of who ultimately wins, the fact that such bonkers claims carry such power is worth trying to understand. Why are Georgia voters, especially rural voters, receptive to these messages, and to believe wholeheartedly in the imminent death of Santa and meat-based cuisine? And why do liberals and Democrats have such trouble gaining political traction or combating these attacks? The political dynamics at play call to mind multiple episodes in John Gaventa’s excellent book Power and Powerlessness about coal miners in rural Appalachia. Rather than attribute support for exploitative local elites to condescending assertions that rural citizens have a “false consciousness,” Gaventa argues instead that understanding power requires thinking harder about powerlessness. Power corrupts the powerful and shapes their worldview; in the same way, powerlessness shapes the way that those on the outs of society come to understand the world. Similar to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony or studies of how colonized populations often end up accepting colonial ideologies, this understanding of powerlessness creates conditions in which the ideological narratives of local elites become the prevailing “common sense” of society, shaping the field of what is believable to the powerful and powerless alike.
Miners in the communities Gaventa studied in Appalachia faced terrible conditions and were completely at the whim of large mining companies, yet workers only rarely pushed back. More often, they actively supported the dominance of exploitative local elites. Multiple waves of social reformers who tried to help the miners failed miserably as local elites portrayed attempts to empower grassroots society as the work of hostile outside forces. Local citizens believed these claims, often made on the basis of cultural affinities, and fought to preserve the ideology that supported their powerlessness.
At the time of the Great Depression, unrest in the coal mines attracted national attention from writers, journalists, relief organizations, and other nonprofit groups. Local elites, threatened by these rebellions and the outside attention, had to rely on a new ideology to frame these events in order to maintain their power over the miners. Gaventa writes:
The ideology which emerged appealed to the forces of law and order, respectability, and patriotism as opposed to the forces of disorder, anti-religion, and anti-government brought in by the outsider. ‘Communism’, as interpreted to the population by ministers and government officials, meant belief in the principles of: 1) hatred of god, 2) destruction of property, 3) social and racial equality and class hatred, 4) revolutionary propaganda leading to the stirring up of class hatred, advocating of violence, strikes, riots, etc.; destruction of all forms of representative and democratic government and the rights of liberty guaranteed under the American Constitution—the right of free speech, free press, and the freedom of worship; 6) worldwide revolution overthrowing all capitalist government and the re establishment of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat, with headquarters in Moscow and with the red flag as the only flag.