“Race has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years since the civil rights movement…. That doesn’t mean it has gone away, but rather that the form it has taken has changed. But its impact, its ability to shape American politics and get many people out to vote in ways that harm themselves and help the very rich, has remained and, in fact, even grown over the last 50 years.” — Ian Haney Lopez discussing his book, Dog-whistle Politics,
in an interview with Salon (20 January 2014).
It is no coincidence that the Tea Party was hatched just after Barack Obama was elected president. I witnessed the second Tea Party rally in Bozeman on July 4th, 2009. The Tea Party just had some recruiting success on Tax Day, April 15, and advertised they would be protesting government spending and taxation on Independence Day.
After a screw-up by the City Commission over who could use Main Street and who would pay for police presence, it was arranged that the Tea Party and its liberal opposition, sardonically called the "Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus," would both march along Main Street, separate but equal. In taking up their starting positions, members of the two groups passed each other on the sidewalk. A few people heading for the Tea Party marshaling yard came toward my wife and me. One of them leaned into us and said very loudly, “We’re gonna get rid of that pencil-necked Nigerian in the White House.”
Right then, I knew that there was something very dark about the Tea Party. We would soon learn that the Tea Party was the hardcore mallet that conservative America intended to use to keep our first black president in his place. Dog-whistle politics was how they were going do to it.
Racism: The more things change, the more they stay the same
Like a virus, racism periodically mutates so that, appearing benign to our immune system, it can more easily gain entry to the American body politic and infect our democratic institutions. Whenever a political fever spikes, like the sudden onset of “deficitiasis” or the manic urge to drown all public assistance in a bathtub, a prime suspect should be Intent to Discriminate.
Yet, it takes time to generate an effective vaccine, and the whole system is weakened before the invader can even be identified. With each incarnation, racism renames and reframes itself, making it harder to pick out of a lineup. Eventually, we can’t even name the culprit without howls of protest. Racist? How dare you? Today, racism hides in the folds of a more gentle sounding “social conservatism,” awaiting the call to serve yet another demagogue.
I won’t go through the whole desk reference of racial injustice in the United States, but slavery was the pre-existing condition. Civil war was the cure that nearly killed the patient. Suppressed, but not defeated, racism returned from war disguised as Jim Crow, the doctrines of separate-but-equal, and states rights. Rejiggering the Constitution to give states more independence from federal oversight is a racist strategy that goes back to 1781 when the unworkable Articles of Confederation were ratified. Until the Civil War, states rights was meant to cement slavery in place. “States rights” is very much an active slogan in American politics today, wherever the federal government is resented for protecting minorities from local discrimination—and wherever there’s money to be made from unregulated economic activity (more on this in a moment).
As a racist strategy, the modern call for states rights arose and gained strength in reaction to a federal government that can and does invoke the US Constitution in order to protect African-Americans from democratically fostered acts of discrimination. But not all advocates of states rights have hate-based designs for a weaker federal government. By focusing our Swarovski on the penthouses of America, we would see plutocracy and racism, while not of the same species, double-hitched and headed uptown, so to speak. Or, more politely, joined together they intend to knock the regulatory enthusiasm out of the feds. Both hope to leave a deflated carcass in the town square as a dual-purpose monument (a) to the superiority of wealthy individuals and (b) to white supremacy.
States Rights for Racists
How is this strategy working out? Under the banner of the Tea Party, plutocrat paymasters like the Koch brothers have recruited voters, harboring varying degrees of racism, from the barren vineyards of recession and resentment. The ilk of the two Ks understand there’s a large group of mainly white males throughout America who want to weaken the federal government so that individual states can return minorities—primarily African-Americans—to the bottom of the heap and keep them there. While not all anti-government Tea Party members are outright racists, those that are have found a 21st-Century home.
After liberals in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, a large percentage of southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” switched parties. The waning Republican Party saw that by adopting these runaway racists, it could bump its electoral chances up more than a few notches. Richard Nixon had a racist “Southern strategy,” as did Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater put it this way, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”
States rights was in the 1960s what it was in the 1800s and what it is now—a rallying cry. Getting out the white vote and suppressing the minority vote was the strategy; weakening federal government bans on outright discrimination was the political objective. By appealing to voters’ prejudice under the guise of promoting states rights and by sympathizing with self-sorry Whites over affirmative action and other federal efforts to level the playing field, racism assumed new political cover. No less of a racist than George Wallace, Governor of Alabama in the 60s, 70s and 80s, embraced this shark in sheep’s clothing that the hardened Right now calls, befuddlingly, “principled conservatism.”
States Rights for Plutocrats
Meanwhile, having spent unspeakable millions lobbying for deregulation and public subsidization of their industries, our plutocrats realized that “states rights” was a useful concept. Amoral CEOs, company lawyers and talented MBAs, plotting for ever-greater profits, saw the feds as the big obstacle to externalizing costs of doing business (i.e., passing costs of pollution, for example, on to the public) and that the control of the public treasury was a potential fount of free money through both tax avoidance and subsidies. In the war on federal authority, plutocrats have successfully tried direct bribery of federal officials and lawmakers, lobbying for selective non-enforcement of federal laws and packing federal regulatory agencies and courts with industry-friendly appointees. Today, thanks to a series of campaign-finance decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, direct bribery has been de facto legitimatized.
