Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Racism in service of plutocracy: Beutler's response to Chait

Jonathan Chait's two-front argument that 1) the Republican policy platform has deep roots in slavery and racism, but 2) Democrats are too quick to ascribe racism to individual conservatives, their policy positions and utterances, angered a lot of progressives, who see false equivalence as well as neglect of the real effects of conservative policies on African Americans and other minorities.

On the false equivalence front, Brian Beutler argues that Chait has mischaracterized progressives' case that the Republican gestalt is racist:

The left's racial analysis of conservative politics might lend itself to careless or opportunistic, overreaching accusations of racism. But it its also fundamentally correct. Chait, by contrast, calls it "insane," and to support that claim he slips into a mischaracterization of the analysis he's set out to debunk.
It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.
Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.
Chait's indictment of liberal racial analysis lives and dies on the bolded sentence. And the sentence is just wrong.
It's not that every Republican policy is racist, Beutler argues. It's that racism is used to sell the party's raison d'etre, which is preserving and advancing the interests of the rich. Plutocracy is the end; racism is the means:
Rallying the public by advocating tax cuts is not racist per se. To the contrary it can be many different things. It can be an appeal to donors. It can be an appeal to workers. It can be an appeal to economic elites. For all these reasons, and despite what Lee Atwater said, you won't find much evidence to support the implication that liberals believe Republican tax cuts are racist, as opposed to reverse-Robin Hooded. But financing those tax cuts is a different matter altogether. And here's where the GOP has, in the Obama years, revealed the substantive, and highly racialized consequences of aligning plutocrats and southern revanchists within a single political coalition. They do not propose to finance the tax cuts with debt (a la George W. Bush), or with cuts to defense spending, or cuts to middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, or cuts to corporate welfare and tax expenditures for the well-off. They propose to finance tax cuts almost exclusively by cutting programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and other income support programs that disproportionately benefit black communities.
This is a crucial distinction, elided by Chait's use of tax cuts as the Republican ur-policy. At the same time, it's a distinction that Chait does acknowledge elsewhere in the article. At the core of his case that race is a major motivator of American conservatism is his account of a University of Rochester study finding that "a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today."  Assessing the results of "racial conservatism," Chait focuses not on tax cuts but on the safety net:
The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.
Thus Chait himself makes the argument that according to Beutler is the progressive argument writ large. But Chait's cited evidence of "McCarthyist" charges of racism neither supports nor denies Beutler's claim that hostility to the safety net is the core charge. Nor do the cited examples associate tax cut advocacy with racism. Instead, they respond to alleged cultural signals:  Jimmy Carter calling Joe Wilson's "you lie" scream interrupting Obama's address to Congress racist; Joan Walsh filleting Bill O'Reilly for speaking condescendingly to Obama about "the nation that has afforded you such opportunity"; Timothy Noah finding racism in a description of Obama as "skinny"; and, most subtly, Obama juxtaposing "ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry" in his inaugural appeal for support for his policies.

Beutler is right that Chait set up something of a straw man in suggesting that progressives are ready to assert that  "any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism" -- and in using tax cuts as an ur-example. On the other hand, Chait's argument does not stand or fall on that overstatement, as Beutler avers. Chait does confront us with Pavlovian progressive responses to imaginary dog whistles.  And his core point -- that "the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power," and that progressives are too quick to reach for it -- is legitimate, and something we need to hear.

Beutler's pinpointing of the locus and role of racism in Republican policy -- cutting services that disproportionately serve poor people, and attempting to restrict their franchise -- is likewise vital and valuable, and it does underlie many of the charges and intimations of racism in articles in, say, TNR, or the columns of Paul Krugman. Beutler is also right to highlight the non-equivalence between a racially tinged policy platform and sometimes-misfired charges of racism.  But it's also true that people thus misfiring may not have a reasoned critique or a finely-tuned sense of where the alleged racism lies when they're making the charge.

1 comment:

  1. Well written. Your agreement with Chait's assertion that Progressives do too often reach for the race card is inaccurate. Although I agree that labeling someone a racist is a political and social stigmatization that is a card sometimes played without nearly enough evidence to substantiate it, the claims oftentimes made by Conservatives who've barely skimmed the intelligence they're receiving, is likewise laughable.

    The problem of "real and frequently terrifying power" Chait refers to is a major issue however and it cannot be overstated that the consequences for any individual labeled a racist can be career-destroying despite however much time and effort they've devoted to combating racism. In the end I'd agree that Beutler's separation of a "racially tinged policy platform" and "sometimes-misfired charges of racism" would be the correct answer to Chait's central charge.

    " But it's also true that people thus misfiring may not have a reasoned critique or a finely-tuned sense of where the alleged racism lies when they're making the charge." Agreed.

    Such is politics.

    - The Blogging Boss