“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 by-product 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.’ ”
Atwater went on to run George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, where he flamboyantly vowed to make Willie Horton, a murderer furloughed by Dukakis who subsequently raped a woman, “his running mate.” Atwater died three years later of a brain tumor, and his confessional quote to Lamis attracted scarcely any attention for years. In 2005, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert picked out the quote, which had appeared in two books by Lamis. In the ensuing years, liberal columnists and authors have recirculated Atwater’s words with increasing frequency, and they have attained the significance of a Rosetta stone.
A long line of social-science research bears out the general point that Atwater made. People have an elemental awareness of race, and we relentlessly process political appeals, even those that do not mention race, in racial terms.
In the 1970s and 1980s, liberals understood a certain chunk of the Republican agenda as a coded appeal—a “dog whistle”—to white racism. The political power of cracking down on crack, or exposing welfare queens, lay in its explosive racial subtext. (Regarding Willie Horton, an unnamed Republican operative put it more bluntly: “It’s a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.”) This is what Paul Krugman was referring to in his recent Times op-ed titled “That Old-Time Whistle.” When the House Budget Committee releases a report on the failure of the War on Poverty and Paul Ryan speaks of a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working,” you can conclude that the policy report is mere pretext to smuggle in the hidden racial appeal.
Once you start looking for racial subtexts embedded within the Republican agenda, they turn up everywhere. And not always as subtexts. In response to their defeats in 2008 and 2012, Republican governors and state legislators in a host of swing states have enacted laws, ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud, whose actual impact will be to reduce the proportion of votes cast by minorities. A paper found that states were far more likely to enact restrictive voting laws if minority turnout in their state had recently increased.
It is likewise hard to imagine the mostly southern states that have refused free federal money to cover the uninsured in their states doing so outside of the racial context—nearly all-white Republican governments are willing and even eager to deny medical care to disproportionately black constituents. The most famous ad for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign depicted an elderly white man, with a narrator warning bluntly about Medicare cuts: “Now the money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you.”
Yet here is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. 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.
One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.
The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.