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Dog-Whistling Dixie?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The accusation of GOP race-baiting seems like an election year constant. But it has changed in two crucial ways that have severely eroded its power.

After a while, every presidential election sounds a little like the ones that came before. Long-shot politicians launch vanity campaigns. Leading contenders pander to their interest groups. Balloons are dropped at the conventions. And the Republicans are accused of racism.

That last one seems especially familiar. In pretty much every election since Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon ran in the 1960s, critics have charged that Republicans are trying to win votes by appealing to bigots. This accusation of race-baiting seems like a constant. But in fact, it has changed in two crucial ways that have severely eroded its power.

First, the accusation now almost exclusively concerns words. It is difficult to remember that, once upon a time, the charge was that conservatives courted bigoted voters by promising and then implementing concrete policies that shaped the lives of tens of millions of people. Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Nixon was accused of easing pressures to integrate Southern schools, limiting busing in Northern schools, nominating neo-segregationists to the Supreme Court, trying to block renewal of the Voting Rights Act, and unleashing “law and order” policies that would go on to incarcerate millions. Ronald Reagan was charged with opposing affirmative action and trying once again to block renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Conservatives in general were said to champion tax and spending cuts as signals to white voters that their money would not be steered to disproportionately minority beneficiaries of social programs.

Those policies deserved attention. They had potentially sweeping effects. Easing pressures on Southern officials might have perpetuated segregated schools for many years. Undermining voting rights could have silenced voters who had only recently, finally, been permitted a voice in the democratic process. Ending affirmative action might have blocked African-American ascension into the middle class.

Of course, conservatives disputed these charges. In some cases, Republicans were not doing what critics charged. It’s not clear, for example, whether Nixon eased back substantially on desegregation. In other cases, policy changes probably would not have had the effects critics feared. Voting rights were likely not in much danger from proposed reforms.

Conservative opposition to affirmative action may have been more about procedural fairness than appeals to racism.

Most importantly, it’s not clear that these policies were really about race. Conservative opposition to affirmative action may have been more about procedural fairness than appeals to racism. And conservatives supported limits on taxes and spending because they disagreed with liberals over the causes of economic stagnation and growth. But these policies were a big deal, one way or another, and well worth arguing about.

This makes for a sharp contrast with recent elections. Racism now makes headlines when it is detected in campaign speeches and television ads—that is, in words and not policies. Words mattered before, too. Reagan was criticized for talking about states’ rights in Mississippi, and scholars still study the Willie Horton TV ad from 1988 (usually without mentioning that Al Gore’s primary campaign first used Horton against Michael Dukakis). What is new is a focus on words alone.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was accused of playing the race card in 2008, not for the policies he had championed for years or for policies he proposed to implement as president, but for a campaign ad that treated Barack Obama as a glitzy lightweight, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, unprepared to grapple with serious challenges. Critics felt the ad was actually suggesting liaisons between Obama and white women.1 Since then, critics have detected racial appeals at work when people suggest that Obama is “arrogant”, “skinny” or athletic, “cool”, professorial, or that he plays a lot of golf. Starting in 2009, commentators identified racial motivations in opposition to Democratic healthcare proposals2 and in suspicion over Obama’s citizenship—the “birther” controversy.

During the 2012 election, racial appeals have been detected—so far—in observations that food stamp use has increased under Obama3 and in concerns that the administration is diluting work requirements for welfare. Romney’s campaign has also been charged with making coded racial appeals through some of its words. These include campaign advertisements pointing out that Obama is cutting funding for Medicare, Romney’s description of Obama’s campaign as divisive and “angry,” and Romney’s joke in his native Michigan that, there, no one was asking to see his birth certificate.

Commentators identified racial motivations in opposition to Democratic healthcare proposals and in suspicion over Obama’s citizenship.

Two things are striking about these claims. The first is that commentators are rarely if at all claiming that Romney, any more than McCain before him, is proposing to pursue—or plausibly would pursue—policies that deliberately and powerfully aim to hurt or hold back members of America’s minority groups. The focus on words alone invites us all to become literary critics and pop sociologists, poring over individual phrases and asking whether references to Obama playing golf would logically cause many Americans to think of Tiger Woods and then his skirt-chasing.

