Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Death of the Dog Whistle

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's been a lot of post-election hand-wringing about how the Republicans can "reach out" to minority voters. If they can't win just by energizing their shrinking base of white people, what's next? Immigration reform? Marco Rubio? What's it going to take?

At the same time, you have former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan blaming the Romney loss on voters from "urban areas." Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Maybe I'm overthinking this, but if one chunk of your party is talking about reaching out to minority voters, and another chunk is publicly talking about minority voters in code, you are on the fast track to nowhere. And if your national candidates are using racial euphemisms in public, don't act surprised when people who aren't white don't want to vote for you.

Filing petitions talking about secession from the Union doesn't help, either. Um, Party of Lincoln? Hello?

The Republicans have made their political living for a generation on the racial dog-whistle, the coded appeal that comes across loud and clear to white racists but not to whites who don't like to think of themselves as racist. Lee Atwater famously explains the procedure:

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.”

Couldn't be clearer. But here's the problem for the Atwaters of the world now that more than a quarter of the electorate isn't white:

Racists aren't the only people who can hear the dog whistle. Minorities hear it clear as a bell.

When people say that people who aren't racists don't hear the dog whistle, they mean other white people can't hear it. And that conflation of "other white people" as "people" is part of the problem.

This is where a term like "white privilege" becomes useful. A white person who isn't actively hostile to other races, but has the luxury of not noticing racist hostility is enjoying white privilege in a pretty clear way. Does that make them racist? No. But giving yourself permission to remain clueless does pretty clearly help maintain the problem. And when white people bend over backwards to avoid offending anybody by calling an unrepentant dog-whistler a racist, that's white privilege in a pretty toxic form.

The Atwaterite Republican strategy is to say things that get the racist elements in their base worked up but that other whites will give them a pass on. (And, if anyone tries to call them on their BS, they take elaborate umbrage on cable news, and accuse their critics of "playing the race card." Obviously, white people who don't notice the dog whistle think "playing the race card" is a terrible, terrible thing.)

But getting away with your B.S. on cable TV isn't enough when we're talking about an electorate that's 25%-30% non-white. They won't give people a pass. They know a dog whistle when they hear it. They can't afford not to.

Time to go back to the drawing board, fellas. How about "Party of Lincoln?" It's worked before.

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