The racist creep show

September 10, 2008

By handing the Republican Party back to the Christian Right fanatics, John McCain has made a decision to unleash the ugliest forces in American politics.

JOHN MCCAIN and friends let the dogs loose at the Republican Party convention last week--and it wasn't just for show.

To the chanting of "USA! USA!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" the Christian Right and social conservatives, thought to be consigned to the margins for this election, made their triumphant return to the spotlight--in the form of John McCain's running mate, Bible-thumping "hockey mom," Sarah Palin.

Suddenly, the Republican base--which has always regarded McCain with suspicion for his unforgivably "moderate" views, and which was working itself into a frenzy over a rumor that he might pick a pro-choice running mate--was over the moon.

"A lady who's a leader," gushed the Weekly Standard's William Kristol. "I would pull that lever," declared James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

Palin's convention speech was expected to be a mild-mannered introduction from an almost entirely unknown figure. Instead, she sneered at Barack Obama and snarled about the "liberal" media like an old hand. That set the stage for an address by McCain that ended with bluster about his war wounds and patriotic duty.

Running mate Sarah Palin joins John McCain onstage at the Republican convention
Running mate Sarah Palin joins John McCain onstage at the Republican convention (Brian Kersey | UPI)

If anyone thought the Republicans would be too humiliated by their disastrous eight years in power under George Bush to make much of an effort this time around, think again. McCain was able to erase the Obama's post-convention "bounce" in opinion polls, and then some, even taking a lead beyond the margin of error in a few.

To be sure, McCain's own post-convention bounce will fade, and once it does, the Democrats' significant advantages in this election--above all, the crisis of the Bush administration and the collapse of the right-wing agenda--should become more obvious. But the presidential election is certainly looking like it will be closer than expected.

IF PALIN survived the convention week with a high level of popularity, it's because the mainstream media let her get away with being all things to all people--a firm family-values conservative and a down-to-earth working mother; a straight-talking, get-things-done operator and a crusader against corruption and cronyism.

Palin is just what the doctor ordered for the Christian Right, whose top ranks, always overstocked with old white men, are bulging with the discredited, the scandal-plagued and a growing number of outright laughingstocks.

But beneath her just-folks image, Palin is a real fanatic.

The energy industry is in love with this "renegade" governor who can't wait to open up her home state of Alaska to oil drilling--which is why she sued the Bush administration over plans to add the polar bear to the list of endangered species.

As far as Palin is concerned, she has God's approval for her policies. Referring to a $30 billion Alaskan oil pipeline, she told the graduating class of commission students at her former church, the evangelical Wasilla Assembly of God, three months ago, "I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that."

The same goes for the war on Iraq. "[O]ur leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God," she said in the same church speech. "That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan, and that that plan is God's plan."

Palin has appeared as a speaker for the Alaskan Independence Party, which supports secession of Alaska from the U.S. She supports creationism being taught in school. She opposes women's right to abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. Palin was asked in a 2006 debate what she would do if her daughter--who was 14 years old at the time--was raped and became pregnant. "I would chose life," Palin answered.

Then there's Palin's response--as reported by a server at the restaurant where she was eating with friends--to the news some months back that Obama had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination over Hillary Clinton: "So Sambo beat the bitch."

Of course, Palin was only one cog in the Republican attack machine. Lacking any program of its own worth cheering for, speakers repeatedly went after Obama and the Democrats--to wild cheers from an arena packed with the Republican faithful. The same message was repeated again and again: The "urban" and "elitist" Democrats are "out of touch" with "small-town America."

Thus, St. Paul witnessed the spectacle of Mitt Romney--former governor of Massachusetts and CEO of an investment firm--denouncing the "Eastern elite." Multimillionaire Rudolph Giuliani--the ex-mayor, mind you, of one of the most diverse and multiracial cities in the world--sneered that Obama supposedly thinks Palin's "hometown isn't cosmopolitan enough...I'm sorry, Barack, that it's not flashy enough." And Palin herself joined in mocking Obama's history as a "community organizer."

