07/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mocking the Poor is a Bad, Bad Strategy

Johann Hari has written an excellent piece about the decline of Gordon Brown and the rise of the British National Party. In it, he advises liberals not to dismiss British National Party supporters as a bunch of racists (emphasis mine).

[I]t is not the case that 10 per cent of people in Yorkshire are sympathetic to Holocaust-denying lunatics. No: they were overwhelmingly broke young white men who would, a generation ago, have formed the Labour core vote. They are angry about low wages and chronic shortage of housing - and simply telling them they are bigots won't get us very far.

Any conversation with BNP voters has to begin by agreeing that they are right to be angry about both subjects. There is a housing scandal in Britain today. In the 1980s, the revenues from council house sales were squandered by Margaret Thatcher on tax cuts for the rich, instead of being used to build more social housing. Labour allowed social housing construction to fall even further. We now have a housing drought, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stuck in cramped, damp homes. Similarly, our minimum wage is one of the lowest in the developed world. Tax credits are good, but today they only go to people with families: the rest watch their wages sink.

Americans would be wise to follow this advice. There are similarities between the British National Party and the rise of the "tea-bagger" movement in America. Both BNP supporters and the tea-bagging Beckians are guided by fear from the collapse of the world economy, and both class of supporters tend to be poor-to-middle class white men that are looking for an "other" to blame for all their woes. The BNP leadership chooses to represent itself with viciously racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and tea-baggers have been known to carry signs that read, "Show us your REAL birth certificate," a reference to the long-circulated rumor that President Obama was not born in America, making him another dangerous "other."

But I agree with Hari that it's a bad strategy to totally mock and marginalize these movements. A good way to fuel bigoted behavior is to make dissidents feel like they don't have an outlet for their frustrations. While I have also pointed out the horrific ideologies held by the BNP, making BNP supporters feel like they are stupid for having any grievances with their government is a terrible strategy for reform. A better way to handle this surge of fringe political groups would be to channel that anger into a productive dialogue. People that have lost their jobs, homes, and life savings should be angry, but not at immigrants or black people. They should be angry at a government that -- as Hari points out -- has done everything in its power to dismantle social safety nets like public housing.

While Britain suffered under Margaret Thatcher, America withstood Ronald Reagan, another foe of social spending and regulation. In Britain and America today, people are enduring the legacy of those ill-conceived ideologies. A natural byproduct of that suffering is the rise of fringe political movements, and while the terrible philosophies harbored by groups like the BNP should not be encouraged (and thankfully have been very publicly derided in the form of spirited protests,) more Progressive-minded individuals would be wrong to dismiss all BNP supporters' grievances.

Both the British and American governments should be held accountable for decades of deregulation, and should now focus on social spending with an emphasis on creating and sustaining domestic jobs that pay a living wage. But the conversation cannot backslide into name-calling and fear tactics. Calling one's foe "stupid" or a "red neck" cannot result in productive conversation. Blaming every grievance on immigrants won't stop the damage of unregulated globalization.

Allowing the very legitimate debate about the role of government to sink into the mud can only result in a more divided nation where the ruling class will once again escape judgement for its crimes.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.