Why “Playing The Race Card” Works for Conservatives

Terrance Heath

Come the revolution, rich, white, male conservatives will be the only people left who can “play the race card” and get away with it. Actually, that revolution is already here. And, with apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, it is being televised — in the form of Mitt Romney’s attack ads, focused on Obama’s imaginary “gutting” of welfare reform.

There’s a dark, bitter irony in this latest chapter in the ongoing saga of race in America. Our first African-American president can’t talk about race. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his excellent article in The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President,” Barack Obama has become “the most successful black politician in American history,” by steering clear of “the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear.” Yet the success of the GOP’s Romney/Ryan ticket, dubbed “white and whiter” by Salon columnist Joan Walsh, actually depends on exploiting the “radioactive racial issues of yesteryear.”

At this stage in the game, there’s only one reason a campaign doubles down on a particular strategy — especially one with so much potential to backfire: it’s working. The question is: Why does it work?

There are at least a few reasons why it works. See Dave Johnson’s post and Digby’s post for more about why we on the left are part of the reason it works, and how we can begin to do something about it. For my purposes, I’m going to focus on to big reasons why playing the race card works so well for conservatives: the media, and the base.

Why Does It Work? The Media.

Bill Scher cataloged the media reaction to the Romney campaign’s “unsubtle race-baiting campaign.” Chris Matthews’ blasting RNC chair Reince Priebus for “playing the race card” was one of the more noteworthy media reactions.

And while Matthews wasn’t exactly alone in his outrage. As Bill noted, Tom Edesall of The New York Times and Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine joined Matthews in calling out the Romney campaign’s race-baiting. But Matthews, Edsall and Chait are not typical of the media reaction. That dubious honor would go to to Mika Brezinski.

Brezinski  sat right in the middle of the Matthews/Priebus showdown and excused Romneys’ most recent bit of race-baiting. When Matthews asked why, other than birther-based race-baiting, Romney would have quipped about his birth certificate at a Michigan campaign stop, Brezinski  was quick to give Romney a pass by suggesting that maybe he’s just an “awkward joker.”

There ya go! See, nothing racist there at all. It’s just that Mitt can’t tell a joke to save his life.

Brezinski embodies what self-described “liberal Republican” William Saletan skewered at Slate, with an exhaustive accounting of the the Romney campaign’s race-baiting, that ends with a devastatingly sarcastic takedown.

Everything Romney and his surrogates say about Obama gets treated as some kind of offense. Not understanding America. Not knowing how to be an American. Growing up in Indonesia. Thinking like a foreigner. Declaring war on our religion. Not sharing our values. Not appreciating our Anglo-Saxon heritage. Not investigating Muslims. Not having a trusted birth certificate. It’s gotten to the point where Romney can’t open his mouth without somebody misconstruing his motives. Poor guy.

While Matthews, Chait, and Saletan are welcome exceptions, the media has been a bit late to the party. I don’t know if I’d attribute it to a sudden “outbreak of conscience,” as Josh Marshall suggests. Until just a day or so ago, the media has been “chronically unwilling” to call “a spade a spade,” as Marshall puts it. Instead, media types have been so eager to whitewash obvious racism, that we’ve been asked to seriously believe that Rick Santorum meant to say “blah people” instead of “black people,” and that Mitt Romney’s just an “awkward joker.”

I think it’s more likely that it just became impossible to deny or whitewash, without looking like shills, or looking just plain stupid. Just as the Romney campaign has thus far been able to count on Americans simply refusing to believe that the Republicans agenda could possibly as extreme as it is, so has team Romney counted on the media being unable to believe that Romney and the GOP could be running a campaign as racially charged as the Romney/Ryan had kicked into high gear.

Conservatives have been able to get away with playing the race card in large part because of its media enables, just like a chronic gambler whose debts are paid by the same people who ignore or deny that there’s any problem at all.

In all honesty, the “race card” has been in play in the GOP presidential race since Newt Gingrich slapped it on the table during the primaries. Since then, it seems like the the GOP has been playing with a deck made up of nothing but race cards. Newt, the prototypical Southern conservative politician, knows instinctively when and how loudly to sound that dog whistle. In Romney’s “awkward” hands, Newt’s racist dog whistle has become foghorn sounding so loud that the members of the media can no longer ignore it without losing whatever credibility they have.

