Race Matters Even When It Doesn’t: The President and his Critics

The debate about whether racism fuels opposition to President Obama gives us the chance to think about the role that race and, more broadly, prejudice play in our political life.  Here are some provisional thoughts on this controversial topic.

A few days ago I heard a group of white Alabama businessmen on the radio complaining that their disagreements with the President’s policies were often assumed to be rooted in racism.  They said that one of the worst things about Rep Joe Wilson’s outburst at the Joint Session was that it reinforced the perception that the Presidents critics are a bunch of angry white men.

You could hear their unspoken complaint — it’s just not fair, we’re decent people, yet when we criticize the President our arguments are dismissed because we’re assumed to be bigots.

This is not a new phenomenon in America, and it’s not just a Republican problem.

Remember the remarks made by former President Clinton during the Democratic primary in South Carolina?  His attacks on then candidate Obama were characterized as racist, a charge he furiously denied as he in turn blasted the Obama camp for playing “the race card.”  And if any Democrat makes a run at Obama in the 2012 primaries, the party will again have to wrestle with this issue.

The country went through a similar experience in 1960, when Senator John Kennedy’s primary and general election opponents worried about how to attack him without appearing to be anti-Catholic.  Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon both complained that some of JFK’s people cynically turned their policy disagreements with him into accusations of religious prejudice.

All of this reminds me of a story that an American journalist told about an experience he had in Japan.  During his stay there he discovered that many Japanese had a slightly prejudiced view of Americans, assuming among other things that we are lazy.  One day, for reasons he could not control, he was late for a meeting.  As he opened the door to join his colleagues, he saw one Japanese man lean over to the fellow next to him and point to his watch.

The journalist  reports that he was immediately furious.  He assumed the guy was in effect saying: “See? Typical American — always late.”

Upon reflection, he realized he had no way of knowing what was on that gentleman’s mind.  Maybe he had just received the watch as a gift, and he was showing it off to the guy next to him.  Or asking him, “Hey, I just bought this for $125.00, what do you think, is it worth it?”

The journalist’s point was that prejudice shapes perceptions of the world, even when in a particular instance prejudice isn’t at work.  The Japanese man tapping his watch may not have assumed Americans are lazy — but it would nevertheless be reasonable for an American walking late into that room to wonder if he did.

So back to the President’s critics: What features of today’s political climate might lead some people to wonder about their racial views?

Well, Rep Wilson shouts out that the President is a liar.  Let’s assume that if we knew Rep Wilson personally, we would be convinced that he is not a racist.  Why might some nevertheless wonder if he is one?

He hails from South Carolina, the first state to secede.  The state where Sen McCain’s 2000 presidential bid was undone by rumors someone spread there that he fathered a black child.

And Rep Wilson’s first political job was working for Congressman Floyd Spence.  Who was he?

Mr Spence was a state lawmaker who, on April 14, 1962 (the anniversary of the Lincoln assassination – how is that for a coincidence?), switched parties and became a Republican, claiming that the national Democrats had become too liberal.

Spence’s party switch was part of a mass exodus of southern Democrats to the Republican Party in the 1960s, mainly because they disagreed with the Democrats’ commitment to civil rights.

In 1980, facing a tough opponent, Congressman Spence hired Lee Atwater to run his campaign, and Atwater authorized a “push-poll” — where they informed voters that his opponent was a member of the NAACP.

Rep Wilson also worked for Senator Strom Thurmond who, in 1948, ran for the presidency as a leader of the Dixiecrats, a party dedicated to racial segregation.

