I’ve watched a number of Republican debates in this primary season. The first thing I would say about them is that they provide a very revealing window in a world I am very unfamiliar with. I don’t read right wing blogs (with the exception of Greg Mankiw’s econ blog) , I don’t really have many right-wing friends, I don’t watch Fox News, and I don’t click on email forwards with the subject “Socialists Pelosi and Obama destroying America, here’s how”. All of my American friends pronounce the first “A” in “America”. You could say I live a pretty cloistered life, ideologically speaking.
So these Republican debates are very useful in that regard, because they give me a sense of what’s going on in that world. Not a completely accurate sense, obviously – there’s only so much you can infer from the reality-TV-ized version of politics that plays out on our screen every few weeks – but some sense. For instance, before watching these debates, I had no idea Ben Bernanke was such a hated (or even known) figure on the right. After watching these debates, these google search suggestions for Bernanke made a whole lot more sense:
This then leads me to the point of this post, which is Newt Gingrich’s racially charged comments in the South Carolina debate two nights ago. Check them out for yourself:
Now, there’s a couple of things to be said about this. An innocuous reading of Gingrich’s comments would be: well, what’s the issue? He wants to help black people find jobs! Even if they happen to be janitorial jobs for children in the very schools that they’re supposed to be learning, they’re still jobs! Black people should be thrilled!
Moreover, it’s hard for someone not in the US or relatively well-versed in American politics to understand why his comments were so over the top. This was not some innocent exhortation for disadvantaged minorities to help themselves. This was dog-whistle racial politics at its finest. By calling Obama a “food stamp President” and reinforcing the belief that minorities can do better in the US simply by working harder, Gingrich was pressing exactly the right buttons, given his audience (southern Republicans). As Charles Blow writes,
Gingrich seems to understand the historical weight of the view among some southern whites, many of whom have migrated to the Republican party, that blacks are lazy and addicted to handouts. He is able to give voice to those feelings without using those words. He is able to make people believe that a fundamentally flawed and prejudicial argument that demeans minorities is actually for their uplift. It is Gingrich’s gift: He is able to make ill will sound like good will.
Or as James Fallows notes in a post I strongly encourage you to read:
Newt Gingrich knows exactly what he is doing when he calls Obama the “food stamp” president, just as Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he was doing when talking about “welfare Cadillacs.” There are lots of other ways to make the point about economic hard times — entirely apart from which person and which policies are to blame for today’s mammoth joblessness, and apart from the fact that Congress sets food stamp policies. You could call him the “pink slip president,” the “foreclosure president,” the “Walmart president,” the “Wall Street president,” the “Citibank president,” the “bailout president,” or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with “the food stamp president,” and you’re doing it on purpose.
If Joe Lieberman had been elected, I would be wary of attacks on his economic policy that called him “the cunning, tight-fisted president.” If Henry Cisneros had or Ken Salazar does, I would notice arguments about ineffectiveness phrased as “the mañana administration.” If Gary Locke were in office, then “the Manchurian candidate” jokes that had been used on John Huntsman would have a different edge. And so on. This reader may not recognize it as a dog whistle, but I have no doubt that Newt Gingrich knows what it is. I don’t think that Gingrich has had a racist-style political career; on the contrary. But he knows what this language does.
The second thing to note about Gingrich’s comments is the shrieking joy in the crowd that greeted them. I honestly should not be surprised anymore — this is the same party whose debates have prompted wild applause at sick people dying because of a lack of insurance — but I am, for whatever reason. And this goes full circle to my comments at the beginning of the post. These debates and the crowd reactions in them give me a great insight as to what the Republican base thinks and feels about certain issues. From booing the fact that Romney’s father was born in Mexico to cheering for Bernanke’s treason trial, from electric fences to torture, it’s illuminating. And then I have to remind myself that this is one of the two major parties in the most powerful country in the world, and that’s when I bury my head in my hands.
What amazes me is that even discounting one’s moral and ethical revulsion at rhetoric like this, don’t Republicans realize that if they keep saying stuff like this, black people won’t vote for them? That if they keep demonizing Hispanics and immigration, that Latinos won’t vote for them? That if they publicly call for racial profiling of Muslims, that Muslims won’t vote for them? I have been taught in graduate school the remarkable tenet that political parties like attracting votes. The Republicans have a very strange way of going about it.