Don’t count on this change being permanent, by the way. Already there are indications that the media is reverting to form. Case in point: just last night, two attendees were ejected from the Republican convention for throwing peanuts at a CNN camera person while saying “This is how we feed animals.” 

Two people were removed from the Republican National Convention Tuesday after they threw nuts at an African-American CNN camera operator and said, “This is how we feed animals.”

Multiple witnesses observed the exchange and RNC security and police immediately removed the two people from the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The convention released a statement saying, “Two attendees tonight exhibited deplorable behavior. Their conduct was inexcusable and unacceptable. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”

CNN also acknowledged the incident, saying, “CNN can confirm there was an incident directed at an employee inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum earlier this afternoon. CNN worked with convention officials to address this matter and will have no further comment.”

The incident echoes events from the 2008 campaign, like when angry supporters at a McCain/Palin rally screamed “nigger!” and shouted “Sit down, boy!” at a black cameraman. But aside from an official statement from CNN, and one tweet by David Shuster, you won’t see much else about it on CNN’s homepage or CNN’s coverage of the GOP convention. It doesn’t even qualify as one of the five things CNN learned at the Republican convention.

Who were the individuals ejected?

Nearly 24 hours after an ugly incident in which two attendees at the Republican National Convention in Tampa were ejected after throwing nuts at a black CNN camerawoman and saying, “This is how we feed animals,” remarkably few details about the particulars of the incident have emerged.

CNN, convention organizers, the RNC, and the managers of the venue itself have all either declined to provide more information about what exactly happened or have referred questions to one of the other entities involved.

It remains unknown whether the two attendees were delegates to the convention, which state delegation they were members of, whether they were forcibly removed from the arena, whether their convention credentials have been revoked, or whether they will be back in attendance today.

Were they delegates? Were they elected officials? How many people witnessed the incident? Did any of them move to stop it? Why so many unanswered questions?

What would ensue if something similar happened to a FOX News employee at the Democratic convention?

Why Does It Work? The Base.

The media is only half the reason playing the race card has worked for Republicans, by making it possible for politicians from Newt Gingrich, to Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney to play the race card and get away with it. The other reason it works, and the reason Republicans engage in race-baiting is because it a really winner with the Republican base that roared to life in 2008, fueled the tea party tempest of 2010, and now drive the party’s messaging in 2012.

 

This base consists of people is very different than from the rich guys at the top of the GOP’s presidential ticket.

The rich, those born sucking silver spoons like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, really are different from the middle class. The wealthy grow up and live their lives wrapped in security. That’s what gives them the arrogance to organize a posse to hold down a fellow prep school student and chop off his hair, mock NASCAR fans’ clothes and ridicule cookies offered by supporters. No matter what, Romney and Ryan will remain rich and secure.

By contrast, those born into poverty or the middle class live lives nagged by insecurity. They know their jobs could be off-shored at any moment. They know their employers may raid their pensions in bankruptcy. Their major asset in life, their home, may have lost a third of its value when the Wall Street-inflated housing bubble burst. Rich would be great, but those born without trust funds work hardest just to attain a little security.

They will support an agenda that’s ultimately detrimental to them, and beneficial to the white, wealthy welfare queens at on the GOP ticket, so long as it doesn’t help “the wrong people.” 

Last week I published a post about the bogus charge that Obama is relaxing work requirements for welfare and I included a comment from a rally attendee:

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“I really don’t want to help somebody who just decides, ‘Oh, well, I was raised on welfare. I can raise my children on welfare,’ ” Malcolm said. “I had a cousin who, she is a registered nurse and the stories she told me about people coming in there and having babies just so they could get more on their food stamps and more on their welfare. It’s like no, I don’t want to take care of those people.”

To me this is obviously about race. And as I’ve written dozens of times, it is an attitude that goes all the way back to America’s original sin and is a primary reason why we are uniquely hostile to the welfare state.

Of course it’s about race. It’s not a coincidence that Newt Gingrich gained in the GOP primaries by calling president Obama the “foodstamp president” and suggesting that African-Americans “demand jobs, not food stamps”; that  the Republican party platform calls Medicaid a “black hole,” or that Mitt Romney is shoring up his own base by accusing the president of “gutting welfare reform” to “shore up his base.” 