What other factors in today’s political climate might lead some to wonder about the racial views of the President’s critics?  How about these:

  • This summer, when a gorilla escaped from a local zoo, Rusty Depass, another Republican from South Carolina and a former Chairman of the State’s Election Commission, joked that it was probably one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors.
  • The Republican Women’s Club in San Bernardino County, California printed a picture of a food stamp with Obama’s picture on it, surrounded by pictures of watermelons, fried chicken, and ribs.
  • Chip Saltsman, one of the finalists in the most recent search for the new Chairman of the National Republican Committee, mailed out a CD containing the song, “Obama the Magic Negro.”
  • Fox News described the Obama’s fist bump as “a terrorist fist jab,” and referred to Mrs. Obama as then Senator Obama’s “baby momma” — which the Urban Dictionary defines as the mother of your child whom you did not marry and with whom you are no longer involved.
  • Signs at recent Tea Parties depicted the President as a witch doctor. According to some reports, the President was drawn in stereotypical African tribal dress, complete with a feathered head dress and a bone through his nose.

Now perhaps an argument can be made that none of these activities are rooted in racism.  And in fact if you search the web you’ll find such arguments.  Indeed, many Republicans claim to be shocked and outraged that anyone would attribute such motives to them.

What are we to make of such claims?  It seems to me they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about racism’s legacy.

Just as with our journalist’s experience in Japan, the history of prejudice creates a climate that shapes how people interpret the world.

Race matters — even when you’re convinced it doesn’t.



Taxes and Fees

At a recent lunch with my fellow Dispatchers we discussed the differences between taxes and fees. Our particular context was the proposed health insurance mandate and related fees, which Republicans maintain should be called taxes.

We decided that in this particular situation, the difference is political (being directed at Pres. Obama’s promise not to raise taxes on the middle class) not legal.

There are, however, situations in which the difference between taxes and fees has some legal meaning. This difference matters at the local level:

State and municipal governments, struggling with sinking revenue, are raising money by levying fees on consumers, slapping local businesses with back taxes and tweaking tax laws in ways that force many businesses to pay more.

That is leading to accusations — and, in some cases, lawsuits — that governments are trying to rake in more money without officially raising taxes, sometimes illegally.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which can’t easily raise taxes without a referendum, has approved a controversial cigarette “fee” of 20 cents a pack that takes effect next month.

These restrictions on local tax increases are a result of tax and spending limits that were enacted in many states back in the 1970s and 80s.

States define taxes and fees somewhat differently, but the main features of “fees” usually include tying them to the costs of providing a particular public service, that is often optional on the part of the receiver. Naturally, Frisco argues that the cigarette charge is, in fact, a fee not a tax:

In San Francisco, tax lawyers say the city is sidestepping the electorate by labeling the new cigarette levy as a fee instead of a tax.

A spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the fee only would recover the annual cost directly tied to cleaning up cigarette butts.

Eh? Ok. Sounds a little more like a tax to me. I’m sure the lawyers will sort it out.


Podcast 4: Federalism and the Politics of Fear

In this podcast Brandon, Chip and Brad discuss the 10th Amendment, federalism, and the politics of fear.

“Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is chasing the sheep!”

Three provisions of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of this year.  The three provisions deal with the government’s ability to acquire business records, the ability to obtain roving wiretaps, and the ability to track a suspected terrorist that has no ties to a government or group (the lone-wolf provision).

The administration has said it would like to keep all of these provisions, with some modification to limit the abuses on civil liberties.  Anytime the Patriot Act is on the public radar, you can expect fireworks.  I feel pretty safe in predicting that this time will be no different.

Currently, the President is considering sending more troops to Afghanistan.  Top military personnel are saying that without more troops America could lose the war.  Some Democrats are saying they will not support such a surge and the media is all over the phrase “lose the war.”  This presents the Republicans with an opportunity to engage the President in a real discussion regarding foreign policy.  Will that happen?  No.

The Republican party will use the potential troop surge and the Patriot Act provisions as another chance to tell voters why they cannot trust President Obama and why they should be fearful of his policy choices.  The Republican attack will follow a pretty standard format:

“If the President doesn’t send more troops then he doesn’t understand how dire the situation is in Afghanistan.  If he lets the Afghanistan war end in failure, America will be less safe.  The terrorists win.” 

It is then a quick step to the Patriot Act:

“If he doesn’t support reaffirming the Patriot Act then he doesn’t understand how to fight the war on terror.  If he compromises on the roving wiretap and lone-wolf provisions, America will be less safe.  The terrorists win.” 

