The GOP's Racial Dog Whistling and the Social Safety Net

You've no doubt heard the famous quote about race in politics spoken by the late Lee Atwater, the most skilled Republican strategist of his generation. Liberals have cited it for years, seeing in it an explanation, right from the horse's mouth, of how contemporary Republicans use "issues" like welfare to activate racial animus among white voters, particularly in the South. Race may be an eternal force in American politics, but its meaning and operation change as the years pass. It's time we took another look at Atwater's analysis and see how it is relevant to today, because it doesn't mean what it once did. Atwater may have been extraordinarily prescient, though not in the way most people think.

If a certain word unsettles you, you might want to read something else with your coffee, but it's important we have Atwater's quote, spoken in 1981 during an interview with a political scientist, in front of us:

"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, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'"

As Rick Perlstein explained, the common interpretation of the quote—that Atwater was describing how the GOP shrewdly encourages and benefits from racism among voters while maintaining deniability for doing so—isn't quite correct. Heard in context, it seems clear that the point Atwater was trying to make was that the GOP was evolving beyond racism, even if some of its favored policies were still better for some races than others. Eventually, the deniability wouldn't just be plausible, it would be genuine.

At the time, this was more than a little ridiculous. Just a year before, Ronald Reagan had opened his campaign for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, then spent a good deal of his campaign talking about welfare queens. Four years before, Reagan had told Southern audiences about how frustrating it was to stand in line at the grocery store behind a "strapping young buck" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. And seven years after the interview, Atwater would join with Roger Ailes to mastermind the "Willie Horton" strategy for George H.W. Bush, in which the mug shot of a menacing black convict became as ubiquitous in the campaign as flags at a Fourth of July parade.

But in 2014, Atwater's vision of a GOP evolving on race has finally come to pass, though not precisely in the way he intended. Back then, attacks on safety net programs like welfare and food stamps were used by Republicans as a means to activate barely contained racist feelings, with the knowledge that the more hostility white voters felt toward minorities, the better it would be for Republican candidates. Today, we see the reverse: Stirring up a bit of subconscious racism, or attacking the rights of minorities in much more practical ways, is a means to attack the safety net and undermine government.

Take, for example, the issue of voting. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it was meant to dismantle the system under which white Southerners had kept blacks from exercising their right to vote, a system created to maintain white supremacy. And when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the law last year, Republican states rushed to rewrite their laws to do things like require ID in order to vote. Republican states all over the country have cut back on early voting, making sure to eliminate it on the Sunday before election day, when many black churches conduct "souls to the polls" voting drives after service. In Arizona and Kansas, Republicans even passed laws requiring that you not just document who you are but provide proof you're a citizen in order to vote, laws that were just upheld by a federal judge.

Are the people who are going to be disenfranchised by a requirement for proof of citizenship going to be disproportionately minority? Of course they are. But that's not the reason Republicans are so eager to impose these requirements. The reason is that the disenfranchised voters will disproportionately be Democrats. If there were a way to just as easily keep large numbers of Democrats from the polls without harming minorities particularly, they'd be perfectly happy to adopt that method instead. That's why, for instance, in Texas the voter ID law passed by a Republican legislature and signed by Governor Rick Perry says that a gun license is a valid form of identification, but a student ID issued by a Texas university isn't. When a legislature engineers a "racial gerrymander" to pack as many black voters into as few districts as possible, the goal isn't white supremacy, it's Republican supremacy. The result may be bound up in race, but the intent is pure partisan power politics.

And when Paul Ryan starts talking about how "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work," the racial implications may be perfectly clear (it's the "inner city," i.e. the place where black people live, that has a "culture" of laziness, as opposed to the places where there are a lot of poor white people). But Ryan's real goal isn't to get you mad at black people, it's to get you mad at the safety net. I have no trouble believing Ryan, in a way, when he says that race was not the heart of his intent. The man who once said that "the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand" is surely motivated primarily by a Randian contempt for the "takers" who might need help with food or health insurance, whatever color their skin.

