Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dog Whistles, Race-Baiting and the Romney Campaign

Lee Atwater, the storied Republican strategist (who helped catapult George H.W. Bush into office with the racist Willie Horton ad and mentored Karl “Bush’s Brain” Rove), once revealed his devious secret sauce in an interview:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"--that hurts you. Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.  You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

This was Atwater on “dog whistles,” the use of coded language to “put out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed.  The aim is to make potential supporters sit up and take notice while avoiding offending those to whom the message will not appeal.” In practice, one uses language like welfare and busing to attract extremist white voters while appearing to the average voter to be talking about economic issues  This was the basis of the Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy," whereby Republicans used the race card to siphon off disaffected white Southern Democrats after LBJ signed civil rights legislation.

Republicans have been using the same strategy for nearly fifty years—dusting it off every four years or so to get poor and middle-class whites to keep voting for the party of the rich.  

The 2012 Romney campaign is a textbook case of this.

Earlier in the campaign, Romney made a point of visiting the NAACP to argue that, if they (black people) really knew his heart (translation: if they really understood their interests), they would vote for him.  He also claimed that, when elected, he would repeal Obamacare; for this he was rounded booed.

 Asked about it later, Romney claimed that he did not say different things in front of different audiences (as opposed to those other sneaky politicians), and that if people (namely, people who attended NAACP meetings) wanted “free stuff,” they should “vote for the other guy.”
More recently, Romney gave a shout-out to the birthers (Obama-was-born-in-Kenya types) on the campaign trail when he joked that he and Ann had been born and raised in Michigan: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”  (Translation: my pedigree and skin color are my birth certificate.)  When called out on it, Romney laughed it off and the mainstream media dismissed it as just a lame attempt at humor by a really stiff guy who has trouble connecting with regular folk.  However, the birthers heard the dog whistle loud and clear—Romney was on their side, he just had to act coy in public.

Republican dog whistles were also in attendance at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Convention delegates were asked why they thought so few blacks voted Republican.  According to the Washington Post, although "'don't know' was the top answer for members of both parties, a close second among Republicans was that black voters are dependent on government or seeking a government handout.  Democrats more often said that their party addresses issues of poverty."

Gee, I wonder where Republicans got the idea that blacks were dependent on welfare and looking for a handout…couldn’t be the repeated references by conservative pundits and politicians to Obama’s “food stamp” or “welfare” presidency.  Or, as Rush Limbaugh has said on numerous occasions, that Obama wants “reparations” [presumably for slavery]. The notion that the (white) GOP is about self-reliance and success whereas the (black/minority) Dems are about irresponsibility and government dependence was the subtext of nearly every speech at the convention.

Mike Huckabee, a featured speaker at the RNC, declared that, “Barack Obama seems intent on enrolling more people on food stamps…My working-poor parents told me I could do better.  They taught me that I was as good as anyone else.  It never occurred to them to tell me that I could rest comfortably and wait for Uncle Sugar to feed me, lead me, and then bleed me.”

VP hopeful Paul Ryan, meanwhile, observed that what the Obama administration offers is “a dull adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”  By contrast, he and Mitt “grew up in the heartland.”  In the penultimate convention speech, Mitt Romney himself declared that, “jobs to [Obama] are about government,” the president is “attacking success,” and Obama was trying to “redistribute” America’s prosperity.

A salient trope this campaign season has been our African American president as a child—immature, irresponsible, dependent on government handouts, and intent on getting others dependent on government assistance as well.  This was certainly the impression given by the disastrous Clint Eastwood speech, in which Eastwood lectured a chair containing an imaginary (and small) President Obama. In his speech, Huckabee also alluded to the supposed immaturity of the president, “Democrats say we ought to give Barack Obama credit for trying.  That sounds like the nonsense of giving every kid a trophy for showing up.  Friends, we’re talking about leading the country, not playing on a third-grade soccer team!”  Finally, Ann Romney proclaimed that women want to see “a grown-up” take over the job from Obama.  These are dog whistles used to reach the white conservative base, make no mistake.  

