Jindal, Race, and the Right

Dave Weigel weighs in on the subject here; Daniel Larison here. I think that liberals trying to understand the conservative mind, circa 2008, should take this passage from Larison to heart:

 ... never underestimate the Republican desire to get on the high horse of anti-racism and egalitarianism, to say nothing of the even greater desire to demonstrate that they are in no way racist ... The small cottage industry out there cataloguing the "real racism" of liberals represents a genuine conviction in the modern GOP that they are the only true defenders of color-blind equality. The Republican obsession with Jeremiah Wright cannot be understood apart from this "fight the real racists!" mentality. The enthusiastic reception of Palin and the sudden willingness to label any criticism of her as sexism and elitism reflects a similar impulse to out-egalitarian the egalitarians. This is opportunistic insofar as it is aimed at confusing conventional definitions and throwing the opponent off guard ("we're the real feminists, so there!"), but it is quite serious in that reflects a widely-held Republican belief that their agenda and their party represent "empowerment" for women and minorities.

Now this is not to say that there aren't plenty of Republican operatives out there who have a different and rather more cynical view of their party's relationship to race and racism; nor is it to say that there aren't plenty of racist Republicans. But as a rule, the more ideological a given conservative (and thus, one might add, the more likely to vote in a GOP primary), the more likely he is to take the view of American politics that Larison describes above - of the GOP as the party of colorblindness, and the Democrats as the party of racialism if not racism. And the more eager, in turn, he will be to cast a vote for someone like Bobby Jindal, the better to vindicate his conception of the party he supports.

Meanwhile, in a follow-up to his original argument, Chris Orr takes issue with my suggestion that the "Otherization" of Obama - the portrait of the Democratic nominee as a dangerous radical, un-American, etc. - has much at all to do with the radical connections from his Chicago past, as opposed to just being an outgrowth of his race, name, foreign relatives, etc:

This seems to me not only convenient but largely wrong: Liberation theology has barely entered into the presidential season, and all the Muslim, terrorist pal, falsified birth certificate, not "the American president Americans are looking for" garbage of the cycle seems far more closely connected to Obama's "name, ancestry and skin color" than to his "academic-lefty and urban-machine milieu." ("Socialist" probably fits Douthat's explanation a bit better.) As a coverted Hindu whose legal name is still Piyush, whose parents arrived in the states not long before his birth and who attended an Ivy League university, Jindal would be open to many of the same kind of idiot smears directed at Obama, should any of his GOP opponents for the nomination care to make them.

I guess I'm a little uncertain about what we're talking about here. If we're only talking about the "Obama is a Muslim" fever-swamp stuff - which played a big role in the Democratic primary without any push from the GOP, one might note - then yeah, that would have been percolating around in chain emails and the blogosphere rumor mill independent of the Ayers-Wright-Chicago tangle, and I suppose that there might be similar stuff floating around about Jindal in the future. (Though it'll help that his middle name isn't Hussein, and that his dad isn't a Muslim.) But if we're talking about the broader "he's an anti-American with terrorist pals" narrative that's emerged in the right-wing mediasphere over the last few months - and that was given perhaps its most vivid and ridiculous expression, of course, by Michelle Bachmann - then I think we're talking about a narrative that has everything to do with the fact that Obama emerged from a political milieu that's considerably more tolerant of what I think it's fair to describe as anti-Americanism than the environment that produced a John Kerry or an Al Gore or a Bill Clinton.

Does this narrative bleed into unhinged fever-swampage, and vice versa? Sure. But would it exist in anything like it's current form if Barack Obama hadn't built his career in a political environment where unrepentant left-wing terrorists can become pillars of the community, and practiced his faith in (and lavished money on) a church where Amerika-bashing and far-left conspiracy theorizing seem to have been just part of the scenery? I think not. And I think it's fair to assume that as long as Bobby Jindal doesn't have anything like Obama's relationship to Jeremiah Wright - which remains the most troubling thing we've learned about our probable next President, I think, over the course of the last year - rattling around in his closet, he isn't going to need to worry all that much about being tarred as an anti-American because of his funny last name.

Again, this doesn't mean that Jindal's race would be an absolute non-factor in any Presidential campaign he might run. Later in the follow-up post, Chris narrows the thrust of his original argument slightly, suggesting that in a hard-fought GOP primary, one of Jindal's rivals could gain ground by "quietly cultivating" racism and/or xenophobic rumors about the Louisiana governor. That's plausible: As several emailers have noted, Jindal's narrow loss in his first campaign for governor probably had something to do with the Democrats' exploitation of northern Louisiana racism, and similar on-the-margin effects could come into play in a primary campaign as well. But that would have been the case with or without the "Otherization" of Barack Obama - and I remain convinced that there are more than enough conservatives smarting from being accused of racism in the context of the '08 race and eager to pull the lever for a dark-skinned right-winger to make his ancestry an net advantage for him overall in a future GOP primary, even if it's also a disadvantage in certain hard-fought states or districts.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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