Malcolm, from the article quoted above, is a Romney supporter from Ohio, but his words could have been (and probably have been) said by Romney/Ryan supporters in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia or Louisiana. These are some of the states where people are going hungry. These are the states where people are most likely to struggle to afford food. They are among the states that would be hit hardest by the Romney Ryan agenda to turn food stamps into block grants, and throw 13 million people off food stamps, or cut severely their benefits. They are also among the reddest states on the map.

There’s an odd political angle to this poll. The top-10 list for states with the highest hunger rates includes the GOP strongholds of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Louisiana. More than half of those states are as red as they come, i.e. even in a landslide these states wouldn’t back Obama.

But here’s the kicker: Gallup mapped the percentage of people who “lacked money for food.” What do you notice?

Red America suffers from the highest hunger rates generally — the exception being the Plains states that have been enjoying, up until recently, an agriculture boom.

A cynic would thus observe the deep irony that Republicans have dubbed Obama the “Food Stamp President,” while the Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the party’s acknowledged deep-thinking wonk, wants to cut food stamps by $133 billion over the next decade.

The fact that Republicans have utterly abandoned the economic interests of vast swaths of their supporters in favor of whatever it is that Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers want policies that tilt toward the rich doesn’t represent irony as far as I’m concerned. Rather, it’s tragedy.

For years the GOP has successfully exploited the very white working-class insecurities created by Republican party policies, and not by stoking racial resentment alone. Race and resentment are only ingredients in the mix. As Robert O. Self explained in a New York Times articles , morality is in the mix, as it has been since Pat Buchannan announced a “cultural war” for the “soul of America” in 1992.

This should come as no surprise. For liberals, government promises to support individuals and families economically. For conservatives, government promises to protect individuals and families morally. Nothing has divided our two political tribes in the last half century quite like that distinction.

Self goes on to explain that the “cultural war” Buchannan spoke of in 1992 had been underway for more than 30 years by then. Those passages are too long to quote and too detailed to paraphrase here. His take on that history and the rise of what he calls “The Antisocial Contract” in the title of his column, is worth reading in it’s entirety.

What’s changed in the 20 years since Buchannan’s convention jeremiad is that the financial crisis and the Republican agenda have obliterated any perceived gap or division between economic issues and “values” issues.

But treating the economy, on one hand, and women and family, on the other, as if they are mutually exclusive is a fallacy. When Americans argue about gender, sex and family, they are arguing about equality, power and money — in essence, about the nature and role of government.

How people conceive of these issues — reproductive rights, say, or rape, or sexual harassment — says a great deal about how they view the social contract. The social contract is supposed to bind us together. It’s everything from Medicare to the Americans With Disabilities Act to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act. It is the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life. The social contract says that though our individual fates differ, we have a collective destiny, too. Many of us respond viscerally to comments from politicians like Mr. Akin because he leaves us wondering what place for women Republicans see in that collective future.

The success of the Republican agenda depends upon not only keeping the base distracted from that “shared destiny,” but to even deny or actively oppose its existence. If you give them a moral outrage upon which to focus the anger and anxiety fed by their increasing insecurity, and wrap it in cultural explanations for poverty and inequality — so deeply embedded in the psyche that it seems utterly natural — you can get them to ignore the tragedy imposed and inflicted upon them as the consequence of policies they will ultimately support.

Writing in the New York Times, David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers, explains that “we are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested.



We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”



Everyone does this, but some research suggests that political conservatives, perhaps because they are more set in their views, and more averse to cognitive dissonance, tend to display more motivated reasoning than liberals.



When you hear someone like Paul Ryan proposing, for example, to shift $4,700 in health costs onto the backs of seniors living at the poverty level by 2022, it’s important to understand that the consequences of those actions – the factual, real-world results of these policies – are often inconsequential to like-minded people on the Right not because they’re (necessarily) bad people, but for the simple reason that the consequences don’t register. 


While a half-dozen analyses paint a sharp picture of the cruelty inherent in the Ryan plan, it is this process of motivated reasoning that allows conservatives to simply block out any details that contradict their ideas about the need to avoid fostering a “culture of dependency.”

Crazy as it sounds, it actually works. Up to a point, that is.

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