Race & the GOP: Sam Sussman

Sam Sussman maintains that the racialization of politics is a GOP strategy

Last week, the Republican Presidential Primary reached a new low — who would have thunk it? — even before Newt Gingrich promised a 51st state on the moon (this, sadly, is not a joke. Google it). In the days before the South Carolina primary, Rick Santorum sloshed into the muddy backwaters of racial politics with this caring commentary: “I don’t want to make black peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” If dear Rick was trying to outdo leading Mitt-alternative Newt Gingrich, it was a dreadfully weak effort. Newt set a high standard earlier this month when he expanded on his frequently deployed description of Barack Obama as “the food stamp President” with this unsolicited advice: “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” So far, no invitation yet.

These are not merely “gotcha” moments. Rather, the use of racially charged language is a forty-five year Republican project that runs from Richard Nixon’s promise of “law and order” to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” to Bush Senior’s shameful (yet successful) attempt to define Michael Dukakis by convicted black murderer Willie Horton’s mug shot. Racially charged language, the ultimate purpose of which is to associate government with excessively generous assistance to poor blacks, has been the prime mechanism by which the GOP has built its case for “small government.”

The GOP first pioneered the “Southern strategy” of injecting racial resentment into economic debates in 1968, after years of failing to win economic arguments against liberal Democrats. Over the previous three decades, Democrats had built a middle class society on the pillars of public education, strong support for organized labor and Social Security. FDR’s party was thanked at the polls, winning seven of the nine Presidential elections between 1932 and 1964. Yet by 1968, domestic political news had been dominated for three years by race riots in black urban centers and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Republican strategy was simple: redefine the Democratic Party as an advocate of the urban poor, while branding itself defender of middle class Americans who needed protection from a “big government” intent on redistributing their wealth to the black underclass. Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips termed this strategy “Democratic-Negro mutual identification.” Clever.

Because overtly racist language was no longer in vogue after the civil rights movement, Nixon’s task was to speak to white racial resentment without sounding explicitly racist. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explains: “You start in 1954 saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say nigger anymore — that backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights.’”

Nixon, too, was less than coy about his double-speak. After filming a commercial that combined his soothing promise of “law and order” with footage of rioting African-Americans, Nixon announced to his staff: “This hits it right on the nose … it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” Nixon also used the language of “cities” and “the poor” to associate government spending with African-Americans: “We have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed, the cities, the poor … it is time to quit pouring billions of dollars into programs that have failed.” Never mind that the “War on Poverty” slashed the number of Americans living in poverty by 35%.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Ronald Reagan built on this vocabulary as he cobbled together a sustainable conservative coalition. Most infamous is his beloved anecdote of the “welfare queen.” She was “a woman in Chicago,” who abused welfare and food stamps to the tune of $150,000 per year. Lazy, irresponsible and overly sexual, the welfare queen’s exploitation of “hard working, decent tax-paying Americans” (read: white people) epitomized everything wrong with “big government.” There is reasonable evidence that Reagan himself was no overt bigot, yet this language was invaluable to him and his Big Business allies who were intent on tarnishing liberal government programs at all costs.

Neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan has been a force in American politics for nearly a quarter-century, but the language of racial resentment with which they argued against liberal governance is still with us. When Republicans speak of “big government,” “the entitlement society,” being “tough on crime” and representing “hard working, decent, tax-paying Americans,” it is essential to understand that this vocabulary developed to manipulate racial resentment into blanket condemnations of government itself. It is this language with which Republicans have diverted Americans’ attention from the vital role of public health, education, employment and regulation; this language with which Republicans have justified gargantuan tax cuts to the rich while eroding public services to the middle class and poor; this language with which Republicans have repeatedly succeeded in securing the support of working class white voters whose economic interests are best served by liberal governance.

In classic tragic form, it has been these voters who have been most hurt by the hollowing out of manufacturing, erosion of public services and gross inequality wrought by the death of the liberal consensus. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has failed to redirect the anger of a shrinking middle class toward those who have truly “lived off government” — the financial sector, Big Oil, military contractors and the pharmaceutical industry, who have for decades been the recipients of yearly government subsidies, no-bid contracts and ad-hoc bailouts. As the 2012 Presidential election nears, the winning strategy for Democrats is to combat the inevitable racialization of activist government with a redirection of public outrage toward these true “welfare queens.”

Sam is a junior. He can be reached at ssussma1@swarthmore.edu.

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