Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

It's a bit of an old topic, but I'm going to talk about dog whistles in politics. I missed out on the debate when it was still hot, so what I'm going to write is more of an analysis of political rhetoric than an answer to the blogospheric mudslinging. I'm inspired by two posts I partly agree with, partly disagree with, the first by PolC in a direct answer to Digby's inane arguments about the use and abuse of the term "presumptuous" when applied to Obama, the second a related and powerful post by the Incomparable Bob Somerby about the Democratic tin-ear for rhetoric.

What Digby et. al. wailed and rent their garments over was not racist dog whistles. They picked up a political term with negative connotations and then used it to make a false claim about a political claim - that any attempt to use language that questioned Obama's experience, qualifications and/or public demeanor were deliberate attempts to stir up racism in the listeners. First of all, the statements were whistling, but not about race. They also were exactly what they appeared to be - direct and clear criticisms of a candidate in an attempt to draw attention to perceived weakness. The glaring hole in the argument being offered was, in Freud's apocryphal phrase, that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, i.e., sometimes the text is exactly what it seems to be. As Bob Somberby explained:

It was amazingly foolish to scream and yell about that Spears/Hilton ad—except to say that its foolishness shows that the GOP wants to distract you. It was especially dumb to discuss it in terms of race—to discuss its alleged “dog-whistle”—since that’s a claim that will almost surely strike most undecided voters as far-fetched, improbable, odd. It wasn’t smart to react that way—unless we don’t care who wins in November. If we only care about being “right” (in our minds), then that reaction made good sense, of course.

In past decades, liberals and lefties did this sort of thing quite often, as you might recall reading Nixonland. This week, we rushed to take the bait again, displaying our high-minded ways.

Earth to liberals: In that Spears/Hilton ad, McCain is calling Obama a lightweight. It’s what Walter Mondale did to Gary Hart when he mockingly asked, “Where’s the beef?” It’s what experienced candidates do when confronting inexperienced challengers. Unfortunately, we reacted in lightweight ways—by yelling race and seeking relief—and the numbers began to move. It’s how our side has lost elections at various times in the past.

"McCain is calling Obama a lightweight." Hold onto that thought, boys and girls, we'll come back to it.

PolC offers some examples of what Digby called dog whistles. Rather than arguing the racist content of the specific examples, I want to exmine the mode of political rhetoric being used. The examples are Reagan talking about "welfare queens," Reagan kicking off his campaign in Philedelphia MS with a speech about state's rights, Bush I's Willie Horton ad, Jesse Helm's "Hands" ad against Harvey Gantt, and Bob Corker's "Call Me" ad against Harold Ford. PolC Also tossed in the black daughter rumor about John McCain in 2000 and has discussed Bush II's mention of Dred Scott in the 2004 debates.

The first thing that strikes me about this collection of political arguments is that they very neatly fall into two categories - black/white sex and public policy. The Willie Horton ad, the rumor about McCain, and the "Call Me" ad have virtually no sub-text. It's all about rousing white voters' fears of attack. They have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and are aimed at riling up voters and increasing turn out. They are about what the other guy will do to you or will fail to do for you.

The others are more truly dog whistles in that they primarily are intended to convey something about the candidate who originates the argument, something that goes against a more public argument and has more to do with policy than with race. The point of a dog whistle is that ordinary listeners will not pick up on the message, using racism to mask or deflect the policy argument. You can call them multi-layered in a way the other examples are not, because they have different emphasis to different listeners.

People who wish to act out racial resentments can listen to Reagan speak of welfare queens and be assured that this guy will go after those black cheats getting rich off other people's tax money. But, referencing Paul Krugman, the people who help keep the Republicans in power are not just voting racial solidarity, they are voting economic self-interest. The "white flight" from Democrats to Republicans gets higher in higher income brackets. The message that they get from the welfare queen remarks is that Reagan is going to cut off all the "undeserving" poor from the dole. Race is the wedge to disrupt economic solidarity in working class voters and begin dismantling the New Deal welfare state.

