Iowa and Beyond: For the Tea Party GOP "Common Sense" Racism is the Road to the White House
The 2012 Republican presidential field, a hydra which self-destructively feeds on itself, had one more battle royale in Iowa. Fighting to a standstill, Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul bloodied each other. While the Tea Party GOP is still a house divided, their leading candidates share a common, uniting, go to issue: hating on the blacks makes for good politics; it pays substantial political dividends.
As Iowa demonstrated, be it Gingrich's yearning to have lazy black and brown kids pick up mops and brooms as janitors in work houses, Romney's nativist Klan inspired opines to keep "America America," Santorum's appeals to a belief that African Americans find sustenance by stealing from hardworking white people, or Ron Paul's assertion that the Civil Rights Act (with its bringing down of Jim and Jane Crow) was an unfair intrusion on white people's "liberty" and "freedom," the Tea Party GOP remains addicted to the crack rock of dog whistle politics.
Decades after the founding of the Southern Strategy in the 1960s, the old school remains the true school. Ultimately for conservatives, demagoguing the negroes can still help stir up support among the white populist faithful.
Precision matters here. Research on public opinion and political behavior has demonstrated that not all conservatives are racist. However, racists are much more likely to be conservative--and to identify as Republicans.
Social scientists, historians, psychologists and others have developed an extensive vocabulary to talk about the lived politics of the color line. These terms include such notable phrases as symbolic racism, white racial resentment, the white racial frame, in-group and out-group anxiety, ethnocentrism, prejudice, realistic group conflict, colorblind racism, systems of structured inequality, racial formation, and front stage vs. backstage racism.
In thinking through the politics of race at work in the white conservative political imagination, this seemingly disparate terminology is connected by a common thread. Race and racial ideologies are ways of seeing the world, of locating people and individuals relative to one another, and are a cognitive map for making sense of social relationships. While shocking to outsiders, the type of racism played with so casually by Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, Paul and other conservatives is a type of "common sense" for their public.
For example, the audiences that cheer Romney's speeches about a country that is lost, one led by an anti-American usurper, are not necessarily "bad people." They are motivated by a sense of belonging, and made to feel special by virtue of being "real Americans," part of a special tribe anointed with unique insight and wisdom by their oracles.
Likewise, those who embrace Gingrich's habit of stereotyping "inner city blacks" as lazy, unmotivated, and criminal, probably identify as "compassionate conservatives," or "good Christians." There is no intended malice on their part. To them, "everyone knows" that these observations about black and brown people are "true."
Rick Santorum's Iowa speech on the nature of black people's greed and degeneracy is an especially instructive example of this broader pattern:
"It just keeps expanding - I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don't sign up more people under the Medicaid program," Santorum said. "They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That's what the bottom line is."
He added: "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."
"And provide for themselves and their families," Santorum added, to applause. "The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again."
"Right," responded one audience member, as another woman can be seen nodding.
There are several elements at work here.
First, poverty in America is racialized. The image in the public imagination is of black welfare queens, or illegal aliens birthing "anchor babies" who live off of the government tit, profiting from food stamps and the generosity of the American people. The white poor rarely, if ever, enter the picture. Second, black people are in a parasitic relationship with white Americans (Santorum's "someone" else). In sum, black people are "lazy," and a dependent class, unable to take care of their families except for the generosity and benevolence of white people.
The most powerful part of Santorum's appeal to his white audience in Iowa is the implication that black people are receiving some type of "reparations." For Santorum and the Tea Party GOP, blacks are plagued by "bad culture" and are existentially prone to poverty. Therefore, in a country where labor, capitalism, and citizenship are inexorably connected, blacks are outside of the political community.
In the age of Fox News and the Right-wing echo chamber, one cannot forget how the conservative imagination is constituted as a dream world: it is a mature fulfillment of some of the most sophisticated propaganda in the post World War 2 period.
In this imagination, it does not matter that whites are the majority of America's poor.
It does not matter that most people on public assistance and welfare in Iowa are white.
It does not matter that there is a deep history which explains how conservatives have spun a fiction about black and brown poverty while ignoring structural economic inequality, and how many of the policies endorsed by the Tea Party GOP in the name of economic austerity and punishing people of color (who are coded as "the poor" or "unproductive citizens"), also disproportionately harm the white working and middle classes.
This local type of common sense helps to explain the feelings of defense, denial, and injury that many white conservatives exhibit when challenged about the racism of the Tea Party GOP and the Right-wing establishment. While the leadership and media elites from which they take their cues skillfully play the race baiting game, rank and file Fox News conservatives simply feel aggrieved at the suggestion that anyone would take their common sense understandings of the world to be racist, bigoted, or based on false understandings about the nature of racism and white privilege in the Age of Obama.
In the same way that a fish does not know that it is wet, the politics of nativism, an authoritarian-like embrace of the politics of us and them, and a fear of the Other, are so central to contemporary white populist conservatism, that they are taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of the world.
Moreover, politics is essentially about the creation of an imagined community. The stump speeches about evil liberals who hate America, the cheering of dying cancer patients who lack insurance, the booing of gay soldiers, and the numerous fictions about the economy, science, the Constitution, and public policy more generally are taken as divine gospel. These fictions are standing priors for contemporary conservatives which help to mark out the boundaries of their political world.
During an election year, and as a function of a highly polarized 24 hour news environment, it is a given that the incumbent president will be the target of vicious attacks by the out party. By implication, the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president, has amplified all of these tensions. The election of a member of the racial out-group has made the stakes especially high for white conservatism. Obama is anathema to the Tea Party GOP soul, the living embodiment of a world turned upside down, for no man who looks like him could ever be leader of the free world, where whiteness is inseparable from being "American."
By implication, there is a short line from the white racial appeals of Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, Romney and others directly to President Obama. He has been called "the food stamp president" and a "ghetto crackhead." Obama is stained by the Birthers who say he is not an American citizen. The appeals to American exceptionalism are naked arguments that a black man like Obama cannot help but be outside of the "normal" political culture of this country. It has also been implied that President Obama is a perpetual "they," a member of a marginalized group who by association is lazy, anti-white, unqualified, and an "affirmative action baby" that somehow managed to steal a presidential election and win the popular vote.
Many may laugh at such a formulation. However, the Tea Party GOP, Iowa voters, and others who clamor to participate in the Republican primaries, would take such claims as common sense knowledge. For people of color, the outsider, the Other, and those who are not (in their eyes) "quintessentially American" (and thus have to prove their authenticity to the white conservative gaze), this is not your country.
You people may have built and improved this country, but it is not yours. For the Tea Party GOP and the populist conservatism of the present moment, you people are just guests. They will remind you people of that fact at every moment.
Why? Because it is common sense. Didn't you know that?