Way back in 1981, legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater outlined the strategy that conservatives were following to leverage racial tensions for political gain without offending moderate and centrist voters.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,'” Atwater explained.
“By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.”
According to Atwater, the narrative would need to grow ever more suggestive. The Republican appeal to white voters would come with a wink and a dog whistle, not an overt call to arms.
“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,” he explained.
Until the election of Barack Obama, and the rise of the rural-based tea party, that cynical but also essentially healthy trend-line was more or less continuous.
The politics of necessity merged with what I would argue was a legitimately more expansive racial inclusiveness on the right.
Constrained by circumstance, Republicans slowly edged further and further away from Willie Horton style racial appeals.
Many conservative politicians, including George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, began to build significant bridges to communities of color. Bush had an admirably diverse cabinet, and won a sizable chunk of the Hispanic vote.
The Right’s dangerous new rhetoric on race
It is amazing, in the age of Obama, how much has changed. America’s new hard-right resurgence has brought with it some legitimate debates over the size and reach of government and the sustainability of large-scale government programs.
But it has also heralded a return to far more caustic and overt racist language. Clearly, not all conservatives have bit into this poison fruit. I know many tea partiers who are on board with the idea that Amerrica is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society.
But again and again, I find cases where important conservative thinkers and writers are making what can only be described as white tribal and Christianist arguments as they survey America’s political divide.
Orson Scott Card, perhaps the most widely read right-wing author in America, published an essay in May warning that Mr. Obama is a dictator who will soon field a thug army of urban black men.
Where will he get his “national police”? The NaPo will be recruited from “young out-of-work urban men” and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.
In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.
Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people “trying to escape” — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.
That same month, a scholar with the prominent Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, was fired after the Washington Post revealed that he had published a scholarly work arguing that Hispanics are inherently intellectually inferior.
“No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites,” Richwine had written, “but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”
This kind of overtly racial argument is particularly dangerous for a Republican movement that already finds itself with limited appeal within the nation’s growing minority community.
Will racial insensitivity be 2014’s version of rape insensitivity?
We have already seen what happens when a traditionalist movement edges beyond coded language into the realm of the overtly offensive, as happened in 2012 with Republican talk of “legitimate” rape in Missouri’s Senate race.
Lightning struck again in Indiana where a Senate candidate suggested that in some cases rape represented “a gift that God meant to happen.”
Those moments of crazy didn’t just offend feminists, or liberal women, or even women writ large. They offended voters in the vast, squishy middle of American politics, including a lot of men. The GOP runs the same risk in 2014 and beyond with racial politics.
As Republicans seek to mobilize their mostly white, largely rural base, I’m guessing that Americans will tolerate a certain amount of carefully parsed language, including debates about affirmative action and wrangling over the Trayvon Martin verdict.
But too often, and more frequently, Republicans find themselves slipping over a more overt racial line.
In 2012, two activists at the Republican National Convention were ejected after they threw peanuts at an African American journalist, saying, “This is how we feed animals.”
Last month, Iowa’s conservative Rep. Steve King argued that “for every one [young undocumented person in America] who is a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there, they weigh 130 pounds and with calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
That stings because a year ago, King compared the process of immigration to the genetic selection process that leads to a healthy breed of bird dog. “You want a good bird dog? You want one that’s going to be aggressive? Pick the one that’s the friskiest,” he said.
Don’t think those kinds of statements turn off mainstream and moderate Republican voters?
This week, the co-chairman of one of Iowa’s county GOP committees resigned abruptly, citing his party’s lurch to the right in general, and King’s views in particular.
“No one’s really stood out to really fight him on those,” said Polk county co-chair Chad Brown, 34, in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “I think they’re hateful statements.”
The Southern Avenger
Also last month, presidential hopeful and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul accepted the resignation of his co-author and director of new media, Jack Hunter.
Hunter stepped down after a conservative website revealed Hunter’s history as a “neo-confederalist” who went around wearing a mask, calling himself the “Southern Avenger” and praising the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Hunter, who worked closely with Paul for three years, wrote that John Wilkes Boothe’s heart was “in the right place” adding that his sole regret was that “Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr.”
