The Magazine

Secondhand Hate

Another step downhill for modern liberalism.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Could Obama's support have dwindled because middle America had become estranged, then appalled, by the spiraling deficits and Obama's health care proposal? Certainly not. It was because the right wing somehow "blackened Obama," informing people who might not have noticed that the president was not all that white. "I started thinking opponents were blackening Obama back in July, after the racial drama of the Sotomayor hearings," Walsh said. In fact, that "racial drama," such as it was, was the work of Democrats who stressed Sotomayor's ethnic background to appeal to Hispanic voters. But to Walsh it evoked the ethnic background of Barack Obama, which must have ticked off--again--all those evil conservatives. "There's no denying, he got blacker to a segment of the white population," Walsh asserted.

Really? By Walsh's logic, Obama must have been light beige through much of the summer of 2008 (when he held a slight point lead over McCain), then become a bit browner after the Republican convention (when McCain led by a bit), then lightened again at the financial meltdown in mid-September, and become moon-like in his paleness by Election Day, when he carved out a seven-point win. From then, he must have turned pearl-white by his Inauguration, at which point he was approved of even by people who voted against him and basked in favorable ratings of nearly 70 percent. Then, in late spring, he once more grew darker, a trend that continues. Or perhaps his approval ratings simply fell because he was a man trying to govern from the left in what is and remains a center-right country? Perish the thought.

As Obama's grandiose plans created a predictable political reaction, which first took form in the tea party movement, his sympathizers in the media theorized that racism, which had been in abeyance for the six months around the election, had re-reared its mean head. Paul Waldman wrote in the American Prospect, "It's becoming clear that the presence of a black man in the Oval Office, combined with the increasingly diverse makeup of the American public .  .  . is causing some .  .  . to see terrible threats in things they cared very little about a year ago." Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution opined on the basis of no evidence that between "45 to 65 percent" of the tea party protesters were driven by racial hysteria. Time's Joe Klein looked at people protesting taxes and spending, bailouts and czars, deficits in the trillions, and discerned fear of Hispanics spreading like wildfire in the white working class. "They're seeing Latinos .  .  . move into the neighborhoods. They're seeing South Asians .  .  . running a lot of businesses. They're seeing intermarriage .  .  . all these things that they find threatening. .  .  . They believe that the America that they knew, which was always kind of a myth, has disappeared." While Tucker and Klein dismissed the stated policy concerns of the dissidents as utterly meaningless, Michael Lind, writing for Salon, said they had always been code words for prejudice: "From the beginning, attempts to create a universal welfare state in the U.S. have been thwarted by the fears of voters that they will be taxed to subsidize other Americans who are unlike them in race. .  .  . Racial resentments undoubtedly explain the use of 'redistribution' and 'socialism' as code words by John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Republican working-class mascot 'Joe the Plumber' during the 2008 presidential campaign."