Today's GOP is a place where open expressions of racism are far less tolerated, no one talks about "strapping young bucks" anymore, and the next Willie Horton is presented with more subtlety—and deniability—than ever. How much of that is because the mainstream blowback from blatantly racial appeals is just too high (just look at all the flack Ryan got), and how much because of a sincere change in perspective? It's almost impossible to say. But if America's blacks and Hispanics woke up tomorrow and starting voting 60 percent Republican, the party's leaders would welcome them with open arms, then call an emergency session of every Republican-run state legislature to get rid of all those voter ID laws.

Of course, that won't happen any time soon, so Republicans will continue to pass laws limiting minorities' ability to vote, and offer roundabout appeals aimed, some more directly than others, at the darker places where people's less generous feelings about race lie. Were he alive today, Lee Atwater would probably say, "See? I told you so."

Comments

I'm a progressive, but I'm also a "racial dog whistle skeptic."

When I ask for proof that Republicans are really using coded language in this way, all I get are a lot of OTHER Lefties saying Republicans do this, which hardly proves the case.

And citing Lee Atwater and the Southern strategy falls far short of proving that a Republican politician giving a speech today is using code words when he or she tries to talk about welfare. I think that's just ridiculous.

In my book, the whole dog-whistle thing is an urban legend that just sounds good to Lefties.

From hanging around at conservative websites, it strikes me that conservatives rarely bring up race, except to complain about being called racists. I really don't think today's Righties are that concerned with the subject.

I suspect the dog-whislte idea rests on circular thinking: you know Republicans are racists because they use coded racist terms, and you know they use coded racist terms because you know they're racists.

Thank you for thinking outside of the box. You're right on all accounts! Why can't their be more progressives like you who can at least be reasonable so we wont have to argue about racism simply just to change the subject, which it seems is all people who bring up 'dog whistling' want to do.

Whistle this: you're an amazingly paranoid thinker!

The most racist assumption of all is that blacks are less capable of attaining an ID than are whites. Your argument on that is offensive and wrong.

Democrat dog whistling is as much about keeping their property on the plantation as it is about exoanding totalitarian fascist government

Interesting article, especially the phrase "Today's GOP is a place where open expressions of racism are far less tolerated, no one talks about "strapping young bucks" anymore, and the next Willie Horton is presented with more subtlety—and deniability—than ever". What I find interesting is that you aren't commenting on where there are actual open expressions of racism...which is in the Democratic Party. Remember (I'm paraphrasing) "he's intelligent and doesn't speak with a Negro dialect" (Harry Reid on Barack Obama); the "Indians that own 7=11's" (Joe Biden), etc. There are any number of such statements but they are always brushed off in the "understanding" that those on the Left couldn't be racist. I suppose if you keep ignoring them and pretending they were never said then it becomes easier to believe.

I think it's so totally cool that liberals can read people's minds and tell what they're REALLY thinking when they say stuff. And how awesome is it that they don't even have to be in the same room to do it! It's like they can even do it by listening to them on the TV and best of all, liberals can even do it when people write stuff down!

I mean how else could us unwashed folks know what people mean when they talk or write stuff? It's not like we could just listen to the words they say or read what they write and try to figure it out on our own. Geez. I am so grateful I could just bust a gut.

I wonder where can I go to learn to read minds?

Liberals main problem with what Ryan said is that it was the truth. Ouch.

The left is just a bunch of racists doing their best to promote dependency. Too bad the truth hurts. Besides the day of the welfare check is ending. Interest on the debt is squeezing it out.

Liberals know "dog whistling" because they invented it. They recognize it every time it is used because they practice it.

They find racism and sexism in comments that others make because they by accusing others of the crime it somehow redeems them from the racist and sexist thoughts and feelings they have. IE, they project their own internal feelings onto others in an attempt to free themselves from those feelings.

Unfortunately, it never works, internally they still encounter those feelings, so they must find more and more targets to blame in hopes no-one finds out how they truly feel.

should have been "they feel by" in first sentence of second paragraph.