We now know that during the convention, two attendees (presumably delegates or alternates) allegedly threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman, proclaiming, “this is how we feed animals.” The two were escorted out of the convention hall.  The Romney campaign roundly condemned the incident (which had several witnesses), and it may indeed be an aberration.   But then again, maybe not.  While declaring themselves shocked, SHOCKED at this behavior, Republican frontrunners continue to play footsies with the most unsavory elements in their base.

Besides being compared to children, African-Americans have also been historically likened to wild animals.  Perlstein explains in Nixonland, that the 1968 film, The Planet of the Apes reflected white fears of race riots in the 1960s, with the blacks taking over and dominating the whites.  Although this comparison may seem dated, right-wing race-baiters today continue to use precisely this image to attract fearful white conservatives (see here and here).

The picture comes full circle with the conservative meme, pushed by Rush Limbaugh as well as Republican politicians and office-holders, that giving poor people welfare is as fruitless and counterproductive as feeding wild animals.  You will only encourage deviant behavior and further dependency while encouraging them to “breed,” increasing the population of social parasites. 

Obviously, not all conservatives think in this way; hopefully no more than a small minority openly endorses such opinions.  But the ugly subtext permeates the Republican campaign, and can be seen by anyone who cares to pay attention.

The good news is that the expiration date for successful Republican race-baiting is fast approaching.  An amazing 0 percent of African Americans support Romney’s campaign, according to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.  The most recent poll on Latinos showed only 26 percent breaking for Romney (against 65 percent for Obama).  Meanwhile, only 38 percent of registered women voters prefer Romney (against 57 percent for Obama), as do 40 percent of young people under the age of 30.    

So why are Obama and Romney nearly tied in the polls?  Turns out that Romney has a strong edge among white men, with a commanding 24 percent lead among white male senior citizens.   Problem is the Republican demographic (white, old) is literally dying off; meanwhile, minority babies now outnumber non-Hispanic white babies in the U.S. population census.   

Said Republican Senator Lindsay Graham: “We are not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for thelong-term.”  We can only hope Senator Graham is right.


  1. My view here, is that the use of race, gender, class, and so on, in politics is just a way for one side to "other" the opposition in order to gain votes (power). Each side is incentivized to go negative in order to bring the other side's polling numbers down; and thereby win the election. Republicans are just behaving within their own traditionalist cultural norms, and the same applies to the Dems and their progressive cultural norms. Therefore vilifying one side over the other, in my view, misses the broader point that both sides are power seekers who are incentivized to use whatever means are at their disposal to consolidate their grip on the political process. If you begin your argument from a particular axiom that you believe to be morally correct, then you're likely to reach conclusions that support your own political views.

    Going back to the 88 elections, the Willie Horton ad was but one of three seminal ads that were designed by Atwater and Ailes to paint Dukakis in a negative light (Dirty Boston Harbor and Dukakis joyriding in a Tank being other two). Similarly, the likes of Clint Eastwood and Ryan speaking negatively about Obama isn’t racism; its simply two people trying to paint the opposition in a less than favorable light – just as Lloyd Bentsen did when he belittled Dan Quayle with the Jack Kennedy exchange and Ann Richards did when she criticized George H.W. Bush with her “Born with a Silver Spoon” comment during the ‘88 DNC. Talking trash about the opposition happens to work very well in American politics.

    Race, gender, and class are just discursive devices used by both political parties to mobilize the electorate in their favor. Thus the problem isn’t with the GOP – it’s an innately systemic part of how both parties consolidate their monopoly on power.

  2. You seem to believe that if GOP politicos use the race card mainly to gain and maintain power (i.e., they themselves are not sincere racists), then this isn't something we should be concerned about because it is "just politics." GOP politicians make "cultural" appeals to their base in the same way that dem politicians make cultural appeals to their progressive base. Just so happens that the cultural appeal to the repub base is hatred and fear of non-whites.

    This isn't just a clever game that fades into the background after the political season is over (and these days, the political season is never really over). There are real world consequences to using the race card in politics. Just ask Rwandans about the consequences of race-baiting by Radio Rwanda. Or, closer to home, look at studies by the Justice Dept. or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Racist rhetoric by the right has long poisoned American society and created a dangerous environment for non-whites.