The Politics of Rage

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Dan T. Carter. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 (hardcover). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995 (paperback). $17.95 Paperback: ISBN 0-8071-2597-0.


In a period when grass roots political “Tea Parties” and their leaders are making American headlines, it is useful to read a book such as Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage to remind oneself that discontented voter blocs are not a new phenomenon. Carter documents the life of one of America’s best known political gadflies, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. For younger readers, Wallace might be an obscure or even unknown figure, but to those raised in the 60’s he was an omnipresent and disquieting force on the political scene. As an unabashed segregationist southerner, it was easy to pigeonhole Wallace as a fossil from an earlier era, but every four years he was able to draw enthusiastic crowds of working-class supporters all over the country. While his vote totals never amounted to a major challenge to mainstream parties, he frequently gathered enough of the electorate to make those candidates take him seriously during the course of presidential campaigns. How Wallace was able to gather such support was and still is something of an embarrassment to American historians, but Carter confronts the question head on. While his book is a Wallace biography, it shows Wallace as the personification of a movement with a much longer life.

Carter organizes Politics of Rage as a pure biography, starting with Wallace’s childhood, progressing through his education, military service, entry into politics, marriage, and his emergence on the national scene. The narrative is highly readable, and leverages a broad range of resources. Carter was able to interview many of the major players in the Wallace drama directly, and benefits from the large amount of commentary that Wallace provoked among political writers of the period. While the "Politics of Rage"is a fascinating story in it's own right, filled with intrigue, bigger than life personalities and enough conflicts to satisfy a team of psychologists, this book is more than a simple biography – it is an analysis of a major feature of the American political landscape.

Carter argues that the foundation of right-wing conservatism is fear - fear of change and differences. Such fear is present all the time, but is exacerbated during periods of economic crisis. Other histories of the 20th century such as David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear, Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, and Nancy MacLean’s Behind the Mask of Chivalry reinforce this characterization of fear as a driving cultural force during the Depression. Inevitably, Carter invokes Richard Hofstadter’s discussion of the paranoid style of American politics, starting with Know-Nothings, the Klan, and McCarty red-baiters (344). Carter takes that thread forward into the fifties and sixties, describing white southerners as “unnervingly mercurial” veering from hospitality to angry rage to outsiders (43). Wallace and other grass-roots politicians were able to tap into fear over civil rights and to channel it into a political force. Michael Novak recognizing that while Wallace wasn’t serious enough to be elected president, he understood working class anger, fear and paranoia when confronted by change that they couldn’t comprehend (428)

John Lillard, Spring 2010

One of the strengths of Politics of Rage comes from Carter’s portraits of some of the more “mainstream” politicians of the era, and especially how they opposed, accommodated or otherwise dealt with Wallace. These vignettes become object lessons for how mainstream movements deal with fringe movements. Early in the book, Carter compares Wallace to his immediate predecessor as conservative standard-bearer, 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Carter attributes Wallace’s greater success as being due to his ability to link traditional conservatism to an “earthy language” as opposed to Goldwater’s superficial, country-club demeanor (12 and 361). Closer to home, Carter paints a very compelling portrait of “Big Jim” Folsom, Wallace’s predecessor as Alabama governor. Carter documents that despite Folsom’s personal failings, he comprehended that race was a “phony issue” used by the rich and powerful to divide the poor and bind whites together in a common interest (73). Presidential candidate Richard Nixon is illustrated as understanding about how to placate the Wallace constituency’s concern over civil rights by engaging in “patriotic tub-thumping” and touting the virtues of increased military strength (327).

In the course of the book, a recurrent theme in Wallace’s life and career is that of a constant need for recognition and approval, an almost childlike need to be taken seriously. As with other grass-roots politicians, this need manifests itself in attacks on urban elites and intelligentsia. After the Selma incident in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s ability to handle Wallace proved to be superior to John F. Kennedy’s because Johnson understood and shared Wallace’s concern about appearing as an ambitious provincial to the rest of the country (253-54).

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