Wooing White America
Issue #
180

Is the Republican Party trying to commit suicide?

Despite well-publicized demographic trends predicting that the United States will become a “minority-majority” nation by 2042, Republicans have been conducting a vigorous slash-and-burn campaign against African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

By late August, there had been enough racially tinged attacks on President Obama that NBC/Wall Street Journal polling reported an astounding zero percent of African-Americans expressing support for Romney. After the Republican nominee was exposed for joking about the political advantages he would have if he could claim Latino heritage, his support among Latinos dropped from a high of 31 percent after the GOP convention down to 24 percent, according to a LatinoDecision/ImpreMedia poll. And, although the number of Native Americans is relatively small, the Republican tomahawk chops and war whoops used to jeer Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren have dismayed many in Indian Country.

The fact is, it is difficult to sell the Republican agenda to communities with high unemployment rates, high incarceration rates, and higher than average rates of foreclosures. Spending cuts, tax cuts and the unqualified opposition to healthcare reform and regulations on Wall Street are not popular ideas in poor communities of color. Voter suppression is not working too well either, nor is the Republican block against the Dream Act. There is not a lot of rhetorical room to maneuver here, and no obvious “spin” that might paint this policy agenda as representing the interests of all Americans.

Republican political analysts have to know the demographic changes that are coming, which leads one to wonder: is there a logic to the GOP’s madness, or have they just decided to go down fighting as the last (almost) all-white party?

ECONOMIC INTERESTS

Romney’s white working-class and poor supporters should also see their economic interests endangered by the Republican agenda and a candidate known for breaking up companies and bragging that he “likes” to fire people. The largest numbers of poor people in the United States are white, and many of them are among the 47 percent scorned by Romney.

Yet the Republican candidate continues to enjoy a majority of the white vote (by 53 percent to 40 percent). He also has a majority of the senior vote (49 percent to 41 percent) and the rural vote (47 percent to 38 percent), two other groups that have rational reasons to dislike the Republicans’ attitude toward everything from Social Security and Medicare to closing rural post offices.

The Republicans apparently need no spin to make these groups feel represented. Why?

POWER OF MYTH

In November 2010, when Republicans swept the midterm elections a bare two years after Obama’s historic win, The New York Times ran a front-page article assessing four possible explanations for the Republican triumph. Not one concerned race.

Just recently, Columbia University Professor of Humanities Mark Lilla wrote a critical review of Charles Kesler’s newly published conservative screed, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, in which Kesler offers the reasoned arguments, so to speak, for conservative dislike and distrust of Obama’s expansion of social welfare programs. Kesler scrupulously avoids the issue of race, but surprisingly, so does Lilla, who offers no real rejoinder to Kesler’s explanations other than to show how they are based in myth rather than fact. The question remains, why do the myths hold such sway?

Numerous theorists are beginning to explore the topic of “public feeling.” Rather than predict votes by rational choice theory applied to interest-group politics, we need to pay more attention to the feelings evoked by a candidate’s language and style. This is not quite the dog-whistle idea, that coded messages are sent to the faithful through subtle word choice, but that feelings themselves can be mobilized to affect behavioral
choices by giving people new ideas about who is their ally and who is their enemy and what the payoff of a particular policy agenda will be on their emotional well-
being and their sense of pride and importance and value.

RETHINKING AYN RAND

Consider the feelings evoked by Ayn Rand’s blockbuster novel, Atlas Shrugged, a book whose sales are second only to the Bible and whose fervent followers famously include vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. New York University sociology professor Lisa Duggan suggests we think about Rand’s novel not in terms of its terrible writing or its cartoonish plotlines or its absurd empirical claims about what makes capitalist societies work; rather we should look at its highly sexualized and exciting portrayal of the greed-obsessed entrepreneur. Rand’s novel presents a contrast not only of political options but also of emotional personalities. On the one side we have the staid and domesticated forces that support regulation, empathy, and self-sacrifice, coded maternal and feminine, while on the other side we have the arousal of a masculine rebel who lives by his creative wits, the collective be damned. The choice is vanilla sex or transgression, but gender identity, pride, self-esteem and the possibility of exhilaration are also at stake.

What would you choose?

We need to expand our thinking about rational judgment and understand that our emotional lives constitute a self-interest too. This is not an argument that the masses are hopelessly irrational. We are all motivated by our feelings. The idea that rational minds can transcend feelings is based on a myth of objective distancing that has its own emotional payoff in feelings of inviolability and security. The Republicans may be banking on their capacity to mobilize feelings even when their policy proposals make no economic sense for the 99 percent, much less the 47 percent. Whites are not the only group susceptible to the appeal of American exceptionalism, or the masculine ethos of hyper self-sufficiency espoused by randy Randians who stride about asserting absolutes without apology or qualification.