from "Race Publics: Civic Illiberalism, or Race After Reagan"

 Originally Appeared in: Transition: 66 | Published: 1995

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The American res publica has come to look more and more like race publics. Neoconservatives and neoliberals berate black leaders, usually singling out Al Sharpton or the Afro-centrists, for pushing politics based on racial identity. They object to traditional liberals and radicals for “injecting race” into political debate, for defending “race-based” social programs, for organizing constituencies and movements “by race.”

The political public sphere and the electorate have indeed been contoured according to “race” and racial identity. But the constituency whose beliefs and fears have been most significantly molded to their racial identity in the 1980s are whites.

White race identity and the racism it inevitably underpins played a decisive role in electoral politics. The racial anxieties and animosities of a bloc of white voters has had an inordinate impact on elections and policies in the last decade and a half. Indeed, the infusion of “race” into electoral politics went hand-in-hand with the excision of racial justice and racial equality from political discourse. Being white has often been a refuge and compensation for various social groups experiencing de- cline, failure, or disempowerment. But while George Wallace in America in 1968 or LePen in France today could mount an openly racist political campaign, declarations of racial prejudice are now-for now-taboo in American political debate. They are required to be covert, the efforts of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein notwithstanding. Indeed, racial appeals to whites must be expressed in “race-neutral” terms, even with open disdain for racial categories.

Mounting such a political task and honing such a complex rhetorical strategy evolved slowly, just as it took work to expunge from the national political consensus values that had come to express the promise of ending centuries of dehumanization, exploitation, and neglect. That work was the achievement of the Republican Party, a task begun as soon as the monumental voting rights, housing, and civil rights laws of the mid-60s had been enacted.

In broad strokes, the backlash began when Richard Nixon capitalized on the Wallace movement and pursued the Southern Strategy of 1972. By the late 70s, the “tax revolt” fueled a repudiation of the welfare state with a racially charged polarization of “taxpayers against tax recipients.” Reagan’s 1980 election campaign capitalized on this polarization, ex- tending it to an attack on quotas as well as food stamps and AFDC and generalizing it into a rejection of “government interference” in the economy. At the same time, Budget Director David Stockman pursued economic policies expressly de- signed to further bankrupt the Federal Government, the repository of black aspirations for justice and fair treatment since Reconstruction. Reagan deepened this strategy in 1984 by tapping the fears and angers of lower- and middle-income white workers who blamed their declining economic and social standing on blacks; these Reagan Democrats joined his crusade against welfare, affirmative action, busing, and public employees. Appeals to racial justice were in effect rendered irrelevant in American politics. By 1988, Re- publicans could run the Willie Horton ads without seriously exposing their candidate to the taint of racism.

What I have just described follows the general outline of Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall’s trenchant analysis of the impact of Reagan-Bush politics on the Democratic Party in their 1991 book, Chain Reaction. They contend that white working-class and lower-middle-class voters, who had once anchored the New Deal coalition, fled the Democratic Party because they increasingly perceived its “identification with” civil rights and blacks as well as with feminists and gays. Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988 remained trapped in a rhetoric whose meaning had been altered from below by voters who consistently reinterpreted the candidates’ slogans in racial terms. Mondale’s pledge, for example, to restore “‘fairness’ in the distribution of the tax burden” was “heard as advocating a redistribution-from whites to the black and Hispanic poor.”

Meanwhile, the Reagan-Bush campaigns used far more sophisticated polling procedures than the Democrats to help them craft slogans which were explicitly “race-neutral” but which these same voters were known to interpret in strictly racial terms. “Quotas,” “preferential treatment,” “groups” were so many code- words that appealed directly to the attitude held by many whites that government had to direct resources away from minorities.

The Edsalls’ book was written to influence the Democratic primaries and presidential campaign of 1992. The book is remarkable on two counts. On the one hand, it is an insightful diagnosis of the rhetorical transformation of the public sphere; there emerges from it a clear picture of precisely how the Republicans excised racial justice from the nation’s political discourse. On the other hand, the book is at the same time a callow blueprint meant to teach the Democrats how to complete just this process of excision and cash in on it. The Edsalls were on the forefront of Democratic analysts and intellectuals who devoted themselves to discovering how Democrats could oust George Bush from the White House. Their views overlap significantly with those of E. J. Dionne, Jr., Jim Sleeper, Christopher Lasch, and Mickey Kaus.

