Since the election of Barack Obama, the racist tone has risen markedly, and alarmingly, in this country. The so-called “birther” movement—people who claim that Obama is not an American citizen—has made this development most explicit. The underlying message is one of revulsion against a black man being the President of the United States. The reality of a black President is so horrifying to the racist mind that it must resort to denial—this man cannot really be eligible to live in the White House. His birth certificate must have been forged. Such insidious nonsense was planned by individuals seeking to exploit racist fears and beliefs in order to undermine the President and ultimately defeat him.
Obama himself is one of the most ingratiating and conciliatory politicians to occupy his office. He is not challenging the war machine in the Middle East to a significant degree. He pursues similar anti-terrorist policies as his predecessor, including many troubling aspects of Bush’s illegal detention programs. His economic approach to a large degree consists of attempting to prop up the same Wall Street powers that brought the country into a massive recession, i.e. a very “business-friendly” approach. On social issues he is largely a conventional liberal—nothing earth-shattering here. He has even dragged his feet on gay rights.
But if you listen to right-wing talk radio or watch the Fox “News” channel, you see a different President. Rush Limbaugh and his crowd of extremists paint Obama as a far-left radical, a scary black man who is a racist against white people and seeks to replace the rule of law with a totalitarian state. The charge of racism is particularly significant—racists have learned to project their own attitudes onto their opponents in order to confuse the public. In general, the right has adhered to a strategy of portraying anyone other than the right as dangerous and an actual enemy of the people. In the case of Obama, the rhetoric has gotten even more feverish, less connected with any real conditions, more downright hysterical in its lies and distortions, and all tinged with the blatant flavor of racial hatred. Perhaps it’s because Glenn Beck is the least sophisticated of the bunch (which is saying a lot) that he was the one to blurt out last week that Obama hates white people.
The leadership of the Republican Party sometimes makes a pretense of distancing itself from the rhetoric and thuggery of right-wing media. But only just so much to cover their asses. Most of the time they support it, feed it, encourage it, and refuse to disavow it. This points up a glaring flaw in this country’s political culture, which has infected both parties and all facets of government and media, but which is particularly acute among Republicans. This is that the idea of actually governing for the good of the country has been replaced with the notion that gaining and maintaining power, i.e. “winning,” is the only worthwhile value. The Republican Party has internalized this idea to such a degree that it no longer has any real values.
When LBJ inaugurated the Great Society programs, the Republicans faced a choice. They could have agreed that justice and equality were values that all politicians needed to embrace for the common good, and then perhaps proposed alternative ideas on how such values could be maintained. What they decided to do instead was to enlist racist whites into their party by stoking resentment against blacks and against the liberal programs that were seeking to foster equality.
Civil rights had gained such a major foothold in the consciousness of Americans that the Republicans couldn’t maintain the pure George Wallace-style opposition to racial equality without committing political suicide. So instead, they paid lip service to civil rights while stimulating racial hatred and fear through other “issues” that were actually code words for race. “Crime” was the first of such issues exploited—Nixon’s emphasis on law and order was intended to tap into white resentment at the spectacle of rioting blacks in the inner cities. And since poverty breeds crime, and a higher percentage of African Americans were poor as compared to whites, a higher incident of crime would provide an apparently objective basis to what was really a racial scare tactic. Liberals were “permissive” towards crime, but real Americans like Nixon knew that getting “tough” with criminals was the only thing that worked. This strategy helped win the votes of consciously racist whites, as well as working-class whites who would project their resentments about economic stagnation and social unrest onto liberals who were supposedly selling them out, and by extension onto minorities getting “favored” treatment. Over the years since Nixon, the figure of the black criminal has paid continuing dividends for the Republican Party. The infamous “Willie Horton” ad during Bush Sr.’s 1988 campaign against Dukakis is a perfect example. Later, the gangster imagery from hip-hop culture has been brought up repeatedly as a menacing social force to be condemned by politicians of both parties, far out of proportion to any real effect it had on the lives of the mass of voters.
Under Reagan, the “welfare queen” stereotype was used as a means of demonizing liberal programs to aid the poor. People on welfare were characterized as parasites who were taking advantage of government programs to avoid work. It is a barely disguised version of the old “lazy shiftless coon” image, a staple in racist rhetoric since Reconstruction. Once again, the resentment of working-class whites could be directed against blacks without having to mention race at all. These were just people that didn’t want to work, unlike the decent hardworking Reagan voters who had too much pride to accept a “handout.”