Ask the people in Libby, Montana, how well they did in enlisting the feds in their struggle for justice against W.R. Grace and its deadly mining practices. In Butte, it’s been nearly 40 years since the Mountain Con mine closed, and the waterways around town are far from safe for man, fish, or fowl. At the other end of the state, how helpful has the federal government been addressing the exploding social problems of the Bakken? How will the call for states rights help Montana farmers, on the eve of the 2014 harvest, get their 2013 grain to market on railroads overloaded with coal and oil? And why haven’t we asked for more of the oil companies’ profits to at least cover the problems they are causing? Why, indeed.
In recent years, the plutocracy has opened a second front, one that aims directly at influencing more malleable state legislatures, which also regulate economic activity. The plutocracy (of which the oil barons are charter members) has mounted a flank attack on federal authority by supporting the transfer of control over the environment, natural resources and regulation of all types to the states and by buying controllable state politicians. Greater states rights would make the plutocrats’ invasion of our democracy easier because states can be even more corruptible and less competent than the national government. Introducing model state laws through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and giving campaign cash to sympathetic state legislative candidates are both central features of the plutocrats’ strategy.
Whenever the plutocrats hear the clamor for “states rights,” it is music to their ears.
Harmonic Dog Whistle: “States Rights” and “Less Government”
To the bugle call of states rights, the plutocracy has now added the banshee cry of “less government,” enlisting anti-tax-and-spend Tea Partiers as their shock troops. The slogans, “states rights” and “less government,” combine into a potent dog whistle to attract, among others, racists, a block of voters that was not so useful when it openly preached segregation and apartheid. The tar on that brush has now been turned into a patriotic wall covering—they call it, “Less Government” and color it red, white and blue.
So, what is the correlation between racist views and, say, a desire for less government spending? Do decent, upright candidates who plump for less government know that they are cadging votes from a cadre of diehard racists who are otherwise political poison? Well, that’s what dog-whistle politics is all about.
Are Small Government Conservatives Racist?
In a recent paper in Salon, Paul Rosenberg explains, “(I)f you want to know who the principled conservatives really are, you don’t look at the expression of principles in the ideological spectrum, but at the support for social spending in the operational spectrum.”
In other words, it’s not what conservatives say, but what they do. True small-government conservatives will actually carry out threats to cut government spending on social programs. Through a series of questions having to do with attitudes toward blacks and then looking at actual support for spending on social programs, Rosenberg concludes, “small government conservatives are much more opposed to black political power than those who support big government.”
To test this finding, Rosenberg looked at recent decades of data from the national General Social Survey, carried out every one or two years. In the GSS, says Rosenberg,
“There are questions related to blacks’ ability to live their lives as they wish, which is arguably the most basic form of political power there is. Can blacks live and go wherever they want to? Or do they need the permission of whites? There are at least three GSS questions that bear directly on this, and all tell a remarkably similar story: those who are less willing to let blacks live as they want to are also much more likely to be ‘small government conservatives,’ while those who support black autonomy are much more supportive of [Social Security, welfare, “solving problems of big cities,” “improving nation’s educational system,” “improving and protecting nation’s health,” “improving the conditions of blacks,” and “improving and protecting environment.].”
Rosenberg goes on to test discriminatory answers against neutral spending questions, like spending on infrastructure, and finds a similar pattern. This leads to the conclusion that some – not all – “opposition to government spending is directly tied to spending that targets blacks….” As Rosenberg says, his exploration “should leave little doubt that racial antipathy is part of the mix supporting the politics of small government principled conservatism.” Or more bluntly, the slogan “less government” is an effective dog whistle that can be used, without risk, to attract at least a portion of the racist vote.
The Vote Whistler
So, when a candidate for major office selects the mantra, “Less Government,” we can be pretty sure that we are in the presence of dog whistle politics. On its face, the slogan suggests that less government, per se, has some public benefit. [It actually doesn’t, as recent government shutdowns, the sequestration, cutbacks and layoffs have clearly demonstrated, and they have been especially damaging to small business owners in Montana.] Racists, however, hear a dog whistle that’s inaudible to the rest of us – they hear a candidate promising that he will fight for less federal, state and local control over discriminatory practices—like Bozeman’s fledgling nondiscrimination ordinance, that is currently being hauled off to court by conservatives. Worse, he will actually cut federal programs that do, in practice, aid blacks more than whites.
In a post-Citizens United world, we can also be fairly certain that the whistler is backed by wealthy plutocrats who not only approve of his message but pay for it. They, after all, have been assured that their candidate is a principled conservative, a true believer in less government who will attract racist voters without risking stigma and, when elected, will carry through on threats to cut budgets of regulatory agencies and deliver public assets over to the private sector.
It is deceitful when conservatives defend themselves and their candidates by pointing to an elegant platform made up of the finest, oak-solid principles. Pry up almost any plank and you will find the structure infested with social discrimination and economic exclusion.
Other than outright corruption, dog-whistlin’ is the most insidious and dishonest feature of American politics today. It is not just another cynical means for getting out the vote. In a country that bled twice to overcome its deep racial feelings, a political slogan like “less government” is, fundamentally, a license to hate.
Of course, there is the incidental, clueless politician who may not understand the horrific consequences of his earnest appeal to equally naïve kitchen-table voters who say they just want a balanced checkbook. The more calculating politician, however, understands and welcomes the ultimate result of purposeful dog-whistlin’: unjust incarceration and shooting of innocent teenagers, inhumane treatment of immigrants, militarization of the police, suppression of the media, destruction of our public education system, deterioration of our cities, removal of social and medical safety nets for the poor, and, oh yes, greater profits for the plutocrats. The Devil knows his constituency well. ♪
Jay Moor listens for dog-whistles in Bozeman, Montana.