These commentators shared the view, first, that Democrats could not win a presidential election without winning back the segment of the electorate usually called the Reagan Democrats; and, second, that these voters typically despised the Democratic Party’s support of the “rights revolution.” An unspoken assumption, of course, was that blacks, always numerically important to Democratic victories, could be counted on to vote Democratic even if the campaign ignored them. As Andrew Hacker has remarked, “for all practical purposes, the 1992 contest was staged before an all-white electorate.” The new strategy of persuasion devised by the Edsalls, et al., was, as we know, adopted by the Clinton campaign from the earliest primaries on. It emphasized approaches to general economic recovery (“It’s the economy, stupid.”), distanced candidate Clinton from blacks by repudiating black cultural nationalism while criticizing extremists (the attack on Sister Souljah), and by diminishing the presence of any black agenda in the party’s platform and program (the isolation of Jesse Jackson), and dissociated candidate and party from Democratic welfare policies of the past, particularly by supporting workfare.

Having belatedly identified the group of voters who had been wrested away the Republicans, the Democrats of 1992 sought to square the party’s political stances and rhetoric with those voters’ most entrenched attitudes. Herein can be seen an increasingly important feature of the public sphere in mass democratic electoral politics, as Habermas glimpsed thirty years ago. Politicians have heightened their ability to measure, adjust, or predict the public impact of their positions, their slogans, their symbols. Sophisticated polling can track demographically specific voter attitudes over time and use focus groups to test potential messages. The overwhelming temptation is to treat a particular constituency’s values and prejudices as simple givens, intractable convictions. Political persuasion becomes the effort merely to harmonize a message with those convictions.

This style of thinking permeated the Clinton campaign, which never seriously registered the need, urgent or long-term, to confront the harmful, deeply distorted racial outlooks that are encysted within the American electorate. A truly significant segment of the polity-in essence, a substantial bloc among middle-class and working-class whites, especially suburbanites and distressed industrial workers-is locked into an entire set of racially antagonistic attitudes. Among these voters the learning process inaugurated by the civil rights movement stalled long ago.

Harkening back to Reagan’s diatribes against “welfare queens” in 1980, this bloc of much sought-after voters has remained convinced that social programs which tar- get the needs of blacks and Hispanics are intrinsically unfair. They believe that the prime source of their own economic in- security is welfare and affirmative action. When the Democratic Party had its pollster Stanley Greenberg extensively survey Reagan Democrats after the 1984 debacle, he reported:

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics …. Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.

In 1990, when asked why “blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people, “a plurality of whites as a whole believed that blacks’ lack of “motivation or will power” was a greater factor than either discrimination or inadequate “chance[s] for education.”

During the Reagan-Bush years, working-class and middle-class whites were willing to accept the massive shift of wealth from the middle classes to the rich so long as they simultaneously perceived that Reagan’s policies were transferring wealth from blacks to whites. The immiseration of urban blacks was not simply the unfortunate side-effect of Reaganomics. It was the tacit justification for those policies in the first place in much of the white electorate’s eyes. It was what made the engorgement of the wealthy palatable

Clinton’s New Democrats predicated their successful attempt to seize the terms of political debate in the 1992 election on their ability to finesse and placate these voters’ attitudes. This strategy possessed sufficient canniness to get Clinton elected, but it did not possess the weight and integrity he needed to govern. His first major initiative, the economic stimulus package, floundered because the very attitudes he played up to in the election undermined support for every social pro- gram not specifically tailored to the middle class. Similarly, universal health care could not survive the anxiety, legitimated by Democrats and Republicans alike, that it would help “them” more than “us.” Clinton has been unable to sustain a coherent politics over time because the only principles guiding him are conservative ones which genuine conservatives articulate far more forcefully and with greater sincerity. Voters in 1994 saw neither sincerity nor principle in Clinton’s domestic agenda. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy has prevailed, making its most venerable and vicious exemplar chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its most vocal, intolerant, and retro- grade offspring Speaker of the House.

Neither New Democrats nor liberals will overcome the practical political flaws of Clinton’s politics unless they overcome its moral-political flaw. To whatever extent our nation has laid to rest the supremacist ideology that gripped the South and the overt prejudice and racism that prevailed in the North around 1963, we have thus far failed to dissolve the core of racism that still taints the political consciousness of many whites and still stains the body politic. The Democratic Party of the 1990s has not had the courage to confront such attitudes, believing instead it could capitalize on them in the guise of “swing voters.” But left unconfronted, these attitudes have merely fueled the careers of Southern white demagogues who nostalgically evoke life before the 1960s and who have revived, as in California’s Proposition 187, racially motivated immigration policies.

It remains to be seen whether a more courageous politics can emerge from the Democratic Party. Weighing against that possibility are the intellectual foundations and social perceptions of New Democrat thought itself….

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