Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Anatomy of a Dog Whistle

Back in July and August, Digby tried to show the world how she wasn’t a racist like the rest of her benighted family by finding racism in every over-parsed phrase uttered by anyone, Left or Right, that wasn’t an unqualified and glowing endorsement of The Precious. I talked about that in Barking up the Wrong Tree, and how the Republican attack was not on race but on qualifications – which is a more subtle and difficult to address attack on civil rights, equality and protection under the law – feeding into their Ward Connerly-led assault upon Affirmative Action (AFAC). I then followed up with four posts about Affirmative Action and the current political contest: Affirmation, Easy Come, Easy Go, Qualified Success, and Obvious Injuries of Class.

The overall message of those five posts in concert is simply this: trivializing the very real damage that racism and other modes of socio-economic oppression inflict on people by trying to turn unflattering snarks about a not-very-likeable candidate into the ravings of George Wallace as he bars the door leaves the playing field wide open for true racist dog whistles (and even racist brass bands) because it inures people to real calls to fight the invidious effects of racism. Racism becomes reduced in the political imagination to name-calling and who likes a sissy who can’t stand up for himself? The kinds of arguments that do substantial and long term harm to the population, such as the efforts to undermine AFAC, become difficult to talk about as what they are, racist dog whistles, because they don’t fit the name-calling mold. They are dog whistles because their treatment of race (and also of gender, class and sexuality) is oblique, well mixed with certain kinds of facts, but presenting a persistent theme: these undeserving people are unfairly helped by (the government/the Democrats/the ACLU/insert demonized liberal organization’s name here), distorting the natural order of things (the free market, God’s will, unfettered individualism, etc.) and keeping you from getting what is rightfully yours.

I have condemned the instrumental use of racism, misogyny and homophobia by Obamacans. Back in early June, I condemned the willingness of pro-Hillary supporters to deliberately take up the racist, ratfucking bullshit of the Right to spread smears about Michelle Obama, in Visceral Reactions. The epicenter for this type of assault was (and remains) No Quarter, run by a Republican (Hillary supporter or not) and very friendly to Republican interests. Recently, The Confluence has begun serving up the same ugly mix, which is why I have dropped it from my blog roll and will have nothing to do with PUMA. The current set of posts (no, I will not link to them) serves up a toxic brew ostensibly about the current financial market and Obama’s connections to it, but is actually little more than regurgitation of the Republican racist assault on equal opportunity lending. Anti-Obama sentiment opens up the flood gates to connect him, ACORN, and Franklin Raines to Fannie Mae, subprime loans and government involvement in lending generally. The argument (and the post) relies heavily on images of African American politicians, administrators and executives to make visually the claim that cannot be made verbally, recalling Lee Atwater’s infamous remarks about not being able to say racial slurs which inspires a new level of creativity to convey the message: those people are ripping you off again, taking what is yours for themselves.

I encourage people to read Mandos’ post, “Subprime lending and minorities,” on Corrente. Ignore his moronic bout of CDS in the last paragraph (and the pathetic excuse he offers to try to claim it’s not really CDS) and concentrate on the meat of the post itself where he offers a well-reasoned rebuttal to the claims of the Confluence post. What I am going to do in this post is talk about the politics behind the arguments, which I have addressed recently in Political Investment and in More Myth Debunking, this time focusing on the Republican war on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Democrats need to understand that trying to use the Republicans’ arguments as weapons against their intra-party rivals do nothing except weaken the party for the inter-party battles. I am not interested in talking about the fecklessness of the Democratic leadership at the moment – there will be plenty of time for that in other posts – but in trying to show how using the dog whistles of the Right do not help our own candidates (no matter who you support) and merely serve to corrode the Democrats’ efficacy. It is, at heart, a Somerby argument that nominal allies are often our worst enemies.

The arguments themselves have a long history in the fever swamps of the Right. In the original versions, it was the Evil Bill Clinton forcing banks to loan money to those kinds of people with the CRA. It added insult to fantasized injury that a Friend of Bill’s (FOB) and one of those people (i.e., an African American), Franklin Raines, was made CEO of Fannie Mae. At the time, the subprime crisis hadn’t hit and the opposition to these two entities was about the restrictions they placed on the free market. Then, about this time last year, before Obama was the nominee and just as Wall Street was being forced to confront the great shitpile, a more sophisticated argument was pushed forward – that the subprime crisis was a result of the combination of the CRA forcing banks to make loans to minority and poor borrowers and that the GSEs (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) accelerated this phenomenon by buying up the toxic mortgages and encouraging more to be made. The sotto voce argument here was that the black man running Fannie Mae was purposefully doing this to advantage undeserving black borrowers. This smear was first anti-government, then anti-Clinton, then anti-black.