These insults weren't chosen at random. As even mainstream commentators recognized, "community organizer" and "urban elite" have become new racist code words--just as surely as the Republicans' talk about "law and order" and "welfare cheats" served to stir up bigotry in the past.

The Republican creep show in St. Paul served notice that McCain and his party have no qualms whatsoever about playing the race card--as long as it's done in such a way that any allegations about what's really being said can be denied with self-righteous anger.

Plus, all that snide abuse served to deflect attention from an obvious question: Since when do the Republicans--the party of big business interests and war profiteers--represent ordinary, working-class Americans against the "elite"?

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked, "Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself--until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans--really portray herself as running against the 'Washington elite'? Yes, they can."

IT'S CLEAR that the Republicans are on the attack, and there's nothing they won't stoop to. So the question is how the Democrats will respond.

In the days following the St. Paul convention, Obama did the round of political talk shows. It was the perfect opportunity to call out the Republicans for their racism and anti-women rhetoric, and to propose an alternative to the right's agenda.

Instead, Obama told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "The surge [of U.S. troops in Iraq] has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated." Obama added, "We have reduced the violence, but the Iraqis still haven't taken responsibility."

When he spoke with George Stephanopoulos, Obama made sure to apologize for being "flip" in front of an audience of Christians at Saddleback Church on the issue of abortion (while hardly defending his support of it). He also tried to prove his own "maverick" status by listing the positions he has taken that are unpopular with...fellow Democrats, such as support for merit pay for teachers.

This feeble display reflects the reality that Obama is not the "agent of change" that he portrays himself to be in his speeches. As a leader of the Democratic Party and firmly within its ideological mainstream, his commitment is to defending the system, not offering a real alternative.

However they repackage themselves to whip up enthusiasm on the right, the Republicans are still the party responsible for a disastrous eight years under Bush. Palin isn't an exception, either--she's committed to the most extreme positions of the right, which are rejected by a growing majority of ordinary people.

Given all this, the Democrats still have the upper hand in the race to win the White House. The overwhelming rejection of Bush and the Republicans--as well as the huge money advantage the Obama campaign has to build a turn-out-the-vote operation--should remain the decisive factor on November 4.

But in the meantime, it's important to keep two things in mind.

First, by handing the Republican Party back to the Christian Right fanatics, McCain has made a decision to unleash the ugliest forces in American politics.

In particular, the Republicans will be stoking racism in a country founded on slavery. Even if the strategy provokes an outcry and a backlash, the right's renewed enthusiasm will sanction racist ideas among at least some people who would have felt less confidence to speak up otherwise. The result, therefore, will be to contribute to social polarization.

Whatever criticisms we make of Obama--and we have many--we utterly reject the racist and reactionary slurs promoted by the Republican candidates, and with even more enthusiasm by the right-wing ideologues who pollute talk radio and other corners of the media.

Second, how quickly and sharply people turn against the Republican attack machine will depend to a great extent on how determined the Democrats are in challenging them. The lack of a tougher response so far is allowing the right to stay on the offensive.

Obama and the Democrats have remained quiet because they fear raising hopes and expectations any further among the millions of people excited by the promise of change. In the months since he clinched the Democratic nomination, Obama's chief concern has been to prove himself a safe alternative for the corporate and political establishment. But that has meant avoiding an open fight with the right.

On the contrary, because Obama and his advisers accept conservative assumptions about what working-class people supposedly think and want, their bid to capture the "middle ground" depends on adopting many of the right's arguments. The calculation is that if the Obama campaign went on the attack on the issue of racism in America or a woman's right to choose, it would lose votes.

Setting aside the fact that the attempt to win over so-called "swing voters" has failed for the Democrats time after time, at a more fundamental level, this strategy shows just how little the Democrats have to offer the people they claim to represent.

If the ugly policies of the Republicans are going to be stopped--and if there is going to be an outspoken opposition to racism, coded or not--it won't come from the Democratic Party. We need to organize it ourselves.

Further Reading

From the archives