July 7, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The GOP’s baked-in ‘race problem’
The party of the very, very rich can't win without stoking hatreds.
The pandemic keeps raging. The economy hasn’t recovered. The president has still done nothing to stop the Kremlin from putting a price on American heads. And white police officers continue to humiliate, harm and murder Black Americans. All of this, and surely more to come, is culminating in an anti-Donald Trump majority coalition.
For their part, the Republicans are in a pickle. They can’t talk about the economy. They can’t talk about what they’ve accomplished, because their accomplishments are forgotten or bad. The 2017 tax cuts are long gone. The recent $2 trillion bailout went to the rich and well-connected more than to normal people. They can talk about judges, sure, but that doesn’t have broad appeal. All they can do is stand by their man.
The Republicans get what they want through bad faith. Happily, younger Democrats aren’t playing along.
This state of Republican affairs is being portrayed almost universally as something unique to our time. It’s not. The modern Republican Party has always been the party of “special-interests,” meaning the very, very rich. To the party of the very, very rich, democracy has always been problematic. How do people representing a tiny fraction of the electorate build a majority big enough to win? The answer is familiar to anyone paying attention. They pour gasoline on the white flame of American race-hatreds.
That’s not the whole story, though. In a review over the weekend of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, Let Them Eat Tweets, which explicates the politics of the “conservative dilemma” noted above, Franklin Foer identified the key animus of the 1 percent: greed. “Never content with the last tax cut or the last burst of deregulation, American plutocrats keep pushing for more. With each success, their economic agenda becomes more radical and less salable. To compensate for its unpopularity, the Republicans must resort to ever greater doses of toxic emotionalism,” Foer wrote.
Greed, which never quits, combined with bigotry, which never quits, is usually a winning combination in American politics, especially when added to another plutocratic specialty: never-ending intellectual dishonesty and bad faith. Today’s Republicans may be forced to stand by their man, and they may suffer in November as a consequence, but they are hardly hamstrung. They’ll do what they have always done: foment conflict so attention is paid to words, not the persons, things and ideas that words represent. To top it off, a few self-serving liberals can be trusted to join them.
Consider “free speech.” There’s a cottage industry of partisans paid large sums to pay close attention to political activity on college campuses. The result of this investment has been the establishment of a conventional wisdom widely accepted even among university administrators who ought to know better: that free speech is in crisis.
Free speech is not in crisis. Not in the way that “First Amendment warriors” mean. What they mean is that some people, usually “conservative intellectuals,” are being “silenced” by “mobs” of “angry radicals” intolerant of “liberal values.” To be sure, some conservatives are “disinvited” from campus speaking engagements. Some have even seen “angry radicals” throw stuff at their cars. But they are not silenced. First of all, they complain non-stop about their poor treatment, and powerful people take their complaints very seriously. Second, these people have enormous followings on social media, lucrative book contracts or cushy gigs at Washington think tanks. Saying they’ve been “silenced” would be laughable if it were not also conventional wisdom.
There is, however, a real crisis of free speech. It’s the same crisis all out-groups have faced in the history of our country. College students, very often students of color, use their free speech to express views contrary to the interests of those with the power to establish the terms of debate. Put another way, young people of color are establishing new terms, and those invested in the old terms are reluctant to change. That’s fine. That’s what the marketplace of ideas is about. But partisans aren’t paid to let the marketplace work things out. They’re paid to accuse college students of suppressing speech, thus creating conditions in which student speech is effectively suppressed.
This in microcosm is what the Republican Party does in macrocosm—decontextualize, manipulate, distort and decouple words from the things they represent so that good-faith agents of progress can’t be heard on their own terms, so that they always sound more unhinged, revolutionary or even violent than they are, and are thus discredited. Making matters worse is that the Democratic Party has for decades defined its positions according to the Republican Party’s bad-faith arguments. The result has been one step toward greater justice and equality starting from two steps back.
That changed, happily, the moment Donald Trump traded in a dog whistle for a bull horn, to paraphrase Hacker and Pierson. The GOP’s racism, hence the racism of the very, very wealthy, is no longer coded. Joe Biden can’t pivot, but younger Democrats of color, such as Kamala Harris and Tammy Duckworth, can. They are now free to establish new terms of debate. When they talk about “defunding” the police, they don’t talk about it using emotional language disconnected from concrete experience. They talk about it for the purpose of stopping white cops from murdering Black men.
Greed, bigotry, bad faith—there are no limits.
Unless a majority can see them for they are.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.