Almond

The Week in Greed #12: Who Let the Dog Whistles Out?

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I’m reluctant to encourage readers of this column to watch cable television clips, because cable television treats politics as a profit source, rather than a civic institution with profound moral consequences.

Nonetheless, I want you guys to please take a few minutes to watch this, if you haven’t already:

It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve seen a television personality confront a political operative in such blunt terms at the level of his sin.

You can tell how unprecedented this event is because of how nervous the other talking heads are. They keep telling Matthews to calm down, to watch his tone. They treat him as if he’s gone crazy. Because, of course, the expression of genuine moral distress has no place on a polite corporate-sponsored television set. The whole point is to sell gourmet coffee, pal, not to save the world.

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But what Chris Matthews is saying, right there on the teevee, is more crucial to understanding this election than the joyless spasm of propaganda that just concluded in Tampa.

The Republican Party, saddled with a stiff, elitist candidate, unable to run on its wildly unpopular policy ideas, and unwilling even to pretend that it cares about the concerns of minority voters, has gone racist.

They’ve crunched the numbers and concluded that the only way to win in November is to drive up the white turnout. And that the best way to do this is to remind white voters that Obama is not white, and that deep down he means to rip them off because that, after all, is what blacks folks do to white people.

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This helps explain a fact that any sensible political observer should find profoundly mysterious: why Romney’s central line of attack to date has been to assert that Obama dropped the work requirement from welfare.

To begin with, why pursue a claim that has been so widely debunked? But even more curiously: why focus on an obscure issue like welfare reform? Why not attack the sitting president on his jobs record? Or the national debt? Or any of the other issues that American voters say they care about?

The answer, of course, is that Romney doesn’t really want to campaign about “a positive vision for the future” as his doe-eyed veep keeps repeating on the stump. He wants a campaign that will make white voters insecure and angry enough to come out in droves.

This is why the Romney welfare ads have been carefully stocked with hard-working, frustrated-looking Caucasians. The embedded message is simple: Obama is going to take your hard-earned tax dollars and give it to a bunch of his shiftless black pals.

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Asked about these bogus welfare claims by USA Today, Romney asserted their veracity while offering no facts to substantiate them. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone at USA Today that they might fact check the matter.

Instead, the paper allowed Romney to suggest that Obama had stripped the work requirement from welfare, which he didn’t do, in an attempt to “shore up his base” for the election. Because, see, the president’s base is welfare recipients. Or, as they are commonly known, black folk.

USA Today: an awesome newspaper, and not at all a dumb tool of propaganda!

The president of the Republican super PAC American Crossroads, Steven Law, put it like this: “You can tell [the ads] are landing punches.”

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Lee Atwater, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, interviewed by the author Alexander Lamis back in 1981, put it like this:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

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I’m not sure I have to mention that Mitt Romney is the first candidate ever to register zero percent of the African-American vote.

And yet, there is this profound expression of his soul:

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I’m making a joke, but only because I find all this so heartbreaking. The Republican Party, after all, was founded by anti-slavery activists. It is the party of Lincoln, the party of the Emancipation Proclamation, the party that saw the Union through the Civil War and fought (though not hard enough) for Reconstruction. The founding ideology of the G.O.P. was “free labor, free land, free men.” Its members opposed not just the moral atrocity of slavery, but the notion that plantation owners should be allowed to usurp the best land and leave independent farmers with the dregs.

The party was founded, in other words, on egalitarian principles.

By the dawn of the last century, the G.O.P. had transformed into the party of business, which is a code word for profit. It drove off reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt, and encouraged the financial speculation boom that led to the Wall Street Crash, and the Great Depression.

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In the second half of the 20th century, Republicans managed to recapture their mojo not by offering a unified vision of the country, but by adopting a strategy to divide the country along racial and economic lines. Richard Nixon was the first candidate to exploit the resentment Southern whites felt at the Civil Rights Movement. He did so using the coded language Atwater notes above.

It has since become a staple of the GOP playbook, from Ronald Reagan’s references to mythical welfare queens to George H.W. Bush’s use of the ominous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis. Racial incitement has migrated into the media ecosystem via the leering innuendo of Fox News coverage, which specializes in ginned up stories of white victimization, from the New Black Panthers to Shirley Sherrod to Obama’s death panels.

The goal isn’t just to rile white voters up, but to make them feel that their own racist impulses are merely reasonable responses to a culture stacked against them.

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The most despicable and concerted byproduct of this mindset is the effort, launched over the past few years by Republican state legislators, to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Using fake claims of voter fraud, they have passed laws expressly designed to make it harder for such populations to cast a ballot.

Given the history of this country—the fact that women were granted suffrage less than a century ago, and that minorities were routinely deprived of the right to vote fifty years ago—it is astonishing that our Fourth Estate has been so quiet in the face of this moral regression.

And that we, the people, have been so meek.

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The sad truth is that for most of us, “politics” is just something we watch on television, a thing to grumble about, to absorb our personal failings and anxieties.

Most of us won’t even see the worst of the racist garbage that Romney will need to get himself elected. It will be aimed squarely at the enclaves of white voters in the swing states he needs to find his 270 electoral votes. Thanks to Citizens United, you can be sure the pitches will be slickly produced and lavishly funded. No one will say the word “lazy” or the word “nigger.” You’ll just hear about “entitlements” and “government spending” and “welfare.”

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Which brings us back to Chris Matthews and his outburst of conscience. What makes the clip so revelatory is the very real sense of anguish amid the “political experts” flanking Matthews. They’ve become so acquiescent to the GOP’s coded race-baiting tactics that hearing them called out feels scandalous, forbidden. Their panic is that of journalistic quislings forced, at last, to face the depth of their collusion.

As for Reince Priebus, the current chair of the RNC, he is no Lee Atwater. Atwater at least had the guts to tell the truth.

Priebus can only muster the petulant self-pity of a guilty man. He knows the jig’s up, that the monstrous cynicism of his party has led to these ploys. He knows that he’s stuck with a dud candidate and a platform that, if honestly expressed, would appeal to one percent of the American people. He knows that this strategy is nearing its end, that white Americans will soon lose their place as the dominant and unquestioned majority in this country, and become just another electoral faction.

But Priebus also knows that this is just television, just another segment on another morning show. The idea in politics is to win, not to be honest or fair or even far-sighted. So he sits there and he takes it.

He’s got a billion dollars in the bank.

He’ll have his say.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →