The Magazine

Secondhand Hate

Another step downhill for modern liberalism.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"They have ardent supporters who are nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse roared about his Republican opponents in the closing hours of the Senate health care debate on December 20. "The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups. It is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist." Two weeks earlier, Majority Leader Harry Reid likened opponents of his bill to those who opposed the end of slavery. On August 10, met by angry protesters at a town hall meeting, Michigan Democrat John Dingell told journalists, "The last time I had to confront something like this was when I voted for the civil rights bill and my opponent voted against it. At that time, we had a lot of Ku Klux Klan folks and white supremacists and folks in white sheets and other things running around."

For years now, those on the left have conflated resistance to any item of their agenda--high taxes, extravagant spending, laxity on crime, what have you--with motives of a dark nature: racism, nativism, fear of "the other," and various species of "hate." Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, a reaction to overregulation, stagflation, and the foreign policy failures and weakness of one James Earl Carter, was described as the bigots' revenge for the civil rights era. The midterm elections of 1994, a reaction against Hillarycare and the Clintons' malfeasance, were seen as a Confederate renaissance. After Bill Clinton was impeached for lies under oath (and terminal tackiness), his allies floated the theory that some of the votes against him came from Southern conservatives, because he was friendly to blacks. (As the "first black president"--vide Toni Morrison--Clinton was fond of this sort of rhetorical legerdemain until 2008, when his wife ran against a real black for president, and these tactics were turned against him.)

But it was the appearance in 2009 of the real first black president that lifted this theme to a whole new level: The left, which invented first "hate speech" (opinions they didn't like) and then "hate crimes" (crimes judged less on the criminal's actions than on what he was presumed to be thinking), has now gone on to its epiphany, which is "hate" defined not by your words or deeds but by what other people have decided you really think. "Hate" is no longer what you do or say, but what a liberal says that you think and projects on to you. You are punished for what someone else claims you were thinking. It hardly makes sense, but it does serve a political purpose. You could call it Secondhand Hate.

Case number one was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was listening to Barack Obama's September 9 health care speech before Congress, when Congressman Joe Wilson burst out "You lie!" at the president. Everyone, starting with the congressman himself, agreed this was a breach of manners. But Dowd heard something more--a voice shouting, "You lie, boy!" This voice, of course, was in Dowd's head, not Wilson's, but she managed to convince a number of people that it had popped from his brain into hers. -MSNBC's Chris Matthews was one of those who seemed to believe this had happened: "She sort of heard the word, almost sub-audibly, that word we don't like." Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic also believed this, and added his own voice, which was very long-winded: "This voice tells me [Obama's opponents are] motivated by tremendous anxiety about the direction of history, and how it seems to be moving away from them--white, traditional, bounded--and toward something else--global, multicolored, unbounded, experimental. This is the Silent Majority, the neo-Bircherite majority, the reactionary id that resents affirmative action, ethnic integration, and gays." At Salon, Joan Walsh said, "Wilson's shriek [it was more like a mutter] served as an exclamation point on an undeniable trend: Obama steadily lost support among white voters during this long, hot summer of hate."

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."

The attempt to cast former governor Palin--an Alaskan born in Idaho and raised in the northernmost state of the Union--as the titular head of what the left thinks of as the neo-Confederate wing of the Republican party is one of the stranger contortions of the Secondhand Hate movement. The fact that her book tour drew a largely white fan base was viewed as revelatory by some. "They look like a white crowd to me," Chris Matthews said, viewing the footage of fans in Grand Rapids lined up for her autograph. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but it is pretty monochromatic up there. .  .  . I think there is a tribal aspect to this thing .  .  . white vs. other people. .  .  . She is pretty smart about this." What was "smart," by Matthews's reckoning, was her saying that the Fort Hood mass killer, a Muslim with a record of inflammatory comments regarding jihad and its merits, should have been "profiled" because of "what his radical beliefs were" and dismissed from the armed forces. Matthews saw this as code for rousing hatred. "Profiling has a particular meaning," he said to his panel, which concurred with his findings. "Everybody knows what profiling is. It's driving while black."