Actually I am quite glad to see this. Not a fan of racism OR of unfunded and unaffordable entitlements. Both things have to go. If the GOP can get rid if both, I will vote for them exclusively.

Typical liberal projection. Only a racist mind would assert that "strapping young bucks" has any racial connotations whatsoever.

Looks like this article is flushing out the people who can't wait to tell everyone it is actually the Democrates and liberals who are the true racists. Always ready to use the disclaimer "I'm not a racist but..." or "we need to get rid of entitlements because you know who really uses them" wink-wink. The latest is the dog whistle codeword "Thug" when people don't want to use the word "nigger" in public. Republican code talkers know just what to say to hit the right buttons.

Seems like someone is a litttle overly defensive. Perhaps those who say liberals are the racists have hit close to home. Just think, which party talks about race all the time? Which party tries to scare minorities with fake voter suppression stories (voter id laws would affect whites more than blacks)? Which party has candidates who change their accebts when speaking to a minority audience, or use true dog whistle language in telling them they will "put ya'll back in chains? "

"The reason is that the disenfranchised voters will disproportionately be Democrats."

Are you actually implying that Democrat voters, and especially if they are from a minority, are dummer than Republicans? That they would not be smart enough to put an ID in their pocket? Outrageosuly insulting!!!

"..."takers" who might need help with food or health insurance..."

The problem isn't people who need help, the problem is with people who just find it easier to be helped.

In any population, there going to be a few, a very few, who just can't make it without help. The problem is that the vast majority of Americans getting "help" don't really need it. They want the "help," and there are politicians perfectly willing to give it to them--in exchange for a vote--but they don't really need it. There really no excuse for any able-bodied, able-minded, adult to be demanding a living from society.

Umm, you do know that Willie Horton was first brought forward by Al Gore against Dukakis, right? So was Al Gore a racist? Was he using dog whistles?

Articles like these show the projection that liberals use. They are the ones who see race in everything. Most conservatives don't care about race, and do not factor in race when determining polices. But Democrats survive only because of identity politics, without them they would lose every election. Remember how they said Tea Party people yelled racist things before the Obamacare vote? It never happened, and there was a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide proof that it happened. No one ever came forward and collected the money. And of course, who can forget the fake war on women, started by George Stephanopolous and carried by the rest of the media?

The big problem with all your arguments is that the Democrat Party always was, is now, and forever shall be the party of racism. If you don't know the history, better investigate and learn it. Even now, the Democrats refuse to hold Barack Obama and Eric Holder accountable because they are black and the bigotry of low expectations is apparent.

That's why, for instance, in Texas the voter ID law passed by a Republican legislature and signed by Governor Rick Perry says that a gun license is a valid form of identification, but a student ID issued by a Texas university isn't.
Or perhaps it's because the Texas concealed handgun license is issued by Department of Public Safety, and tied to the licensees permanent residence address (which determines the voting precinct), and the school-issued student ID is neither.
But if America's blacks and Hispanics woke up tomorrow and starting voting 60 percent Republican, the party's leaders would welcome them with open arms, then call an emergency session of every Republican-run state legislature to get rid of all those voter ID laws.
Or perhaps the eeevuuul Republicans would just make sure the minorities all had IDs. I'd love to hold black and Hispanic CHL classes. Plus, considering how many activities require a driver's license or state ID card, isn't it discrimination if minorities don't have one?

This article strikes me as a not very illuminating exercise in contrarianism. If black and Hispanic Americans suddenly flocked to the Republicans, Republican-controlled states would roll back voter ID? Really? Why do you think African-Americans and, increasingly, Latinos don't vote Republican? And do you really think white Mississippians, say, are going to line up to embrace the new diversity in their party? That's either disingenuous or really dumb. I understand that many Republicans aren't especially racist, but their leadership definitely understands the importance of race to the core Republican constituency in the South. The Republicans could not have pursued their assault on the norms of civil society in America as far as they have done without extensive use of racism as a political issue. Do you even understand what the "Obama is so dumb he has to use a teleprompter" thing is all about? A really sorry piece of work.

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