Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article By James Taranto entitled “Why the Left Needs Racism,” which argues that the American left routinely invokes racism as a tactic for securing minority votes. Taranto writes that
The political left claims to love racial diversity, but it bitterly opposes such diversity on the political right. This is an obvious matter of political self-interest: Since 1964, blacks have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. If Republicans were able to attract black votes, the result would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party. Even in 2008, the Democrats’ best presidential year since ’64, if the black vote had been evenly split between the parties (and holding the nonblack vote constant), Barack Obama would have gotten about 48% of the vote and John McCain would be president.
To keep blacks voting Democratic, it is necessary for the party and its supporters to keep alive the idea that racism is prevalent in America and to portray the Republican Party (as well as independent challengers to the Democrats, such as the tea-party movement) as racist.
This line of reasoning is fine, as far as it goes. I would, however, criticize it for being overly functionalist; that is to say that Taranto argues that the spectre of “racism” is only invoked in order to scare minority voters into voting for Democrats. I don’t think he goes quite far enough. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I view spurious claims of racism (or indeed, as CJ has ably discussed, disingenuous attempts to link quite legitimate dissent to figures like the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh) as being akin to attempting to poison the epistemological well. By attempting to cement in the public mind the link between “racism” and “conservatism” (broadly defined), a brazen attempt at de-legitimating certain political voices a priori is being made.
As Taranto’s article points out, such attempts are quite often of a categorically dishonest sort, and include such detestable tactics as cropping a picture of a “Tea Party” activist carrying an AR-15 to obscure the fact that the activist was in fact an African-American while simultaneously engaging in ominous hand-wringing over the supposed “racial overtones” of the event he was attending. In this case, the dishonest ploy to create psychological connections between anti-government protests and gun-toting “racists” backfired (as have, one could argue, Bill Clinton’s recent comments regarding the Oklahoma City bombing).
In short, what we’re seeing is a strategy of what is frequently referred to as “othering.” The promotion of a narrative that casts critics of the Obama Administration as an assortment of millenarian Protestants, white supremacists, and dangerous paramilitary would-be insurgents (a stereotype that is clearly based only upon members of the most extreme fringe of right-of-center American political discourse) is also the promotion of the politics of exclusion, a play to employ the semiotics of fear to assert that some ideas are simply too dangerous to tolerate. The problem, of course, is that it is not the ideas themselves that are held up for discussion, but rather those ideologies from which the narrative claims they supposedly derive — that is, ideologies of “hate,” ideologies of “racism,” and ideologies of “violence.”
The necessity of “racism,” then (and I put “racism” in scare quotes because, while there are undoubtedly racists of the most vile sort among the ranks of the “Tea Partiers,”* the “racism” that is most frequently invoked is of the most implied sort, the kind that is usually placed in the mouth of the speaker by the listener) lies in the fact that it can be employed to taint and undermine any conversation and provide a convenient hypertext link, as it were, away from difficult debates and into a usually disconnected realm of moral outrage. Rather than asking whether the people saying that “Cash for Clunkers” or the bank bailouts were a poor use of taxpayer dollars might have some sort of point (incoherent as it may be), a “discussion” can instead be had over the supposed “motivations” of those people — “motivations” which seem to inevitably turn out to be “racism.”
In short, the necessity of “racism” lies in that word’s special power in Western — and particularly American — culture as signifying something close to ultimate evil. Invoking it isn’t simply a ploy to gain votes, as James Taranto argues; rather it is a linguistic strategy designed to de-legitimate certain political voices by associating them with certain meta-discourses of racism, slavery, and violence. In the end, that’s worth a lot more than a few million votes.
* It should not be forgotten that the Left is certainly not free from its own racists, particularly those masquerading as “anti-Zionists.”