The root of the smear is the toxic combination of Republican racism and greed, instrumentalized via the Southern Strategy to rally white resentment to win political power to dismantle the regulatory state crafted in the New Deal. The CRA forced the banking industry to make loans in areas and to people they did not want to serve. Let’s be clear – the CRA did introduce more risk to the system to those who were already comfortable with how things were arranged, exactly in the way that giving “those people” rights as such was “risky” for the existing power structure. People continuously treated as outcasts by definition will not have the socio-economic markers of inclusion, such as wealth, education, the right kind of table manners, the preferred grammatical forms, and so forth. They are a risk because they are not part of the social slice where everyone plays by the power elites cultural norms. This is one reason why women as such are being cast as a political problem (and thus a political risk) this electoral season because they are viewed as not being willing to play by the cultural norms, and many are afraid they will vote along gender lines instead of “as they should.” The anxiety is due to the knowledge of discriminatory treatment and the fear of punitive backlash. But I digress.

Home ownership is a major (and in an era of stagnant and declining wages, often the only) way for a household to accumulate significant wealth for a reasonable investment. Inheriting my father-in-law’s house after he passed away almost 3 years ago allowed us to liquidate 20 years of wealth and put it in our pocket. That wealth gave us economic leverage we didn’t have before, which (given a normal economic situation) could be used to garner us a greater economic leg up than having to rely on just our own earnings. My parents were able to give a house (albeit an old and slightly dilapidated one) to one of my siblings, an immense transfer of wealth his public servant income could not have obtained. It is these generational wealth transfers that can make home ownership wealth engines. (Tangential comment - In the bubble market, people did not have to wait for inheritance. They could put little or nothing down, sit on the property for a relatively short period of time, and reap the kind of payback that ordinarily took one or two generations of property holding to get. Why the hell wouldn’t people want to risk getting in over their heads with a potential reward like that?)

In a normal, non-bubble, market, to build up generational wealth is no small feat, even for those inside the magic circle of social respectability. Wealth of one generation is closely tied to that of the preceding one, and if you have been systematically, legally and extra-legally barred from ordinary wealth accumulation through the way socio-economic resources are structured, then with each cycle of wealth generation, you fall that much further behind. The further behind you fall, the greater a “risk” you are to the institutions and individuals who have moved risk from their arenas of operation to yours. Redlining, denying credit, residential covenants refusing ownership to certain classes of individuals, are all examples of reallocating economic risk. It avoids risk which creates greater risk for those excluded from opportunities for safety. All of this connects to the anti-AFAC arguments through the trope of who is deserving of social rewards and benefits by refusing to acknowledge the patterns of deprivation and exclusion that render entire classes of people “too risky” to be given access to those rewards and benefits. They’ll just come in and trash the place.

What the CRA did more than anything was force financial institutions to take on the risks that had been created by their exclusionary practices. It also came with reporting requirements to allow oversight to ensure that investments and loans were real and not merely exploitative. For every risk that succeeded, the probability went up that subsequent risk taking in that arena would pay off. It was in the institutions’ long term interests to see that the risks paid off. The industry loathed both the enforced risk taking and even more the oversight that they saw as a camel’s nose under their insider practices tent. The racists simply saw advantages being provided to minorities and needed no other reason to oppose it. When Bill Clinton strengthened the Act in 1994, it enraged both sides, and the fury was ratcheted up when he made it part of GLBA.

I’m not going to go into the financial ups and downs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as they are brought into the argument more to obfuscate it than to add substance. The malfeasance at Fannie and Freddie was done by their private sector managers engaging in the same kinds of questionable business practices that other such managers did in the crisis though on a scale the GSEs could only dream of. One of the best run downs on the GSE failures is here by Tanta of Calculated Risk (in an argument with Paul Krugman) , where she spares no sympathy for anyone. One of the reasons I appreciate Tanta so much as an economic analyst is because she is very aware of class arguments being brought in to try to rule out risk by ruling out the poor. (Also see this short article by Mark Thoma, economist at U of OR.) The point of objection by the Right to the GSEs is that they, along with FHA, provide money to “undeserving” people who are too poor or economically damaged goods, there for fleecing but not for advancement. As for who “those people” are, just look at the list in Taking Out the Trash. It’s not just the white trash that is being described – it’s all the undeserving and reviled in our society. The GSEs have been swept strongly into the current arguments because it allows people to talk loudly about Franklin Raines and use his picture all over the place. For the Left, he is a FOB, and so can be bashed for his Clinton connections. On the Right, he is an FOB and he’s black, so they get to engage in CDS and racism, plus tie him by race and political party to Obama. Just as I’m not particularly interested in discussing Democratic leadership failures, I am not interested in Raines’ very real management failures (and possible corruption) as the head of Fannie Mae. The current Republican interest with Raines has more to do with his color and connections to the Clintons, and how that can be exploited, than with his alleged corruption.