Kathleen Parker, a columnist who can't stand Palin or Southern conservatives, lost no time in tying the two in one package, making the belle of the tundra the natural heir to Nixon's Southern strategy, with its ambience of "sweat, cigar smoke, and rage." In an August 2009 column, Parker asserted that that same Southern rage returned in the fall of 2008, "stimulated by a pretty gal with a mocking little wink. Sarah Palin may not have realized what she was doing, but Southerners weaned on Harper Lee heard the dog whistle .  .  . a sense of a resurgent Old South and all the attendant pathologies of festering hate and fear." This was catnip for Matthews, who asked Parker if Palin was "a poster girl for racism. .  .  . Is Sarah the dog whistle that says, yeah, that's what it's all about?"

This line of "analysis" was presaged by Timothy Noah of Slate, who argued on August 4, 2008, that references to Obama's "skinniness" (or his big ears) were racist, since they directed attention to his physical being, one characteristic of which is his color. "When white people are invited to think about Obama's physical appearance, the principal attribute they're likely to dwell on is his dark skin." Noah titled this aperçu "When 'Skinny' Means 'Black.' " By his logic, almost anything could be construed to mean "black." In other words, there was nothing that a critic might say about Obama that could not be interpreted as a racist attack on him. When Noah first wrote this, he was ridiculed widely. But not, it now is apparent, ridiculed widely enough.

The most conclusive rejoinder to the contention that "socialism" is a racist code word comes from a poll taken by the Democracy Corps (the firm founded by James Carville and Paul Begala), which delivered the verdict that while tea party protesters were insane by the partisan standards of Bill Clinton's backers, the protesters' concerns were what they said they were--taxes and spending; the expansion of government--and were not about race. The pollsters began discussions among older, white, and conservative voters and found "race was barely raised, [and] certainly not what was bothering them." Indeed, some tea partiers "talked about feeling some pride at [Obama's] election." Their flashpoint wasn't his race, but liberals' claim that racism was their motive. "The charge that opposition to Obama is racially motivated," the pollsters noted, "bothered conservative Republicans and independents alike. .  .  . [They] could not let it go and returned to the issue." They believed "the racism charge is being used to prevent them from stand[ing] up to Obama and his agenda. They see no difference in the opposition Obama faces and the opposition other liberals have faced." What's more, "they freely volunteered without any prompting that [Obama himself] was not part of this effort" to tar them--and focused their anger on Obama's media supporters instead.

Liberals fixate on the GOP's Southern strategy of the 1960s as the key to the modern Republican party, and for a time Nixon did court the Dixiecrats. But by 1980 the Reagans and Kemps had remade the party on a new set of issues and had formed new coalitions. Those active in the '60s and '70s are now in their sixties and seventies. Younger conservatives (which means most of them) grew up with integration, and take it for granted. They are obsessed not with race but with their causes and principles, oppose all who attack them, and embrace warmly and without reservation all who embrace their own causes. They venerate Thomas Sowell. They embrace Clarence Thomas (and his white wife), embrace Jeb Bush (and his Latina wife), support Marco Rubio against Charles Crist in Florida, and elect Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, which is as deep in the South as it gets. But to Obama's acolytes, the Old South is eternal. And so, when it's useful, are all of its old wars.

Liberals might take the political battles of the last year as they are--an ardent struggle over size-of-government and other first principles--but the emotional payoff would be nowhere near as satisfying. Why have a routine tug of war over taxes when you can replay a great moral drama, casting yourselves as the just and the righteous, and your foes as the ignorant and benighted rabble you know in your hearts that they are?

How large a part does pure condescension play in this story? Anyone wondering might take a look at these words of Joe Klein:

Teabaggers .  .  . are primarily working-class, largely rural, and elderly white people .  .  . freaked by the economy .  .  . also freaked by the government spending .  .  . that was necessary to avoid a financial collapse. (I'm not sure Keynes is taught in very many American high schools.) But most of all, they are freaked by an amorphous feeling that the America they imagined they were living in--Sarah Palin's fantasy America--is a different place now, changing for the worse, overrun by furriners of all sorts: Latinos, South Asians, East Asians, homosexuals .  .  . to say nothing of liberated, uppity, blacks.

Poor addled things, clinging to "God and guns out of bitterness." What a good thing that we are so much better, that we can see what they can't in their motives; can read hatred of "furriners" into a call for less government spending, and flip the association of the word "boy"--in connection with Barack Obama--into Joe Wilson's mind from our own. And then, having made them both haters and hateful, we can proceed to despise them, with all the insularity of which we claim they are guilty.

This is a farcical tic, not a serious argument: nothing but secondhand hate.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.