Likewise, Bush II's mention of Dred Scott was a statement to make clear to anti-abortion foes and to anti-privacy interests that he will stack the courts with judges who will oppose claims to individual privacy. Saving the unborn may have a visceral tug, but the policy goal is to undermine privacy protections as such, and Bush is making clear to supporters who may think he is too moderate what he intends to do to cement movement conservative objectives in the public realm. Helm's "Hands" ad is the most insidious as it manages to be overtly racist (no need for whistles) but the real message is about dismantling affirmative action as such. Racism is the fuel, but not the engine of that message.

Which brings us back to the arguments about Obama being presumptuous and a lightweight. The dog whistle here, to the degree that it is present (and believe me it will get stronger) is about qualifications for your job. It is an argument not about race but about affirmative action. McCain is never going to hint that Obama's race is a problem - it's all going to be about the education, the experience, the qualifications, the substance, the way in which McCain has earned what he has achieved (a load of horseshit, of course, but horseshit that can becomes some mighty powerful fertilizer) and how Obama has breezed in on celebrity, blatant fixing by party bosses and, hmm, just how did you get into Columbia, good chap?

The boogey-monster the Right has settled on for this electoral cycle is affirmative action. Abortion is pretty much worn out, gay rights is beginning to boomerang back on them, so they need a new angle of assault on the New Deal and the Great Society. I talked about this obliquely earlier this year and now I'll say it plainly. The Republicans have set up affirmative action challenges in key states that have been trending blue, such as Colorado and Missouri, because that is the glue that holds together their two overlapping core constituencies - whites who really are racists and whites who want to secure their economic status in the face of tougher economic times and an increasingly poor, female and non-white working class. It is also an argument that appeals to a sense of fairness - the most qualified should get the position, not someone to fill up a color quota. This is the issue chosen to counter the three key candidates the Democrats would pick from for the top of the ticket - Hillary (female and Clinton), Obama (Black and inexperienced with a lot of collateral personal baggage), and Edwards (white male, but promoting poor rights and with a bimbo problem on the side).

Obama is the candidate against whom this argument can be deployed most effectively. You Obamacans can scream bloody murder at me all you want, but it is simply a fact. His race makes the argument easier to make, but it is his muddy personal history, his razor thin resume, and his questionable electoral wins that make him vulnerable. As Somerby pointed out, the squalls of "Racism! Racism!" do nothing but play into their hands as well because the Republican argument isn't about race. It may appeal to racists, but affirmative action can be defeated even in California (in a way that gay marriage probably will not) because it is, at base, about economic competition and rules that deliberately confer advantage to a less formally qualified contestant. When Obama defenders can't get out of primary campaign mode and reckless accusations of racism (because some well-off white liberals really can be shamed into voting for someone just because he is Black), they do nothing but reinforce the Republican charge against affirmative action; that it is merely promotion of race, it is not about potential or character or disadvantage (In what world is Barack Obama "disadvantaged"?), but about pushing qualified students and job applicants out of the way for lazy non-whites. It is simple for them to work in xenophobia and jingosim, too, by talking about promotion of "illegals" over "citizens".

The dog whistle here is on behalf of McCain. He's earned this job and he will make sure that you get what you have earned, unlike these effete Democrats (sorry, that's always going to be part of the argument) who let themselves be bullied into placating interest groups and handing out unearned rewards. St. John the Maverick will give you straight-talk and an honest deal. On another day, I'll get a bit more into the "high-minded ways" that Somerby mentions because that, too, is part of the attack on affirmative action, one the Obamacans of Whole Foods Nation seem incapable of understanding.

Racist dog whistles? Sorry, Digby, you're barking up the wrong tree.


1 comment:

red rabbit said...

This is a substantial post and provides a lot to digest, but I just wanted to leave a comment to say thanks for articulating what I've been feeling in every bone in my body since reading Digby's posts about dog whistles and Obama.