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.
Though you wouldn't know it by listening to the disingenuous conservative commentators who have been desperately trying to characterize Barack Obama's speech last Thursday as a litany of black complaint, the most compelling part of the speech -- particularly coming from an African-American -- was when he talked about bitterness whites feel over race: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race," Obama said. "Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch."
Another Politico story after Obama's speech talked to one of those voters in Pennsylvania:
"It was a great speech," one man said. "But what concerns me is that on the website for his church, they say they are unabashedly Afro-centric. ... The underlying message is they are perpetual victims and they enjoy the victim status and by proxy, me as a white person is their victimizer. And as long as we perpetuate these divisions, we will never heal."
Look at the distance this man traveled to circle back to his own racial resentment and find a way to blame it on Obama: The web site of Obama's church discusses black identity, which he interprets as an "underlying message" saying they are "perpetual victims," which he believes means they are accusing him personally of being a victimizer, which becomes the justification for rejecting Obama. The fact that Obama spoke directly to his grievances didn't manage to break through that wall. And yet the man closes by talking about the need for racial healing.
And therein lies the story as some conservatives are now telling it: The comments of Obama's former pastor prove that deep down, Obama is just a black candidate. He may say he wants to transcend racial divisions, he may say he understands the concerns of white people, but when his mask comes off he'll be revealed as just another Sharpton or Malcom X, those blacks you've come to hate and fear. The path to racial healing, they'll say, is rejecting Obama. As ridiculous as it may sound, for some voters that story may be convincing enough.
The voters Obama needs, it is now sometimes said, are the "Reagan Democrats," those blue-collar whites who rejected their traditional ties to the Democratic party to support Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. But one of the things that has been forgotten about the Reagan Democrats is that the phenomenon was built almost entirely on racial resentment. The question now is, will those voters be receptive to a black candidate? At their birth nearly a quarter century ago, the answer most certainly would have been no. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg noted in a detailed study he did of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan during the early 1980s (which I take from Thomas and Mary Edsall's 1991 book Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics):
These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics ... Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.
It's almost three decades later, and American opinions on race have become far more progressive in the interim. But Greenberg's point about how "progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms" points to an effort at which Reagan excelled but Republicans continued after he was gone. They successfully defined nearly the entire project of government in domestic affairs as taking money from hard-working white people and giving it to shiftless blacks. When Newt Gingrich wanted to fight Bill Clinton's spending bills, he offered a new version of Reagan's "welfare queen" -- the nefarious money pit known as "midnight basketball," a catch-all for efforts to give inner-city kids an alternative to hanging out on streetcorners. It may have been offered only a tiny bit of federal funds, but the specter of taxpayer money going to black teenagers was just too much to stomach. As Gingrich understood as well as anyone, merely invoking certain kinds of government spending is enough to activate associations with undeserving or even threatening blacks in the minds of many voters. (One reason why: as copious media research has demonstrated, news programs are more likely to show images of African-Americans when they talk about poverty, welfare, and drugs -- despite the fact that most poor people, welfare recipients, and drug users are white.) And let's not forget that it isn't just blue-collar whites who are susceptible to racial appeals. The working class hardly has a monopoly on racist sentiments.
There was a brief moment a couple of years ago when then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman was going on something of an apology tour, speaking in front of African-American audiences to lament his party's recent history of "looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization" (quite the soft-pedal, though better than nothing). But faced the possibility that they might actually lose the White House to a black man, there's no doubt what many on the right are preparing to do. Racial reconciliation can wait for another day; there's power at stake. And if stoking racism is what it takes, then that's what they'll do.