The argument is little more than this: banks are being forced by Democrats to loan to blacks who are such bad credit risks that they are bringing the entire housing sector down. In California and other Southwest markets, it is the blacks and the “illegals” in tandem doing this. Why are Democrats going along? Because, the Republicans claim, they are captive to black (and other reviled groups’) interests and allow themselves to be used by the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, the ACLU, ACORN, and any other group perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be minority dominated. When the accused organization in (I’m looking at you, ACORN) has a very questionable history, it gets easier to spread guilt by association. This is how Franklin Raines fits in – the (incompetent and undeserving) black CEO who ran Fannie Mae to enrich (undeserving) blacks and other low-life “sub-prime” flimflam artists.

Again, I am not making an argument that there is nothing to object to on the part of any of these actors. I am pointing out the manipulation of facts, coincidence, prejudice and ideology to create a racist dog whistle that advances the objective of dismantling the regulatory state. It appeals to the worst in the listener and reinforces those beliefs by wrapping it up in a half-baked argument about the secret corruption of those people, out to steal our vital fluids and sap our national vigor.

Kind of like the CDS the Right has been pushing for 20 years and which the Left has eagerly seized upon when it suits their intra-party infighting needs. In fact, the effectiveness of the Right’s racist arguments is increased by the way in which the Left will allow enormous amounts of lies to be spread as long as they see that someone named Clinton is being blamed. The pattern of racist attacks on Obama, attacks promoted by some on the Left, is comparable to the pattern of classist attacks on the Clintons, attacks promoted by most of the intellectual Left, attacks which were extended to Gore (as Bob Somerby has incomparably and exhaustively documented) by the Village and babbled approvingly by more than a few denizens of Left Blogistan.

CDS fractures the Left's attempts to combat the Movement Conservative assault on civil rights and social justice. The rightwing counts on the willingness of the Village and the Blogger Boyz to never resist an occasion to take a cheap swipe, just as Mandos did in his otherwise excellent post. BTD asked during the campaign if it was more important to the Obamacans to purge the Clintons from the party than to win the election. I think the answer is that they are more interested in purging what the Clintons culturally represent to them than to have an effective political party. They are viscerally opposed to what they think is present in these people (and the nature of the attack on Palin echoes the historic attacks on the Clintons from Left and Right) in much the same way as a significant portion of the Republican party cannot see a candidate like Obama – or Deval Patrick or Barbara Jordan or John Lewis or Carol Mosley Braun or Douglas Wilder or Stephanie Tubbs Jones, or for that matter Condi Rice or Colin Powell – without having their racism kick into overdrive. The CDS driven Left does not appear to notice that the attempt to quarantine all the “bad” effects of political decisions by the Democrats as somehow attributable to the actions of these two specific political actors and their never-quite-firmly-defined circle of unindicted co-conspirators (Obama himself having been one of that group in the not so distant past, along with Rahm Emmanuel, Joe Lieberman, all of the current Congressional leadership at one point or another, and quite a number of public intellectuals and their families, including Paul Krugman’s son) does not and cannot defend the Democrats from rightwing claims that they are failing, they are lying, they cannot be trusted to protect the nation, etc. nor does it encourage more progressive behavior from those who are alleged to be combating the deleterious effects of the 90s, as we are seeing in the FISA vote, the current rip-off fiasco, the abandonment of UHC, and so forth.

Thus we end up with the leading lights of Left Blogistan solemnly agreeing that the president who fought tooth and nail to secure vital loans to help create long-term wealth in minority communities is nothing but a racist, another faction of the Democrats grabbing everything the Republican ratfuckers are shoving their way to tar the people, policies and plans that the Clintons have promoted and defended against rightwing attacks in some misguided belief that this will hurt Obama with voters instead of reinforce the Obamacan claims that the Clintons are just racists like their Bunker and Bubba supporters, while the Right merrily spreads the lie that Bill and the Democrats created the mortgage meltdown by setting up a scam for the undeserving minorities and poor to steal money and houses through the GSEs and CRA.

This is the full anatomy of the rightwing dog whistles of the last half century: Stirring up visceral reactions with distortions of cultural stereotypes and ordinary politics, mixed well with personal smears and attributing the worst possible motives to unobjectionable acts, in order to divide opposition and mobilize resentment in the service of dismantling the legacy of the New Deal.

And it just keeps working.


PS - Yes, the reference to an economist's relative is ironic.

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