Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has made a name for herself over the years by expressing some very controversial views, like advocating arms sales to Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. For many, she has richly earned the right to be dismissed. But her widely reported speech last week, charging that the unwillingness of Congress to raise the debt limit stems from racism toward the President, should be taken seriously as the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. Mainstream liberal thought has been edging closer and closer to legitimating the idea that opposition to Barack Obama can be equated to racism.
Just a few days before Representative Lee was telling the House to “read between the lines…only this president–only this one–has received [these] kinds of attacks,” Harold Meyerson, one of liberalism’s most lucid commentators, was pressing a similar line of attack in the Washington Post. Fueled by “the politics of racial resentment,” conservatives loathe what their government is becoming–”multiracial, multicultural, cosmopolitan and now headed by a president who personifies those qualities.” Two years of relentless liberal assaults on the Tea Party helped to prepare this ground. The movement was said to be a front for racist policies, not the popular uprising against big government and uncontrolled spending that it claimed to be. Paul Krugman told his The New York Times readers that Tea Party activists might well imagine themselves starring in the “Birth of a Nation” (the classic 1915 racist film), while E. J. Dionne artfully made it clear that, “Opposition to the president is driven by many factors that have nothing to do with race. But race is definitely part of what’s going on.”
This continuing talk about racism, which is likely to be a liberal theme in next year’s presidential campaign, is sure to strike most Americans as not just disappointing, but unexpected. A great hope of the 2008 presidential election was that it would put to bed, not the existence of racism in society (the country is still a long way from that), but its role in presidential politics. Like the question of Catholicism, which evaporated almost overnight when JFK was elected in 1960, race would cease to matter. People could favor a president or oppose him without taking into account, or worrying that others might accuse them of taking into account, the president’s race.
For liberals who proclaim the continuing power of racism over our politics, the analogy of 2008 to 1960 does not hold. Although they cite few instances of overt racist comments by leading conservatives, this is only because–as they see it–conservatives managed to learn from bitter experience how to avoid cruder expressions and to speak in code. But the feelings are there at, or just beneath, the surface. (For the record, the only important figures to use race language directly against Obama have been Bill Clinton, who in the South Carolina primary in 2008 labeled him “the black candidate” and accused his campaign of “playing the race card on me,” and the Princeton philosopher Cornel West, who recently called Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”)
But another possibility is that the analogy to 1960 does hold–or at least that it would, except for the efforts by liberals to inject the theme of racism for their psychological and political benefit. It is an instance of “playing the race card,” one that is all the more cynical for being deployed by those who celebrated Barack Obama’s “historic victory” as inaugurating a new day in American politics.
Why should liberals now risk throwing away a real benefit to the nation? One answer is that racism provides a convenient explanation for why liberalism has not had the success that was expected. For those like Paul Krugman, who declared that “the progressive philosophy won,” or like Harold Meyerson, who assured the faithful that the “future of American politics … belongs to Barack Obama’s Democrats,” it is consoling to think that temporary setbacks are not the result of any inadequacies of the progressive philosophy or its leader, but of dark and sinister forces plotting against the future. Just as likely, the card is being offered as a calculated gambit to keep the loyal in tow and, especially, to minimize potential defectors among decent people who despise racial injustice. They are the target group in this stratagem. Liberals have become high-stake gamblers willing to bet the house–and at any price.