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Why Obama’s Presidency Has to Be All About Race Now


Barack Obama’s presidency is failing.

Despite what he and his cheerleaders in the press think, he is still losing the argument over ObamaCare. The program has posted a few non-catastrophic enrollment numbers lately, but a lot of the public has already made up their minds. They never liked the program much to begin with, and now that they know what’s in it, they like it even less. The economic recovery, such as it is, continues to be slow, painful, and jobless. The president’s foreign policy is spinning out of control in all directions.

So the left is doing what they always do when their policies fail: make everything about race, instead. If the Obama presidency itself is what’s failing, then his whole presidency—the one that was supposed to usher in a post-racial era—must be all about race, too.

Hence a long article by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine informing us that yes, Obama’s term in office was really about race all along: “if you…set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before.”

Chait accurately identifies the distinctive racial politics of Obama’s post-racial era, describing an incident in which Bill Maher attributed the entire rise of the Tea Party to a visceral reaction against a black president. There you have the new racial politics: white people calling other white people racists.

Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.

This formulation might make you think that Chait is being even-handed and trying to build a bridge between the two sides. And he does make a show of sympathizing with the right’s predicament, though in a somewhat condescending way. Here’s about as conciliatory as he actually gets: “Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile.” Equating conservatism with racism: it’s a good idea taken just a little too far.

So we find that Chait’s actual theme is to justify this coupling of race with political loyalty—and to project it into the indefinite future.

His expressions of sympathy are short and somewhat perfunctory, and mostly lead in to long passages attempting to dredge up some historical or factual basis for smearing the right as racist. My particular favorite is the study purportedly showing a stark correlation between racial animus and right-leaning politics. Except that here’s how racial animus is measured: by asking whether respondents support more welfare funding targeted at blacks.

[T]he racially conservative view—that blacks are owed no extra support from the government—has for decades corresponded more closely with conservatism writ large and thus with the Republican Party. The same is true with the racially liberal view and the Democratic Party: Many of the Americans who support government programs that disproportionately offer blacks a leg up are Democrats.

Well, that begs the question, doesn’t it? In assuming that welfare-state policies are good for poor blacks—despite decades of evidence to the contrary—it already assumes a connection between leftist politics and enlightened views on race. Then it reliably spits this initial assumption back to us as if it were an objective result of the study.

There are plenty of other howlers in here, such as Chait’s casual reference to how “The lineal descendants of the segregationists, and in some cases the segregationists themselves, moved into the Republican Party.” No, I’m sorry, most of the old Dixiecrats stayed right where they were: in the Democratic Party. That puts a whole new light on Chait’s reference to a party’s “fervent scrubbing away of the historical stain of racism.” Projection, perhaps?

As for the “Southern Strategy,” which makes its obligatory appearance, Sean Trende over at RealClearPolitics has pretty thoroughly demonstrated that it was largely a continuation of a Southern trend toward the Republican Party which began decades earlier and continued even while Republican politicians were the ones offering the most support for the civil rights struggle.

Chait reaches his lowest point when he complains that “conservatives believe that the true heir to the Civil Rights Movement and its ideals is the modern Republican Party” and sneers at people on the right making positive references to Martin Luther King and at “the ritual of right-wing African-Americans’ appearing before Tea Party activists to absolve them of racism.” Here we have yet another “progressive” who opposes the (ideological) mixing of the races. Don’t those Tea Partiers know that they’re only supposed to have white members and white heroes? And don’t those “right-wing African-Americans” understand that black people are supposed to associate only with Democrats?

It’s almost as if folks on the left don’t want people on the right to embrace the Civil Rights Movement and equality for racial minorities. And that is exactly what we find.

In fact, Chait ends his piece by linking race with political loyalty, into the endless future. It’s the left’s version of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”: let us score political points off of segregation today, tomorrow, and forever. So he projects that the racial tensions he describes will only disappear when today’s old white men start to die off.

In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away. The rising cohort of Americans holds far more liberal views than their parents and grandparents on race, and everything else (though of course what you think about “race” and what you think about “everything else” are now interchangeable). We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born.

That “new nation” seems to be a reference to the theory of an “Emerging Democratic Majority,” in which a rising number of black and minority voters, combined with the demographic march of left-leaning youngsters, combines to hand Democrats a permanent political majority.

“Permanent majority” theories have a pretty rough history, and I’m afraid this one doesn’t hold up much better. It assumes, for example, that the young people who voted for Barack Obama when they were 18 will mostly maintain their political orientation as they age—despite ample evidence that as people get jobs, have kids, buy houses, and move to the suburbs, they also move to the right.

In the current context, the most glaring problem with this theory is the evidence that the very tactics Chait is justifying here—the equation of race with political orientation—is actually driving white voters away from the Democrats and toward Republicans. RCP’s Sean Trende has looked at the numbers and concludes: “The Democrats are reaping the benefits of our increased diversity. But they’re paying it back with an increasingly poor showing among whites.” A party that already commands 85-95% of the vote among black voters, for example, will need to get even higher levels of uniformity—to compensate for creating an almost equal level of uniformity in the white vote.

This is what I call the Southern Strategy in Reverse. The great blunder of the Southern Strategy is that Republicans pursued the votes of white Southern Democrats at the cost of neglecting and alienating black voters. Now, Chait and others want the Democrats to bet everything on holding their death grip on the minority vote, at the expense of alienating white voters with precisely the kind of smears and intimidation tactics Chait is excusing here.

That’s a huge electoral cost, and for what?

Here’s for what. As I said, it’s almost as if they want to polarize the electorate into racial voting blocs and keep them in conflict. They don’t just find it convenient and self-flattering to think their opponents are all racists. They need us to be racists. Because what would happen if the racial arguments actually did fade away, and we all began arguing just on the basis of the actual issues?

What is so offensive about Chait’s arguments is that he often writes as if there are no issues beyond race and no other political history or legacy. Hence his assertion, at one point, that America’s unusual opposition to the welfare state can be explained by a leftover reaction against the end of slavery, as if there were no other cultural or intellectual traditions that might be relevant.

Suspicion of central power, belief in small government, a broad conception of individual liberty, a love of self-reliance—these are constant themes of American culture that go back to the very beginning. The idea that these are all just code for some other issue is astonishingly narrow, parochial, anti-intellectual, self-serving—and self-defeating.

At some point this is all going to wear thin, and arguments like Chait’s just might finally do it. After all, a bunch of idealistic millennials voted for President Obama precisely because of the promise that he was going to be “post-racial” and put an end to this kind of racial recrimination. Yet now they’re told that Obama’s entire presidency was just about race all along.

If that happens, when that happens, where does that leave the left? All along, many of us on the right have been using basic ideas about the role of government, free-market economics, and the meaning of the Constitution, and we haven’t been using them as “code.” We’ve been taking them seriously. We’ve been studying them, arguing about them, and preparing for an ideological contest. The left, by contrast, has dismissed all of these ideas as irrelevant and tried to avoid the battle. Which side do you think is going to be better prepared when racism begins to fade as an issue and the ideological battle is all that is left?

Chait has done us one important service. By so openly naming our roles in this new artificial drama of racial politics—liberal tries to shut down the debate by accusing conservative of racism, conservative reacts with defensive anger—he might encourage a few more people to challenge their assigned roles and stop playing along.