So earlier today I wrote about how the political punch of the incredibly dishonest “you didn’t build that” ad campaign lies in its deeper social subtext. By this afternoon such keen observers of the political scene as Quin Hilyer, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and Dan Foster and Breitbart.com’s John Nolte have written outraged blog posts replying — actually, just kind of uttering primal screams — at my having accused Republicans of racism.
Foster writes, “ I don’t even have an argument here — which I suppose is fine since Chait doesn’t either.” He does not take the step of considering the obvious conclusion, which is that I don’t have an argument that Romney’s ad is racist because I don’t argue that Romney is racist.
I certainly do think that race is deeply embedded in American politics in ways conservatives don’t like to acknowledge. As I argued, the collapse of liberalism in the mid-sixties occurred because large numbers of whites came to see the Democratic Party as taking resources from them and giving them to lazy or otherwise undeserving black people. Obama’s election crucially depended on his image as a different kind of black politician, not one who was chastising white America or demanding concessions on behalf of other African-Americans.
The trouble with the Obama clip is that it catches him in a moment, as he occasionally does, when he alters his normal cadence to more of a black-sounding inflection, and takes an unusually angry tone, and seems to be telling middle-class Americans they don’t deserve what they have. That is a toxic and dangerous combination for Obama, which is why conservative columnist Kimberly Strassel described GOP research finding the clip “raise[s] the far more potent issue of national identity,” and why, as I argued, Obama is responding in the particular way he is.
Are the ads distorting Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line racist? Of course not. They do activate a set of emotions that are closely linked to racial feelings, but so does almost any debate surrounding Obama. (Read Sasha Issenberg’s pithy explanation.) The inextricable link between race and, well, just about everything accounts for the pathological character of the way we discuss race.
The left certainly bears plenty of responsibility here, with many liberals immediately responding to any potential racial signal with a charge of racism. Not long ago, some of them charged Romney with racism for saying black voters wanted free stuff. I defended Romney (“Trying to categorize Romney’s line as a kind of racial slur is unfair and almost certainly pointless”). On the other side, you have conservatives in a state of deep denial about the political potency of white racial resentment. National Review recently published a cover story hilariously arguing that Democratic support for civil rights had nothing to do with the GOP takeover of the South — and if you think the whole historical narrative of civil rights is one big anti-conservative smear, you’re naturally going to feel persecuted by unfounded accusations of racism at every turn.
I try to wend between the two poles by acknowledging racial implications when they exist without accusing people of bigotry. But it’s a hard thing to do when we lack a vocabulary for describing these dynamics that adequately distinguishes between actual hatred of black people and belief systems that are connected below the surface to racial divisions.