Another part of the strategy was to ridicule and condemn black leaders. Jesse Jackson may have said foolish things, yet no more foolish than a great number of white politicians in the Congress and elsewhere. But by focusing negative attention on Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others, Republicans sought to discredit the entire movement of justice and equal rights for African Americans. In addition, if any black public figure made a statement that was considered objectionable by right-wingers and their media mouthpieces, other black public figures were asked to condemn or apologize for the statement—I’m thinking of Louis Farrakhan in particular, a militant black Muslim who was repeatedly used as a club to beat other black leaders or spokespeople into silence. Of course, no one would ever ask Senator John McCain, for instance, to condemn something that Senator Jesse Helms had said.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, right-wing extremism held exclusive power in the Republican Party. The strategy of using code issues and words to encourage racial fear and hatred continued, and now the denial became a blanket one. The official line was that there was no more racial problem in America. Racism was over, and those who continued to talk about it were guilty of “politically correct” oppression of free speech. The attack on “political correctness” (from a phrase that actually began as left-wing self-referential humor) was always primarily an attack on the public consciousness that had been attained regarding civil rights and racial equality. In fact, if a liberal or progressive said something that challenged the prevailing ideology, whether it was about race, economics, the military, or whatever—the phony concern about free speech would instantly go out the window, and the person would be attacked for daring to say such a terrible thing. The double standard continues to this day: a right-winger can get away with saying almost anything, while similarly extreme language from the left meets with swift retribution. It’s interesting that when a right-winger does catch flak, as in the case of Don Imus, it’s when he fails to sufficiently disguise the racist import of his words. “Nappy-headed hos” wasn’t that much different from the kind of thing you hear on Rush Limbaugh’s or Michael Savage’s programs on a regular basis. It was just enough over the line, and Imus had flirted with the line long enough, and he was a prominent enough figure in the media elites, for it to backfire. This is the exception rather than the rule. Day after day, right-wing media gets away with thinly veiled race-baiting.
One of the most insidious Republican tactics is the promotion of self-hating and delusional black conservatives to positions representing the Party. From Clarence Thomas to Alan Keyes and Michael Steele, the Republicans try to fool us by propping themselves up with token black spokesmen representing the tiniest fraction of the African American community.
The Republican Party consciously and deliberately developed a political strategy based on stoking racism in order to win votes. And to a great degree, it worked. They held the White House for 20 out of the 24 years between 1969 and 1992. They undermined the Clinton White House with their disruptive tactics, and gained control of the House for 12 years, from 1994 to 2006. They regained the White House under Bush Jr. and ended up with majorities in both the House and Senate.
Finally, having achieved close to total power in Washington, they wrecked the country. Since they didn’t care about governing, only gaining and keeping power, once they were in power they proved ruinous to everything they touched, from foreign affairs to the economy and the environment. So in 2008, the people elected a new President, the first African American chief executive. And he has a huge mess to try to clean up.
Once again, as it was when LBJ launched the Great Society, Republicans faced a choice. They could have decided to take the high road, and to work with the new President, opposing whatever ideas they might have to Obama’s while abandoning the old strategy of racial division.
Of course they did not. The racial rhetoric we’re hearing now is more frightening than anything we’ve heard since the 1960s. Extremists on the right have openly advocated secession, a word not seriously used since, significantly, the Civil War. Republican leaders, instead of taking a principled stand, tacitly approve of incessant race-baiting from unscrupulous demagogues such as Limbaugh, Beck, and Sean Hannity.
Who knows how much further we could have come as a country by now if the Republican Party had tried to serve the good of the country instead of deliberately fostering the old racial divide? It’s been three decades since Dr. King was assassinated, and yet the Republican leadership continues to aid and abet the most hateful elements in our nation, all for their own petty political gains.
The Republican Party has had plenty of chances to redeem itself. On every occasion it has chosen to align itself with Jim Crow politics. It is now nothing more than the Confederate Party, the standard bearer for white supremacy, the symbol of the old racist hegemony, clinging to memories of slavery and segregation, whispering a multitude of code words for “nigger” into the ear of the populace.
The Republican Party must end. They have lost all claim to legitimacy in the modern world. They represent a test for the United States—whether or not our country can deal constructively with its real problems today, or crumble into fatal weakness and senility, wrapped in a Confederate flag.