Jonah Goldberg : “If the GOP wants to win more black votes, it will need to get a lot more ‘racist.’” Yes, if there’s one thing black voters are waiting for, that might bring them back into the warm embrace of the GOP, it’s the enticing prospect of attending an endless pity party with a ‘liberals – and blacks! – have wrongly accused the GOP of racism’ theme. (Because, after all, the Davis-Bacon Act was totally racist!) But Charles Murray gave Goldberg a run for his money, in the anti-Dale Carnegie sweepstakes, with his hypothesis that the reason Asians don’t flock to the Republican Party is that, as a group, they have a ‘ludicrously inaccurate’ view of … well, of political reality.
Goldberg and Murray – and others I could mention – are casting about for a way for the GOP to win over minorities without saying ‘sorry’. Indeed, they are looking for a way to win over minorities while saying ‘you’re welcome!’ in an aggrieved, long-suffering sort of way (this white man’s burden hasn’t been lifting itself, y’know!)
Let’s take it back to Lee Atwater, since the audio of his most famous interview was recently unearthed, in full. We’ve all read this bit, because it gets quoted a lot:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Listening to the full audio, it’s striking the degree to which Atwater clearly thinks he is showing how the race problem is going, going, gone. He thinks the fact that ‘we want to cut this’ is highly abstract, and ‘blacks get hurt more than whites’ is only a by-product, is enough to establish that the race stuff has really been left behind in favor of color-blind economic self-interest. The idea seems to be that you can scrub racism with a compound of plausible deniability and the doctrine of double-effect. Or it’s an exhausted initial booster stage for the rocket of free market economics. Or some such immaculate conception.
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.
Be it noted: dog-whistle isn’t a good term for it, although this is the term people tend to use in these cases. There are cases of real dog whistles in politics. I remember reading something about certain turns of phrase Bush used in a speech that were, plausibly, intended to be picked up on by evangelicals, who would associate them with scriptural passages, and with certain interpretations of those passages. All that went over my liberal head. A dog whistle, then. Mostly the stuff I’m talking about – the Lee Atwater stuff – is more like impolite fictions. ‘I know what I mean by ‘let’s cut this’, and you know what I mean, and I know that you know what I mean,’ and so forth. Unstated but mutually recognized in-group/out-group stuff. It actually wouldn’t work if it wasn’t recognized by both sides, because it’s no fun keeping the out-group down if they don’t know you are keeping them down. ‘Dog-whistles’ is the term that gets used for this stuff, however, and the likes of Atwater really do seem to think it works that way: if whites stop intending to message each other in this way, and stop wanting to hear it that way, themselves, no one else will hear it that way, either.
Which is empirically unrealistic. If you have earned people’s distrust, by not saying what you mean, you have extra work to do, convincing people you mean only what you say. If white people have found tribalism an attractive value, for so long, why shouldn’t non-whites find white tribalism to be off-putting, to a comparable degree?
Let’s turn back to the Goldberg piece. I can almost feel sorry for the guy.
And, because Rice is a black woman, well, bla, bla, bla. Racism! Sexism!
Never mind that Republicans haven’t had a white secretary of state since Lawrence Eagleburger concluded his term two decades ago. Never mind that Republicans appointed the first black secretary of state ever (Colin Powell) and the first black female secretary of state ever (Condoleezza Rice, arguably the star of the GOP convention in August). Also, never mind that Rice’s handling of Benghazi — and several other matters — can quite defensibly be dubbed incompetent.
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.
It might seem unfair that you can’t just be taken at your word, that you get accused of tokenism when you hope appointments of prominent blacks will betoken your good intentions. But, if you don’t like it, build a time machine, go back in time and kill Lee Atwater as a child or something. It’s a bit like whites who complain about the unfairness of being unable to say the n-word – even though every black rapper can! It’s not exactly mysterious how and why this admittedly superficially unfair state of affairs arose, so it’s a bit hard to see who you could complain against, unless it is your own ancestors. (And it’s not as though centuries of chattel slavery, and the lingering effects of all that, have been easy on blacks. So times are tough all over.)
It’s tempting to respond to Murray’s piece by saying, as Dave Weigel does: “Murray treats whites as the logic-based control group, and asks why non-whites don’t approach the vote quite as logically.” Indeed, it’s tempting to go further. Asians are, as Murray says, “conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant.” So now we can see the degree to which all that leads to Republicanism, when it is separated off from white ethnocentrism. Conclusion: not so much. “If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’” Ergo, Republicanism does not have a natural constituency – except insofar as it is a regional ethnocentric party. But, to be fair, it’s reasonable to suppose that if there were a party exactly like the Republican Party, but without all the race baggage – if it were just the party of ‘let’s cut this’ – it would win more minority votes. But how many white votes would it have to lose, to do that?
What would it take for minorities to stop hearing Republican talking points as ethnocentric dog-whistles? Obviously plausible deniability isn’t going to cut it. You can’t just dog-whistle more loudly and hope to drown out the dog-whistling. This is what makes Goldberg and Murray’s lines so manifestly hopeless. Stage a national apology tour, in which Republicans beat their breasts about their bad behavior in the past, beg forgiveness, let bygones be bygones. If Republicans did all that it would probably actually work with minorities. They could wipe the slate clean with tears of regret about all that stuff Lee Atwater talks about.
But obviously nothing of the sort is actually going to happen. The Republican Party would lose the South for a generation. Then gradually the party would grow back into a kind of moderate, New England-style Rockefeller Republicanism, minus the New England flintiness. More of an Asian-Latino fusion thing, maybe. For most Republicans that probably sounds like injury added to the insult of having to say ‘I’m sorry’. But what’s the alternative?