This can be genuinely intellectually interesting. But in importance, these claims pale by comparison with the accusations of decades ago, which focused on concrete policies. The charge back then was that Republicans were trading votes for policies that had the capacity to directly change the daily lives of tens of millions of people. It is not clear what today’s charges are really claiming.

Consider Romney’s Michigan joke. Let’s stipulate for a moment that his joke was designed to remind voters of the birther controversy and hence of Obama’s other-ness. Touré, a writer and MSNBC host, concludes that Romney is using code words to “remind” white voters “of their racial difference with Obama and stigmatize that difference.” Is the suggestion that bigoted white voters need to be reminded that Obama is African American? As columnist Deroy Murdock comments sarcastically, “Surely some were unaware of this fact.” Perhaps Romney’s remark was designed to raise the salience of race in these voters’ minds. But is there any reason to think these voters did not already consider Obama’s race salient? Whatever Romney is said to be doing or causing here, it is superficial compared to the truly important policy shifts that Nixon and Reagan were accused of promising and delivering.

The second striking thing about recent claims is how many of them are non-falsifiable. This philosophy of science term just means that for a hypothesis to be taken seriously, it must be clear what evidence would lead us to conclude it is false. Any line of argument that cannot identify what evidence would do so cannot be persuasive, because it cannot be proven true or false.

This problem dogs many popular claims about racial sub-texts. Is there a racial sub-text when someone calls Obama “cool”? Apparently not when the Washington Post says it. But when an ad from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads did it, the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus felt that “to me it was just very racially charged … the term cool could in some ways be deemed racial in a sense.”

The problem here is not that this is a double standard. The same word or words coming from different people can have different purposes and meanings. The problem is that we have no clear and consistent standards for judging when words should be considered racial or not. It might well be true that “cool” could be considered racial in some contexts or when used in certain ways. But what exactly are these contexts and ways?

Commentators who believe that many words have racial meaning—and who make it their business to point out cases in which they think they do—also have an obligation to make it clear what standards they are using for judging when given words (probably) do and (probably) do not have such meaning. Very few commentators seem to see this as their responsibility.

In importance, these claims pale by comparison with the accusations of decades ago, which focused on concrete policies.

Consider the flap over golf. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently wisecracked that Obama was playing more golf than he was tending to the nation’s problems. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell construed this as a racial appeal, on the grounds that McConnell was implicitly linking Obama to Woods—implicitly because McConnell never mentioned Woods—and thus deliberately conjuring up images not of Woods’s golf game but of his “lifestyle,” presumably referring to his relationships with a series of white women. Some conservatives responded by pointing out that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman earlier wrote about Obama playing golf, and explicitly linked Obama and Woods (as in: “He’s Tiger Woods”). Why wasn’t that racist? Fair enough. But we can ask separately: How many commentators on race weighed in to dismiss O’Donnell’s claim as flimsy, the way a blog on Comedy Central’s website did?

Thoughtful commentators on race should have a big stake in maintaining clear lines in these matters, both by offering careful standards for judging when words are racial in nature and when they are not, and by policing other commentators who play fast and loose with such standards. Some have taken on these responsibilities. William F. Buckley and other mainstream conservatives, for example, condemned the John Birch Society because it risked debasing the currencies of conservatism and anti-Communism that they believed it was essential to protect. When accusations are made without careful policing, the impression left is that rigorous standards are not being used at all, and that standards are whatever each commentator wants them to be.

It is no surprise that some conservatives have already concluded that many race claims are non-falsifiable, without using this F-word. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger says, “You just can’t win, if you’re a Republican. No matter what you say, you’ll be a racist.” Some Tea Party rallies had placards reading, “no matter what this sign says, you’ll call it racist.”

Even with standards and policing, we would still be talking only about words, and not policies that ultimately matter more. But it would feel like progress.

Gerard Alexander is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.  He is currently researching and writing a book on issues of race and the modern conservative movement in America.

FURTHER READING: Alexander also writes “Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism. So Why Do Many Liberals Assume It Does?” and “Why Are Liberals So Condescending?” Lazar Berman contributes “Black Tea.” Jonah Goldberg says “After Romney's Birth Certificate Joke, Dems Play the Race Card” and discusses “Correcting Reality.” Michael Barone addresses how “Obama Backers Use Race as Alibi for Ebbing Support.”


1. See here and here.
2. See here and here.
3. See here, here, and here.

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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