No One Left to Race Bait

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Dave Weigel points out the difference between the covert racism of a young cagey Pat Buchanan in the days of the Southern strategy, and overt racism of the pariah Pat Buchanan banished to Fox News (emphasis added):

In May of 1970, when he was a young former journalist working for the White House, Pat Buchanan offered President Richard Nixon some tips that he'd never stop using. "I strongly endorse symbolic gestures toward groups," wrote Buchanan, "especially the blacks where symbols count for so much." In order to divide the country effectively, Nixon had to pretend that he wasn't dividing it at all. "The President is President of all the people and while they will never vote for us, we must never let them come to believe we don't give a damn about them -- or that they are outside our province of concern." 

Forty-two years and four months later, an older, more widow's-peaked Buchanan appeared on Fox News to explain the leaked video of Mitt Romney talking to donors. Had Romney stumbled when he wrote off the "47 percent" of voters too dependent to vote Republican? No, said Buchanan. "Barack Obama is a drug dealer of welfare. He wants permanent dependency, in my judgment, of all these folks."
Calling the first black president a "drug dealer of welfare" is interesting because it actually is Buchanan deploying symbolism. The problem is that the world has changed, and this is precisely the kind of rhetoric that would end a presidential candidacy today.

As I argued on Tuesday, as a racist appeal becomes more abstract, it doesn't simply become more devious, it becomes less racist, and thus less potent. Inveighing against the 47 percent isn't racist; "Welfare Queen" kind of is; William F. Buckley claiming black people don't want to vote really is; and John Booth mumbling, "That means nigger equality, by God I'll run him through" and then shooting the president in the head is straight white supremacist violence.

The Southern Strategy is often conceived as magic. I would argue that it is better conceived of as another engagement during white supremacy's fighting retreat into oblivion. The "symbols" argument can only work until people decide that the deploying of symbols is, itself, racist. I know people think that Republicans have avoided the Rev. Jeremiah Wright attack out of the goodness of their heart. I would argue that they've avoided it because they (correctly) understand that it would be poisonous to them. 

And so robbed of symbols, a previously racist attack disperses into a hazy diffusive blabbering. The most striking thing about Mary Matlin's "producer vs. the parasites" line is that she declines to say who the parasites are. Who specifically are the takers? Are they the workers who are paying payroll taxes? Are they the elderly? Are they the 6.9 percent of Americans earning less than $20,000? (See my colleague Derek Thompson for more on this.)

By Mitt Romney's lights it's all of them.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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