Since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” the Republican Party has wooed angry whites with coded messages designed to play to racial prejudices – and that pattern has come back strong in Campaign 2012 as the GOP seeks to rid the White House of a black Democrat.
Usually, the dog whistle comes in appeals to “states’ rights” and allusions to “welfare queens,” but sometimes the implicit becomes explicit, as occurred when former Sen. Rick Santorum blurted out, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
This comment was directed to white Republicans in Iowa, some of whom nodded knowingly, receiving the message that President Barack Obama wanted to take their hard-earned money and give it to shiftless blacks. It’s a message as old as time in America and it apparently helped boost Santorum into a virtual tie with GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
However, Santorum quickly came to regret his caught-on-video frankness, realizing that many Americans find such blatant appeals to racial prejudice offensive. So, he proceeded to lie about what he actually said, claiming absurdly that he never said “black people” – that he “started to say a word” and then “sort of mumbled it and changed my thought.”
The word, in Santorum’s revisionist tale, had come out something like “blah,” not “black.” Yet why the government would be so determined to give “other people’s money” to “blah people” was not explained. Perhaps so the “blah people” could buy snazzier wardrobes or snappier cars to make them less “blah.”
Thus, Santorum hoped he could have it both ways. The white racist voters in Iowa and in other states could hear that the ex-Pennsylvania senator wasn’t going to use government programs “to make black people’s lives better,” while non-racists were supposed to believe that he simply stammered out a word that sounded like “black,” but was really “blah.”
Not to be outdone, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went beyond his usual disparaging of “food stamps” by adding a reference to the NAACP, in case some slow-witted whites didn’t get the racially tinged “food stamps” message. After all, many struggling whites also rely on food-assistance programs, indeed a much higher number than blacks.
These crude appeals to racial bigotry – often framed as a well-meaning desire to help blacks by ending their “dependency” on government help – fits, too, into the broader right-wing narrative, that the federal government and its do-gooder programs are what’s holding America back.
If only Washington got out of the way – along with its regulations, its taxes on the rich and its social safety net – then the entrepreneurial spirit of America would be revived and prosperity would spread from sea to shining sea, the right-wing message goes.
This message resonates with many Americans, especially whites, because it panders to their rose-colored personal mythologies that they and their parents climbed the economic ladder solely due to their hard work and grit. It’s always an easy sell for politicians to flatter people by saying “you made it on your own.”
Yet, for the vast majority of Americans, the reality is quite different. Especially after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government took the lead in creating the social and economic framework that undergirded the nation’s later success.
Even right-wing icon Dick Cheney has acknowledged that the New Deal lifted his family from economic hardship into the middle-class – and contributed to his own renowned personal confidence, which he ironically has put to use dismantling the New Deal. [See Consortiumnews.com’s "Dick Cheney: Son of the New Deal.”]
Government activism also wasn’t a deviation from the Founders’ “originalist” intent, as the Right would have you believe. Decisive action by a strong central government to protect the nation’s interests was precisely what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind.
The driving goal of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was to create a vibrant federal system that could address national problems and make the new country competitive with – and invulnerable to – the then-stronger nation-states of Europe.
Contrary to Tea Party ideology, the Constitution was not about embracing states’ rights. Instead, the Constitution eradicated states’ sovereignty which had existed under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution asserted the sovereignty of “we the people of the United States” and the national Republic, with the states relegated to a secondary status.
To understand what happened, all you have to do is examine the Articles of Confederation, which governed the new country from 1777 to 1787, in comparison with the Constitution, or read even popular histories of the Constitutional Convention like Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen.
Gen. George Washington despised the notion of “state sovereignty,” which the states had cited during the Revolutionary War and afterwards as an excuse not to contribute promised funds to the Continental Army. “Thirteen sovereignties,” Washington wrote, “pulling against each other, and all tugging at the foederal head, will soon bring ruin to the whole.”
It is true that some Revolutionary War leaders, such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry, ardently opposed the Constitution, but they did so because they saw it as an infringement on states’ rights. In other words, both proponents and opponents recognized what the Constitution’s drafters were doing: creating a strong central government.
The Constitution, which was ratified by the 13 states in 1788, represented the most dramatic shift of power from the states to the national government in U.S. history.
Still, ratification of the Constitution did not stop proponents of states’ rights from resisting federal authority, especially in the slave-owning South.
But the battles over what the Constitution intended – including President Andrew Jackson’s facing down the Nullificationists in the 1830s, President Abraham Lincoln’s defense of the Union in the Civil War, and the desegregation of the South in the 1950s and 1960s – were ultimately settled in favor of national sovereignty. Federal law prevailed over states’ rights.
