The Magazine

Keep Fear Alive

The liberal obsession with playing the race card.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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The tendency of liberals to define the Republican party, the conservative movement, and most recently the Tea Party movement as the latest iteration of the Old South has been persistent, if not always sane. It survived the failure to convince voters that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were political scions of Jefferson Davis, survived the appointment by George W. Bush of two black secretaries of state in succession (and the failure of his base to sulk or burn crosses), survived the Tea -Party’s electoral embrace of blacks, Latinos, and immigrants’ children. But will it survive the sight of the most right-wing branch of the right-wing party (no doubt clinging to God and to guns out of bitterness) not only adopting Col. Allen West as its favorite congressman but cheering itself hoarse for a black man running for president as the “anti-Obama” in 2012?

Photo of Herman Cain greeting supporters

Herman Cain greets supporters in Harriman, Tennessee.

Since the rise of the conservative movement, it has been believed on the left that the movement’s secret raison d’être is fear of “the Other”​—​immigrants, blacks, browns, and the loss of American “whiteness”​—​for which other concerns were assumed to be cover, a conceit that allowed the left to think itself not only “right on the issues” (all people think they are right on the issues) but “right” on the grand scale of higher morality, as one with the forces of the good and the pure and the true. Whatever the flaws of Herman Cain as a man or as a candidate, he has had the effect of eroding this conceit. And in this context, the merits of Cain in himself are less important than who supports him and the liberals’ reaction to what he has done.

The pairing of the conservative movement with bias has a long history that over the years, as it has become less defensible, has only become more intense. Ronald Reagan, who voted four times for Roosevelt and supported Truman against Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, was called a “danger” to blacks, a Ku Klux Klan enabler, and described thus in a hit piece Garry Wills wrote for Esquire: “Reagan croons, in love accents, his permission to indulge a functional hatred of poor people and blacks.” In 1988, George H.W. Bush was described as racist for making an issue of the bad judgment of Michael Dukakis in letting a killer run loose on a furlough from prison. Michael Lind, who in his book Made in Texas declared both Presidents Bush neo-Confederates because they once lived near places where race crimes took place long before they moved there, found the Tea Party to be more of the same: “It should be called the Fort Sumter movement,” he said in Salon this past August. “Today’s Tea Party movement is merely the latest in a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage, or in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy to get their way.”

Thus, the battle over the debt ceiling was out of the pro-slavery playbook, and Bill Clinton’s impeachment was “an attempted coup-d’état by the Southern white minority”​—​against another white Southerner!​—​angry, because, as in 1860, it was failing to get its own way. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews told Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus in August that the Tea Party has “a bad attitude towards race, towards black people, towards immigrants.” He called mention of food stamps a “racist dog whistle.” He obsessed over the idea that Rick Perry wants to secede from the Union, and his colleague Howard Fineman called the Tea Party plan to cut back on entitlements a “slow-motion secession” from the rest of the country. On MSNBC and similar venues, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, two belles from the frostbelt, were portrayed as straight out of Tara, singing songs of racial resentment to lure angry white men. What is all this based on? A narrative that totters on three “facts” that upon closer inspection turn out to be not damning at all.

Fact number one is that, while Republican support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act was proportionally higher than that of Democrats in both the House and the Senate, the law was opposed by leading members of the emerging conservative movement​—​Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr.​—​for reasons having to do with small-government principles that nonetheless permitted their theories and the interests of the segregationists for that moment in time to converge. 

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