Thursday, March 27, 2008

GOP Will Appeal to Craven Prejudices, Essayist Alleges

I've already noted how lefty bloggers are smearing as racist conservatives who highlight the pathologies of black culture (see here, here, and here).

In addition to that, we've now got Paul Waldman,
over at the American Prospect, alleging that the GOP's fully gearing up for a campaign of racial prejudice:

For months, I've been predicting that conservatives would delicately prompt voters to see Barack Obama through the lens of race. They'd drop hints, they'd make roundabout arguments, they'd find a hundred subtle ways to encourage people to vote their prejudices, while denying vociferously that they were doing anything of the sort.

It turns out I was wrong. Not about whether they'd try to exploit racial prejudice (that was about as easy to predict as the rising of the sun), but about how they would do it. After some hesitation and baby steps, the conservative campaign against Barack Obama has finally begun. And there's nothing subtle about it.

When the controversy over Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright reached critical mass last week, it was the political equivalent of the green flag at a NASCAR race. The conservative strategists and talkers had been slowly circling the track, feet itchy on the accelerator, just waiting for the signal to floor it. But now, as The Politico reported in a story titled "GOP sees Rev. Wright as path to victory," the Republican strategists know exactly what must be done, starting with famed ad man Alex Castellanos:

"All the sudden you've got two dots, and two dots make a line," said Castellanos. "You start getting some sense of who he is, and it's not the Obama you thought. He's not the Tiger Woods of politics."

As Castellanos knows well, these kinds of attacks have their greatest power when they tap into pre-existing archetypes voters already carry with them, and the deeper they reside in our lizard brains the better. So they will make sure white Americans know that Obama is not Tiger Woods. He's not the unthreatening black man, he's the scary black man. He's Al Sharpton, he's Malcom X, he's Huey Newton. He'll throw grievance in your face, make you feel guilty, and who knows, maybe kill you and rape your wife. Castellanos knows what he's talking about -- when it comes to painting frightening pictures for the voters, he's the Rembrandt of racial resentment. Among other accomplishments, Castellanos was responsible for a series of ugly ads on behalf of Jesse Helms' 1990 Senate re-election race against Harvey Gantt, probably the most explicitly race-baiting campaign American politics has seen since the retirement of George Wallace. The story continues:

"It's harder for people to say it's taken out of context because these are Wright's own words," noted Chris LaCivita, the Republican strategist who helped craft the Swift Boat commercials against Kerry that employed the use of their target's own language when he returned from Vietnam and returned his medals. "You let people draw their own conclusions."

"You don't have to say that he's unpatriotic; you don't question his patriotism," he added. "Because I guaran-damn-tee you that, with that footage, you don't have to say it."

The Republicans are certainly setting down their marker: they intend, as they have so many times before, to wage a campaign appealing to the ugliest prejudices, the most craven fears, the most vile hatreds. It's not that people should vote against Obama just because he's black, they're saying, but you know, he's that kind of black. As Rush Limbaugh said on Friday, "It is clear that Senator Obama has disowned his white half, that he's decided he's got to go all in on the black side." Ladies and gentlemen, your "moral values" party.

Not saying it, as LaCivita noted -- whether "it" is that Obama hates America, or that he's just too black to be trusted -- is actually crucial to making the argument effectively. As Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg argued in her 2001 book The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality, appeals to racism only work when they are implicit:

When a society has repudiated racism, yet racial conflict persists, candidates can win by playing the race card only through implicit racial appeals. The implicit nature of these appeals allows them to prime racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments while appearing not to do so. When an implicit appeal is rendered explicit -- when other elites bring the racial meaning of the appeal to voters' attention -- it appears to violate the norm of racial equality. It then loses its ability to prime white voters' racial predispositions.

In other words, voters presented with racial appeals have two competing forces tugging them in opposite directions: the feelings they carry with them on at least a subconscious level, and their more conscious belief in equality and desire to not think of themselves as racist. In order to convince them to vote their racial fears and animosities, you have to give them a story they can tell themselves that acquits them of any accusation of racism.

By that logic, someone who focuses on the nihilist propensity for criminal behavior among large numbers of urban underclass blacks will be automatically identified as racist.

That's not to mention all of the other pathologies holding down blacks, today, like the crisis of illegitimacy that's destroying the black American family, nor the culture of witness intimidation in the inner cities that's hindering the ability of law enforcement to prosecute black thugs (see, "Witness Intimidation: An Urban Crisis").

But hey, we can't mention these things in the campaign. We wouldn't want to appeal to craven race prejudices.