Thursday, April 17, 2014

The dilemma of playing the race card

Kinda stuck on dilemmas lately.  This from Matt Bai breaks down the effectiveness of the usage of the race cudgel by Barack Obama and Eric Holder this week.

So now it's out there. After five years of studied reticence (unless they were talking privately to one another or their supporters), Democratic leaders in Washington finally went public last week with what they really think is motivating Republican opposition to Barack Obama. As Steve Israel, one of the top Democrats in Congress, told CNN's Candy Crowley, the Republican base, "to a significant extent," is "animated by racism."

Just to make himself clear, Israel did allow that not all Republicans were the ideological descendants of Bull Connor. To which I'm sure his colleagues across the aisle responded, "Oh, OK. Cool then."

But it's not the reaction of Republicans that Democrats should probably have some concern about. It's the way American voters, and a lot of younger voters in particular, may view a return to the polarizing racial debate that existed before Obama was ever elected.

There have to be some ground rules for discussion, and the first one is that everybody has to agree that Republicans and conservatives are either a) racist pigfucking assholes, or b) not racist pigfucking assholes, but perfectly willing to tolerate the ones among them who are.  In fact the enablers are somewhat morally worse than the agitators.  Their bigotry can almost be excused to ignorance; not so for those who know better.

This point is also where I will probably receive a comment from Greg Aydt that you, reader, will never see, that is rhetorically along the lines of "Democrats do it too!" (There's about sixty of them in the 'pending moderation' queue right now, over the course of the months and years, and that's just the ones I haven't deleted.  I like to go back and refresh my recollection occasionally as to the actual essence of derangement of conservative "logic".)

This point is also not going to be conceded by any other Republican or conservative, so perhaps the discussion is instantly rendered moot.  Returning to Bai now.

Coming in an election year, and in the wake of sporadic campaigns to solidify support among women and gay voters, the sudden Democratic focus on race felt like an orchestrated talking point. Israel's comments came just a few days after Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, suggested that racism was keeping Republicans from voting on an immigration bill. And Pelosi was reacting to a speech by the attorney general, Eric Holder, who complained to a civil rights gathering in Washington of "ugly and divisive" attacks against the administration.

So maybe it's a talking point, or maybe it's just five years of pent-up frustration.

As far as I can tell, though, this eruption on race actually wasn't born in the kind of strategy session where consultants lay out which issues will move which voters. What seems to have happened was something rarer: Washington Democrats, unable to suppress their frustration for a minute longer, simply blurted out what they have always believed to be true but had been reluctant to say. One catharsis emboldened the next.

As a unifying explanation for the abject dysfunction of our political system, latent racism seems unsatisfying, at least by itself. Is there a lingering prejudice lurking among some older, rural, white conservatives in the country? It would be ignorant of history to argue otherwise. Is this "birther" business, for instance, a reflection of racism? Without a doubt.

But conservatives do have profound and principled disagreements with Obama's view of expansive government. And it's worth noting that racial resentment has been a part of the partisan divide for at least 50 years now; it's doubtful that "birther" types hate Obama any more than they did Bill Clinton (whom they accused of serial murder, among other things). What's happened over that time is that the presidency has become increasingly personality-based, and the country more culturally cleft, so that each successive president becomes subject to an ever more irrational kind of attack on his very legitimacy as a leader.

That's pretty solid.  This divide shows no signs of even slowing down its widening.

Embracing the rallying cry in the Daily Beast this week, Michael Tomasky, a sharp and reasoned political observer on the left, pointed out that not a single Republican had shown the courage to stand up and declare racial bigotry intolerable in his party. A good point – except that I don't recall Pelosi or Israel making a version of that same speech when the highly educated liberals who despised George W. Bush circulated emails, after their defeat in 2004, depicting a red map of the "United States of Jesusland" and blaring, "F--- the South." Bigotry in our politics now takes myriad forms.

