Friday, January 02, 2009


I don't want to downplay racism in the last few decades of American history, but I think Paul Krugman's focus is a bit too narrow here:

...Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party's champion, to the Bush administration's pervasive incompetence, to the party's shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.

... Contempt for expertise [among Republicans] ... rested on contempt for government in general. "Government is not the solution to our problem," declared Ronald Reagan. "Government is the problem." So why worry about governing well?

Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.'s "Southern strategy," which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: "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 byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites." In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People....

Krugman's absolutely right that opposition to government spending was a way of saying, "Stop handing white people's money to non-whites." It was a racially divisive message, and it worked.

But more than race was involved. That's why the philosophy was able to bring down a guy like Bush, who never seemed personally racist, whose closest personal relationship within government was with a black woman, and who lost tremendous amounts of support within his base when he tried to steer a somewhat less racist course on immigration.

What was important in the GOP's strategy over the last four decades was that somebody needed to be the Antichrist. Sometimes it was nonwhites. Often it was "pointy-headed intellectuals," or liberals in general, or the media. Usually it was some mix of all of the above. The strategy didn't rest on racism alone -- the message has always been that the enemy within wants your money to go to people in this country who don't deserve it and that the enemy within (usually the same enemy) hates America and wants foreign demons to make America weak.

Remember that, when all this started forty years ago, the objects of hatred were nonwhites (all seen as rioters and thugs) and long-haired antiwar rabble-rousers, along with their defenders, the pinko professors and liberal journalists.

The Southern strategy worked for decades in part because it was flexible. Its focus could pivot from enemy to enemy. It could even occasionally defend a black person (say, Clarence Thomas), by demonizing the white liberals who opposed him.

In recent months, Republicans have tried to use the Southern strategy a few different ways -- against, say, Bill Ayers (vintage 60s-style pinko), or against allegedly greedy Northern union workers in Detroit.

But it hasn't been working, because enough Americans realize that, in the current period, Those People -- the people who are doing us harm -- are the Republicans themselves. They've screwed up the war, and Katrina, and the economy. There aren't any Black Panthers or hippie bomb-throwers in sight.

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