Conservative Media Opens The Door to Backbenchers
Unfortunately, there are three intertwined problems at play here, which makes the new race rhetoric in the Republican Party difficult to untangle.
The first is the new structure of the conservative world’s media-political network, which allows politicians who would normally be back-benchers into the lime-light.
Guys like Steve King and Rand Paul are major players in the modern GOP. Paul might very well be the standard bearer in 2016.
As recently as the 1990s, they would have been relegated to marginal roles until thoroughly vetted, until their views and rhetoric had matured. In many cases, they would have been permanently banished to the margins, David Duke-style.
That’s just not happening anymore.
Compounding the problem is that many core voters in the Republican base — energized by media voices like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage — simply don’t want the old establishment brand of Coke.
They hold racial views that are, to put it mildly, out of sync with mainstream America and they want those views to be expressed, boldly and unambiguously, by their candidates.
“Republicans tell us privately,” Politico reported recently, “that pressure from conservative media only encourages their public voices to say things that offend black audiences.”
In other words, the old feedback loop that used to nudge GOP lawmakers toward more moderate, tolerant racial rhetoric has been replaced by a new feedback loop — one that rewards politicians who describe the president as a Kenyan imposter.
Mobilizing White Voters, Limiting Voting Power of Black Voters
The third problem – and this one’s the doozy — is the fact that in the short term Republicans may actually be able to win elections as a more or less pure-white party.
But this only works if they continue to gerrymander voting boundaries, and employ voter suppression tactics — such as voter ID laws — that target minorities.
The linkage between white appeal and potential victory at the ballot box was summed up in a court filing made by the state of Texas, defending its efforts to minimize the power of black Democratic voters in that state’s congressional races.
“[R]edistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats,” state officials argued.
“It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates.”
Ponder the implications of that argument for a moment. In modern America, black voters are almost exclusively Democratic.
Rather than attempting to appeal to those voters — shaping policies, messages, arguments to win more African Americans back to the GOP side — conservative operatives work to shape the voting system so that it minimizes the power of their ballots.
This isn’t just clumsy racist rhetoric. It’s not one muddled politicians talking about Hispanics as if they were bird dogs, or one high-level operative talking about the merits of gunning down Abraham Lincoln.
This is a reasoned legal argument from some of the GOP’s best legal thinkers in one of the largest states in the Union, concluding that a rationale exists for deliberately skewing the nation’s democracy, regardless of the ” incidental effects” on certain racial groups — in this case, black and Hispanic voters.
Yes, Democrats Are Different
It’s important to note that there is no equivalency here on the Democratic side. Democrats are not “the party of people of color” in the way that Republicans have become the “party of white people.”
According to Fox’s 2012 exit polls, Barack Obama won 39% of white votes — not a majority, by any means, but a healthy chunk.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, eked out a solid majority among whites – 59% – but got shellacked with every other ethnic group in our society, winning between 6% and 27% of their support depending on race.
Which explains why you don’t hear racial dog whistles from the left. Yes, Democrats win — when they win — by pulling in big margins from minority blocs.
But without a truly multi-racial coalition, including big numbers of whites, Democrats lose every time.
Reversing a trend?
Can the Republicans catch up, finding ways to marry their more conservative arguments about our society’s future with America’s increasing demographic diversity. It won’t be easy.
Taken together, the three new pressures described above threaten to pull the GOP in the opposite direction.
In 2014 and 2016, the party will likely face more irruptions of insensitive and even openly racist language from prominent voices in the conservative media and within the Republican Party’s ranks.
Some of those voices will likely win office (and bit TV ratings).
But on a national stage — in presidential races and key, big-state Senate match-ups — I’m guessing that the vast majority of voters won’t stand for it, any more than they were willing to stand for talk of “legitimate” rape.
If the GOP continues down this path, swapping the dog whistle for the bullhorn, Democrats will benefit politically, and the nation as a whole will lose.