Those of us who live in Texas -- and are not conservative -- can understand this point acutely.  There are many liberals and progressives not of the Lone Star State who push consistently that Texas should be encouraged to secede, "why don't we just give it back to Mexico", or cut it off the continent and let it float out into the Gulf, or go ahead and build that border wall, but at the Red and Sabine Rivers (as if Oklahoma and Louisiana are bastions of enlightenment and tolerance).

Still, a lot of Americans who voted for Obama probably find the racism argument at least somewhat persuasive. And how persuasive you find it probably depends not just on your ideology and where in America you live, but at least as much on when you were born.

We're living in a strange moment, after all, where generations who inhabit the same neighborhoods and social networks nonetheless draw on wildly different experiences of growing up American. For the purposes of race and politics, let's assume that voters who sympathize with Obama break down, more or less, into three cohorts.

And there I'll leave it to complete reading Bai's distinctions between the chronological caucuses.

I occupy a fairly lonely piece of ground in Texas as a middle-aged, still-middle class Caucasian male who is just barely to the right of being an actual socialist.  A common species in places like Berkeley or Portland, but not so much Houston.  So I think (or like to think) that my perspective is unique, as a kid who grew up in a Democratic union household and grew into a Young Republican in college.  Sort of an Alex P. Keaton without the sitcom exaggerations.  But the truth of course is that there were tons of Reagan Democrats moving from left to right in the late '70's and through the '80's.  

There weren't a whole lot of those who were employed as managers in corporate America who had moved back, right to left, by the late '80's, though.  Everybody should already be aware of the fact that I ceased being a fan of the president's early in his first term.  And I don't care for Eric Holder much at all (I suggested he step down almost a year ago).  I agreed with Philip Bump at The Wire when he wrote that Holder's recent disrespect of Louie Gohmert was fairly shocking.  That level of insolence from a Republican attorney general would have Democrats screeching about 'above the law', we all know that.

This places me in the extremely uncomfortable position of siding with Louie Gohmert.  Given my prejudice against ignorance, the level of cognitive dissonance that produces leaves me without words.  Almost.  Enough about me, though.

Bai's point on how playing the race card is going to play out over the next few months is clear.

And so you can imagine that the sudden outburst from party leaders about racism did little to advance their cause with these voters, who are, just by the way, crucial to the Democrats' electoral math for years to come. The politics of racial grievance and identity feels about as contemporary to millennials as a floppy disk. (Look it up on Wikipedia.) They're still wondering what kind of politics comes next.

Calling out Republicans as racists probably felt familiar to Israel and the others, like returning to a place where all the landmarks are known. But the terrain of American politics is shifting fast, and there's not much to be gained by turning back.
I would have to agree.  Most Americans (that still includes Texans) who are not tuned in to the weekly partisan wrangling find this near-constant quarrel between Ds and Rs distasteful.  That's why this development is unlikely to improve the prospects of voter registration and turnout among the low-info, occasional voter that Wendy Davis and all the rest of the Democrats in Texas must have in order to be successful to any degree in November. 

And I have to hope that Matt Bai and I are just wrong about that.

Update: John Coby seems to be saying the same thing.  Sort of.


Gadfly said...

Two words to Greg Aydt: "Hank Aaron." (And don't try to claim that a bunch of Dems wrote him letters this last week.)

Charles Turner said...

After watching how Republicans treated Bill Clinton, I believe they would have treated Hillary or Biden the same way, as they are now doing Obama. Race is a significant factor, but not the dominant one. They fanatically hate anybody not sharing their labels and ideology.

PDiddie said...

I take no particular issue with this premise, Arlo. Cons consider it payback for the way we savaged the Dim Son.

If Obama (and by extension, Holder) had forcefully pushed back against the cudgel of race used by the Republicans from the very beginning -- birth certificate, goddammit --, a lot of things would have turned out differently (read: better).

That they turned the other cheek for so long may be honorable, but has won them no battles in the court of ideas or public policy. This late in the game it seems more political, a bit of hide-saving for the midterms.

As you know, I prefer my politicians with a bit of fight in them, and that means right from the get-go.

Charles Turner said...

Obama was not my first choice for pres. I prefer an Elizabeth Warren type, full of spunk and fight from the beginning.