Having lost those historic fights, the Right latched onto a new strategy: to confuse the American people by rewriting the nation’s founding history. The Right’s influential politicians and pundits began claiming that the drafters of the Constitution were opposed to a strong federal government and were big advocates of states’ rights.
For instance, last year on the campaign trail, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, declared, “Our Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom. As a matter of fact they were very much afraid of that because they’d just had this experience with this far-away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you, and then it was actually the reason that we fought the revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown if you will.”
Besides being 200 years off on when the Revolutionary War was fought, Perry had the larger point wrong, too. The Founders – at least those who drafted the Constitution – saw the gravest danger to the new country coming from disunity. They viewed a vibrant central government as a way to protect the young Republic from renewed encroachments from Europe’s monarchies, which otherwise could turn one state or one region against another.
The Tea Party’s revisionist history of the Founding also has required a gross exaggeration of the Tenth Amendment’s significance. It states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.”
While references to the Tenth Amendment draw cheers from today’s Tea Party crowds, its wording must be compared to the Confederation’s Article II, which says: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”
In other words, the Constitution flipped the balance, stripping the states of their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” while granting broad powers to the national government, including over interstate commerce. The Tenth Amendment was essentially a sop to the anti-federalists, added three years after the Constitution was ratified.
The New Deal
The Founders’ “originalist” vision of a strong central government was vindicated in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt led a national effort to recover from the Great Depression, which had been caused largely by lightly regulated “free-market economics.”
Roosevelt’s strategy, which involved large-scale development programs for modernizing the nation, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority providing electrification for much of the rural South, was carried forward by subsequent presidents, Republican as well as Democrat, through the post-World War II years.
President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway project which improved the national transportation system; President John F. Kennedy launched the space program which achieved major technological breakthroughs; President Lyndon Johnson pushed medical programs and research that aided later pharmaceutical advances; and even the “failed” presidencies of the 1970s – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter – focused the United States on environmental safeguards and energy self-sufficiency.
During this era – from the 1930s into the 1970s – millions of Americans were lifted into the middle-class and others grew rich from exploiting the innovations that government projects made possible.
All companies benefited from the U.S. transportation infrastructure; many piggybacked onto the technological breakthroughs in electronics; the drug industry exploited taxpayer-funded research in the development of new medicines. It turned out that government could create jobs, especially through alliances with the private sector.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the great American middle-class was largely the creation of the federal government – from the New Deal, which guaranteed labor rights and created Social Security, to the GI Bill which sent World War II veterans to college, to more recent developments such as the creation of the Internet and GPS devices.
It was not until Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s that the political dynamic shifted. As Reagan declared that “government is the problem,” the role of Washington in the lives of Americans was demonized. Many middle-class Americans forgot how much they and their families had benefited from actions of the federal government.
The myth of self-reliance proved seductive. The government was recast as an instrument for helping the lazy at the expense of the productive. Through subtle and not-so-subtle messaging, white Americans were told that the government was hurting them to help undeserving blacks and other minorities.
Government regulations were redefined as meaningless red tape that penalized important innovations, such as the exotic “financial instruments” that Wall Street was devising to “revolutionize” the banking industry. The thinking was that the government just had to get out of the way and let industry “self-regulate.”
It followed, too, that Reagan’s economic theories, such as “supply-side economics,” would evolve into gospel on the Right. Since the beloved Reagan more than halved the top marginal tax rates on the rich – so they could invest in “supply-side” production and thus create more jobs – many conservatives embraced this notion with religious zeal.
Today, Gingrich boasts about his role in helping to formulate and enact “supply-side economics” – despite the fact that it has proved a crushing failure, as the American super-rich do little to create American jobs with their extra wealth. Indeed, U.S. corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in capital because of a lack of consumer demand.
That lack of consumer demand has resulted from the decline in the American middle-class over the past few decades as Reaganomics has increasingly transformed U.S. society into one of extreme wealth and widespread want. In other words, the shrinking middle-class is proof that “supply-side” economics doesn’t work, even as Republicans keep promoting it.
But the now-undeniable damage to the American middle-class – inflicted largely by right-wing ideology – creates a political problem for Republicans. Many voters may be hesitant to double-down on a bad bet.
So, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates have turned again to more and more blatant appeals to racial prejudice. After all, racism is the primeval “wedge issue.”
In this sour economic climate, more racist messaging – like Santorum’s opposition to giving money to “blah people” and Gingrich’s endless allusions to “food stamps” – can be expected as the Republican primary season rolls on.