The bruhaha over Pres. Carter's claim that opposition to The Precious is rooted in racism makes me reflect back on the primary campaigns when that was the standard response to anyone on the left who voiced criticism or opposition to Obama - or who merely said they preferred a different candidate.
The interesting political question for me, however, is not that the idiocy of the campaign is coming back to bite The Precious Administration in the ass, but why the Democratic response to opposition time and again (and not just by Obamacans) is to point out the imagined moral/ethical failings of the opponents on the subject of race, rather than make a political argument about the weakness of opposition's stances or identify the failures of the previous administrations, etc. The response also fails to distinguish between the sources of opposition - criticisms coming from the anti-D/democratic side and opposition from inside the party. The problem here is not that this racism claim is being pushed forward in a cynical way, but that it is what the speakers really believe.
I'm going to make a claim - Pres. Carter was sincere when he asserted that opposition to Obama was based in racism. This was not a calculated use of an argument to fluster opponents, but what Carter believes to be true. This is a politician for whom opposition to racism was his motivation and organizing principle. He is paradigmatic of a certain kind of Democrat for whom racism is the prism through which politics is viewed, unable or unwilling to put that particular battle into its constituent role in liberal politics as such.
As I detailed in The Whiteness of the Whale:
I add to this that it wasn't just Northeast elites, but also down-in-the-trenches Southern Democrats, like Jimmy Carter, who had lived in the worst areas of America's apartheid and who understood just how inhuman Jim Crow was, who made the battle against racism the crown of liberal politics. Institutionalized racism had to be dismantled becuase there was no defense for it. Pres. Carter is not wrong when he emphasizes the corrosive effects of racism on the body politic; it is clearly the weapon of choice on the Right to undermine Democrats. The "Southern Strategy" continues to this day, though it could probably be renamed the "Sunbelt Strategy" to take cognizance of the anti-Latino theme.
Why this psychotic and self-defeating projection onto the working class? It is the deep guilt of the liberal upper class that we know, every last miserable one of us, that our privilege is due to centuries of white supremacy and to the informal, unspoken, but pervasive advantage our skin color and behavioral patterns gives us in this society. It is our Moby Dick, the whale we pursue obsessively through political seas, frantic to have material proof that we are innocent of the crimes of our nation.
The Democratic Party was the party of slavery and civil war in the 19th century. It was the party of Jim Crow in the early 20th century. The New Deal set it on the path to renouncing that legacy through the mid-part of the last century, and it was a brutal passage. Instead of reimagining the South and what it could become, the Northeast elite who had taken over the leadership simply renounced it – you will be like us or you can get out. When desegregation came to the Northeast and the Midwest, the contempt for “The South” was transferred easily to the working class ethnic whites who resisted this change. Archie Bunker became an eternal truth rather than a thought exercise, a denunciation of the unchangeable cretin in front of the TV instead of a call to reflect on how we become what we are and how, despite ourselves, we can find our common humanity. Most of all, the determined demonization of working class whites, especially those with Southern connections, allows the upper class elites to turn a blind eye to the way in which they are the biggest beneficiaries of the centuries of racism in the nation. There is a growing group within the liberal elite who wishes to jettison “The South” entirely, leaving the working class immiserated and isolated, rather than face up to the obligation of the party to complete the task before it. That task is to create the conditions under which racism is no longer something that can be exploited for electoral gain or needed as a survival tactic in deteriorating and demeaning socio-economic conditions.
But here is the irony - the moralistic and non-political use of racism as a shaming mechanism by party leaders in combination with the passionate rejection of "white trash" (the working class) by those same leaders has made the Republicans' political strategy just that much more effective. We're doing their work for them. Instead of policies, like universal health care, that materially improve the lives of people in their current socio-economic location, there are half-assed half-measures that tie provision of common social goods to obtaining stable, high-paying, white-collar career employment. Sure, if you are one of the "creative class" types who provides a service the people with the money consider important, you, too, can have the perks that make life comfortable. If you don't choose to improve yourself (Organic food! More exercise! Fewer children! Higher education! Better dental hygiene!), then you don't deserve a better life. If you don't like the policies being proposed, well, you're probably just a racist who doesn't want benefits going to "those people."
That's a moralistic argument, not a political one. It offers an insult where there should be a promise of material goods. When people voice, however awkwardly, fears and resentment about being treated unfairly by social and political institutions, their discontent is dismissed as individual failings (clinging to guns and God) instead of organizing that discontent into a movement against the real sources of racism - entrenched economic elites who interests are anti-D/democratic.
The Southern Strategy has become the de facto operating principle of the Democratic Party. Divide the working class on racial lines and designate these groups as deserving and undeserving. Focus on individual failings rather than the deep structures of power. Make people pick tribes.
Paul Krugman, in The Conscience of a Liberal, methodically dissected the use of race by the Right to undermine the advances of the New Deal. When he expresses amazement that "zombie" ideas of the Movement Conservatives just keep resurrecting themselves no matter how badly they fail, he overlooks the way in which the use of race by the Left has also undermined the advances of the New Deal. The economic claims of the Right have staying power because their social claims are confirmed by the actions of the Left. The 2008 campaign was breathtaking in the way it laid bare these fault lines on the Left, presenting the ideologies in their pure form, unmoored from any supporting reality. It was an incredible display of contempt for people living on the edge.
Racism is the hueristic of the Stevensonian elite. These people keep the Southern Strategy going to the detriment of us all.
PS - Right after I posted this, I saw Historiann's excellent post Race and Barack Obama’s political opposition. Go read it. Now. It's good.