We’ve discussed this before here many times, but John Holbo at Crooked Timber has a post up that’s so astoundingly good I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to it.
The post is, “Political Dog-whistles Don’t Have An Off-Switch For The Dog-whistle Part,” and it’s about why the Republican presidential candidate received ~0% of the African-American vote in the last election. It’s also about why Republicans find it so damn unfair to be accused of racism when they’re proposing [more draconian enforcement of immigration laws|cutting AFDC|that Sonya Sotomayor is incompetent|that Susan Rice is incompetent|that Barack Obama is incompetent|that Barack Obama is from Kenya|that Barack Obama is the 'food stamp' president|that the Civil Rights Act shouldn't have been passed|that Affirmative Action is bad|making it harder for members of minority groups to vote|how awesome The Bell Curve was|etc] for perfectly good ideological reasons that have nothing to do with race. It’s also about what the Republican Party might need to do if they want to change any of that.
Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Rice’s handling of Benghazi was plausibly incompetent (I don’t buy it, but suppose.) Problem is: if you have a history of saying abstract things, signaling something else, you have painted yourself into a rhetorical corner when it comes to saying abstractly negative things about Susan Rice and not having black people suspect you are really saying something else. It’s also obvious why Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, etc. do not remove the suspicion that you are trying to paper over your race problem without addressing it.
So this is the problem, essentially. Republicans have a long history of using coded racial language to appeal to white racists.1 I think that’s a problem, of course, and I think that the disparate impact that many of their preferred policies have on racial minorities is a problem, but I think that there’s a third problem: the ongoing refusal of Republicans to openly discuss any of this.
What happens, time and again, is that the discussions about the racism and deliberate appeals to racists that the Republican Party has engaged in end up getting bogged down in technical deniability.
That is: “Sure, there are ‘the birthers,’ but they’re not in the mainstream of the party.” And, “Sure, Mitt Romney, our most recent presidential candidate, made birther references, but they were just JOKES! Loosen up!” And, “When Newt called Obama the Food Stamp President, there was nothing racial about that.” And, “It’s technically possible to oppose the civil rights act and all legislation designed to remedy discrimination for ideological reasons without bringing racism into it at all.”
After a while, the process of defending your party against claims of racism (by dismissing and minimizing the concerns of racial minorities and relying on technicalities) does as much or more damage to your party’s image as the original racism itself.
And that’s because this deniability isn’t plausible deniability (unless you’re Republican). It’s technical deniability. It’s true that it’s technically possible to oppose the Civil Rights Act for non-racist reasons. It’s true that it’s technically possible to do all of this stuff for non-racist reasons. But, frankly, after witnessing decades of the Republican Party exploiting racial tensions to win elections, it’s just not plausible that that’s what’s going on … and the kind of smirking, winking “You can’t call this racist unless there’s no other possible explanation” wins no prizes.
And hey, as Holbo points out, maybe you’re not racist! Maybe you are saying and doing these things that have been historically coded racist for purely ideological reasons! Here’s the problem:
But even if whites at some point, in their sincerest hearts of hearts, want ‘we want to cut this’ to not serve any longer as an in-group/out-group marker (to use the nicest possible term for it) because 1) they have sincerely become less racist and 2) it hurts them at the ballot box, it’s totally unreasonable to expect that out-group members will stop hearing this as dog-whistle ethnocentric signaling, at precisely the convenient moment when it no longer serves the interests of white folks to have it be heard that way. The dog-whistle part doesn’t have an off-switch, so if ‘we want to cut this’ is a dog-whistle, you can’t proposing cutting without dog-whistling.
John Holbo’s point, and mine, is that unless the Republican Party enjoys falling off the demographic cliff, they’ll need to openly address their racism, purge it, and make crystal-fucking-clear that it’s been purged. Frankly, I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, at least not very soon.
I hope I’m wrong.