Obama means no security, more terror attacks, and death.

What is interesting about this line of political attack is that it doesn’t fit with the current Republican attack on healthcare.  Republicans want America to fear a government takeover of healthcare, but not fear a government with the power to wiretap and search records of anyone without court approval.  Fear big government sometimes, but not all the time.  Fear healthcare, fear death panels, fear a speech to students, fear terrorists, fear Obama…just fear. 

This might work to fire up the base of the Republican party, but it doesn’t work as a winning election strategy.  While polls show the president’s numbers slipping, the same polls do not show a great move of moderate and independent voters toward the Republican party.  Could there be a reasonable and responsible debate about the provisions in question?  Absolutely.  There are reasons to think that the lone-wolf provision may be useful in tracking a suspect with no ties to a government or suspected group.  But real policy discussions mean you might have to compromise and admit that the other side has a valid point.  And we wouldn’t want that, now would we?

Fear can work for a little while as a political tool.  It was used effectively to help pass the Defense of Marriage Act, for example.  Fear was used to lead us to war in Iraq.  And it will be used again with Afghanistan and the Patriot Act provisions.

But when everything people are told to fear doesn’t happen, questions will be asked about the validity of anything that is said.  The Republican party continues to cry, “Wolf,” and yet children were not indoctrinated and death panels do not exist.  What will happen to these same Republicans if a legitimate policy concern is raised?  Just like the villagers who stopped running when they heard the boy scream, voters may do the same thing to the Republicans.  And if I was a Republican candidate, that would make me very fearful.


A quick and dirty textual comparison of health care speeches

I should have done this a couple of weeks ago. But I ran both Pres. Obama’s recent health care address and Bill Clinton’s 1993 health care address through Wordle, to see how they compare. Thumbnails with links to the full word clouds are presented below.

Clinton 1993
Wordle: Clinton 1993 health care speech

Obama 2009
Wordle: Obama 2009 health care speech

After Obama’s address, I commented that the speech was more about health insurance than health care, per se. The word cloud, I believe, supports my claim. According to the Wordle algorithm, “insurance” was the single most prominent word in Obama’s address, outranking both “health” and “care.” Other prominent words include “companies” and “coverage”  both of which are much less prominent in Clinton’s address.

The word “government” is also much more prominent in Obama’s speech, which is understandable considering it Clinton’s speech was delivered near the end of the era of big government!

This is, of course, a pretty crude analysis.

And there are lots of details to be worked out in the legisaltive process, so one should use caution in taking a speech, even a joint address to Congress, as a definitive policy statement.

Still, in a public address a president has little to gain by talking about issues that aren’t important to him. So, I contend that the president’s health care reform is largely health insurance reform and any concerns about “bending the curve” are secondary. I’m not saying that some sort of health insurance reform isn’t needed, but eventually we are going to have to address the issue of cost containment.


The Making of Sausage

Mark Twain once remarked that there are two things you should never see being made, Politics and Sausage, because if you knew how they were produced, you might lose your taste for them. Despite this warning, the folks at the Sunlight Foundation have mapped out the networks of lobbyists for health and insurance interests who were once staffers on the Senate Finance Committee. What we see is a fragmented network infused with large amounts of cash. The issue network contains a large number of participants with variable degrees of mutual commitment to, or dependence upon, others in their environment. Those who emerge to positions of wider leadership are experts in using experts, mobilizing policy intermediaries for or against the various provisions of the legislation. By understanding who these leaders in the issue network are, we can better understand, and perhaps predict, the course of the legislative process. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on the Sunlight Foundation as they continue to map the Health Care Complex.


Podcast 3: The War in Afghanistan, President Carter’s Comments on Race, and Pro Wrestling

In this podcast, Dark Horse Dispatch contributors Brad, Brandon and Dan pontificate about the war in Afghanistan, the role of race in the health care reform debate, and the WWE’s biggest name in politics.