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The Right's Racial Blinders

What really explains the politics of the Obama era


Usually when MSNBC invites a liberal guest on air, a friendly welcome awaits. This past Sunday, New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait got to experience what it's like when that's not the case.

For several minutes before introducing him, Nerdland host and political science professor Melissa Harris-Perry filleted Chait's most recent cover story, which traces a parallel between the left's exaggerated perception of racial resentment in conservative politics, and the right's overblown sense that conservatives are unfairly persecuted for trafficking in the politics of white grievance.

By the time Chait appeared on screen, viewers had already been primed to believe his essay was fatally flawed—the victim of its white male author's understandably but predictably impoverished perspective on race in Obama's America.

Harris-Perry's overriding critique of Chait's piece is that it omits black America's experience of racial politics, and thus treats the country's largest political pathology as an artifact over which two white-majority ideological camps are fighting a battle of perception.

Chait believes his critics have been influenced by their recent reactions to a largely unrelated series of posts he wrote about black poverty, and are chastising him for not writing an essay about the topic they wish he'd addressed. I'd characterize the disagreement a little bit differently: that Chait's critics are making an accurate observation, but that the story of how the left and the right—and their typically-white figureheads—perceive the politics of race is nevertheless an important one.

I believe this is true. I also think Chait's critics would have taken no issue with his piece—and been satisfied with its silence on the social history of the Obama era—if he'd characterized the narrower perception battle correctly. But he did not.

The dynamic Chait traces in his essay is compelling—two opposing strands of paranoia feeding each ideological camp's most defensive and misguided instincts. This feedback loop exists. But it draws upon two extremely different sources of energy, one of which is far less refined than the other.

Chait argues that two tendencies have drawn the left and right into a state of mutual incomprehension—the left's over-indulgence in accusations of racism, and the right's over-sensitivity to those accusation, with the former exacerbating the latter, and vice versa.

But these are only symptoms—outgrowths of wildly different categories of error. And it's a single underlying pathology, not either of these symptoms, that accounts for the discordance of the left-right race debate.

The left's racial analysis of conservative politics might lend itself to careless or opportunistic, overreaching accusations of racism. But it its also fundamentally correct. Chait, by contrast, calls it "insane," and to support that claim he slips into a mischaracterization of the analysis he's set out to debunk.

It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.
Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.

Chait's indictment of liberal racial analysis lives and dies on the bolded sentence. And the sentence is just wrong. It is not an accurate description of the left's perspective. Republicans do frequently code switch when they appeal to activist voters. All politicians do. But the idea that liberals believe this tendency renders racist every increment and manifestation of conservative appeal is the straw man upon which his broader argument collapses.

In reality, many if not most liberals correctly believe that the GOP's organizing modus operandi is plutocratic in nature, but that a plutocratic agenda is politically unsustainable without being fused to a distinct populism of some sort. For both historical and natural reasons, the GOP's populism is often the populism of white racial resentment. This is a cardinal fact. It also makes it difficult to trace a boundary between the right's racial and non-racial public appeals.

Rallying the public by advocating tax cuts is not racist per se. To the contrary it can be many different things. It can be an appeal to donors. It can be an appeal to workers. It can be an appeal to economic elites. For all these reasons, and despite what Lee Atwater said, you won't find much evidence to support the implication that liberals believe Republican tax cuts are racist, as opposed to reverse-Robin Hooded. But financing those tax cuts is a different matter altogether. And here's where the GOP has, in the Obama years, revealed the substantive, and highly racialized consequences of aligning plutocrats and southern revanchists within a single political coalition. They do not propose to finance the tax cuts with debt (a la George W. Bush), or with cuts to defense spending, or cuts to middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, or cuts to corporate welfare and tax expenditures for the well-off. They propose to finance tax cuts almost exclusively by cutting programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and other income support programs that disproportionately benefit black communities.

Liberals do sometimes plow through the foggy barrier dividing chaste and racially galvanized conservatism. Sometimes it is the result of sloppiness or irrational exuberance. It might occasionally drift into outright racial McCarthyism. But frequently it's just difficult to determine where that barrier begins and ends.

And thus, members of the liberal commentariat do on occasion incorrectly impute racial motives to individual conservatives and Republicans who support policies like these for the purest of reasons. When that happens, it is wrong. But it is also a much smaller sin than pretending one's own political coalition is racially innocent, when it clearly, empirically is not.

Which brings us to conservatives, who make absolutely no allowances for the possibility that racial resentment is the propulsive force behind a variety of their policies. Their denialism has complicated origins, which Chait examines at length. But over-aggressive liberal accusations of racism are at best a tiny part of it. To take just one example: there are a handful of reasons GOP governors might be reluctant to expand Medicaid in their states. But absent intense, racially charged pockets of resistance, the various logical foundations of their decisions would disappear and the position would collapse. Indeed, the non-expansion policy has to a large extent been dictated to them by the Calhounist faction of the coalition.

But if you point this out to conservatives—indeed, if you attribute on-the-ground politics of Medicaid to anything other than questionable fiscal considerations or abstract beliefs about the size of government—they will dismiss it outright and angrily as race pandering or racial McCarthyism.

At best this is mistaken. At worst it is willful blindness. Somewhere in between it is a willingness to rationalize away the outsize impact not expanding Medicaid will have on people of color. But here we've reached the mutual incomprehension Chait correctly identified, and find that he's over-diagnosed its causes. It's not because liberals are racially blinded to abstract conservative arguments against the Medicaid expansion; or because they don't see any legitimacy in the preference for smaller government; or because anyone claimed individual Republican governors or conservative intellectuals are racist for opposing it. It's because those arguments, even when sincerely held, are inadequate to the task of explaining the breadth of resistance. They fail utterly to account for the full array of motivations. And if you allow conservatives to omit the racial component, you're not being polite—you're just participating in a false debate.

You can swap out Medicaid expansion for voting rights limitations, and the conversation deteriorates in precisely the same way.

The left-right race argument can become less cacophonous than it is. But not through a process of phased, mutual disarmament. Maybe that comes second. Conservative intellectuals need to first cast aside their racial blinders. That's the predicate. Everything else flows from it.