For the last quarter century, American politics and the national government have been dominated by the reactionary right. This domination was only partially interrupted by the Clinton years. Born as the "white backlash" of the 1960s, the reactionary movement has become a powerful force for reversing the social gains made by blacks, women, homosexuals, certain immigrants and the poor. It also is seeking to wipe out the country's core social programs, some of which go back to the Great Depression and New Deal of the 1930s.
The principal tools that the right uses are vast amounts of money, conservative "think tanks" that give its ideas legitimacy, conservative mass media, technology and social division, particularly the hostility of the Republican Party's "base" to the "others," mostly the groups mentioned above.
This year's presidential race will be a rerun of previous election cycles in the use of "wedge" issues against certain groups. By a process of elimination, and through the gift presented by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, the primary target of the 2004 Bush campaign will be gays.
Because welfare rolls and crime are down, and because the GOP has used race so often in the past, African-Americans are not the most attractive target this year. Gay people have become a desirable target because of the gay marriage issue and the right's ability to link homosexuality, the Bible, and broader "values" issues in people's minds.
Race, particularly white hostility to black Americans, has been at the heart of modern Republicanism since the Goldwater campaign of 1964. Were it not for race and racism, George W. Bush would not be sitting in the White House. His racist attacks against John McCain, virtually all conducted beneath the radar screen, won him the South Carolina primary and kept his candidacy alive. Then, the disenfranchisement of many thousands of black voters in Florida made it possible for the Supreme Court to insert Mr. Bush into the presidency.
Every Republican campaign since Goldwater, with the exception of Gerald Ford's in 1976, has sought to pit race against race, whether it was Reagan's "welfare queens" or Bush the father's Willy Horton ads.
While television talking heads and others would like us to think that this is "just politics" or even a form of entertainment, the reality is that these politics have done enormous damage to American society. They have produced the highest rates of imprisonment in the world, the shredding of the country's social safety net, the abandonment of even a pretense of equal opportunity, and the isolation of millions of people in entrenched poverty in decaying central cities.
In the immediate case, the anti-gay marriage campaign, violence against homosexuals has already gone up. Most important, the politics of social division and hostility have produced a climate of mistrust and, in some instances, hatred, whose long-term consequences cannot be predicted.
While the politics of division have long-term consequences that are invariably bad, the reality is that they work as short-term political strategies. In fragmented societies across the world, from the Middle East to the former Yugoslavia and large swaths of Africa, focusing hostility on "the other" has proven to be a viable path to gaining and holding on to power, even though it has often ruined the societies in question.
The 'us' against 'them' game
What does any of this have to do with the Virgin Islands? While reactionary politics and fostering inter-group hostility is typically seen as the province of the political right, there are also reactionaries of the left who are willing to play the game.
Largely because of the politics of divisiveness, the Virgin Islands, once a bastion of tolerance, has become a far less tolerant place in the past 30 years. Instead of trying to roll back social change, Virgin Islands reactionaries seek to hold onto privileged positions by pitting group against group. As on the mainland, these reactionaries control the levers of government, and they intend to hold onto those levers at any cost.
One of the tools for holding onto power is to play a version of the "us against them" game. Here are three small symbolic, but important, examples.
– The resurgence of "born here" is indicative of both decline and growing intolerance. The "others" are those not "born here," most of whom are white, just as most, but hardly all, of those "born here" are black. "Born here" is the Virgin Islands mirror of the mainland Republican version of "the American People." a group that excludes anyone who is not white, rich, suburban or a fundamentalist Christian. The message is the same: "We" don't want you.
– The replacement of "American Paradise" by "Our Islands, Our Home" on V.I. license tags seems like an innocuous change, and it almost certainly is. But it symbolizes a mindset which is again exclusive and defines the "other." If they are "our" islands and "our" home, it means that there is somebody whose islands and homes they are not. Who are those others? Logically, those not "born here."
– Finally, the recent specter raised of a return to "colonialism" if a federal chief financial officer is appointed to oversee the territory's finances is another form of what used to be known as "waving the bloody shirt." While the real message is "God help us if they come in here and see how we have screwed up the finances," using "colonialism" as a political club puts the issue into a racial context that is rooted in a long history of legitimate grievances. The message: Whites are going to retake control of the only thing we have, the government.
The high price of divisiveness
Does any of this make a real difference? Who cares what the license plates say, or whether politicians try to strengthen a weak hand by "playing the colonialism card"? The answer is that it matters a lot in several ways.
For one thing, societies in which groups do not communicate and in which there are high levels of mistrust are always at greater risk of disintegrating. The Virgin Islands is such a society. In peculiar ways, it has been lucky. The federal umbrella, which has had other negative consequences, provides everyone with a certain measure of security. In addition, crime, rather than massive inter-group violence, has become a kind of safety valve, albeit one that imposes huge costs on the community, particularly in the forms of economic decline, even greater mistrust and the out-migration of valuable people.
For another, we are increasingly able to see that societies and individual communities that thrive are ones that are accepting of differences and that welcome talent. The Virgin Islands has become less accepting and less welcoming, a condition that is both a cause and an effect of its social and economic decline. When political figures ask rhetorically, "Are you saying that we don't have enough talent here to fill these top jobs?" there is a natural inclination to go along with the program, if only to avoid being called a racist, and respond: "Of course there is a weath of talent here."
But the correct answer to the question is that the territory has a talent deficit in most managerial, professional and leadership areas. Its failing schools and other institutions and its hostility to "outsiders" make the problem worse every year. The Virgin Islands does need outside talent, just like every place else, but even more.
And finally, like the politics of reaction and division on the mainland and elsewhere, the Virgin Islands variety can produce no vision of hope, but instead only a future marked by more division, greater mistrust and intensified competition for pieces of an inevitably shrinking p
When inter-group mistrust is high and the politics of division are in the saddle, the worst elements in society rise to the top and "good people" are marginalized and silenced — or, more likely, they just leave. When that happens, all bets are off.
In the worst-case scenarios — of which there are many, as we have seen with people as diverse as Arafat, various generals in Latin America, African dictators and various ex-Yugoslav war criminals — we are often surprised by what these people are capable of doing. We should not be since, in most cases, they have been talking about it for years.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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