What is racist about Romney’s 47 percent claim?


On the New York Times opinion page, editor Andrew Rosenthal points to a 1981 interview with the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater about the party’s famous ‘Southern strategy’ of appealing to white racists but misses what makes it so urgently relevant to the current day.  The Nation has posted audio of the entire interview, which is worth listening to.  The most famous quote from this interview conducted by scholar Alexander Lamis and the one Rosenthal focuses on is a recounting of the way in which political discourse about race changed through the 1950s and ’60s — laced with profanity, alas, but that’s a fair reflection of Lee Atwater’s style:

You start in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘Nigger.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’  So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

Now, this quote has been widely interpreted — Bob Herbert also cited it in a 2005 interview — as proof that Atwater (and many other Republicans) acknowledge that ‘busing’ and ‘states rights’ are code words for race but in the context of the full interview it seems to me that what Atwater is arguing — ingenuously or not — is even creepier: that as long as you are not talking directly about race it is not about race, but rather about economics, defense, etc.  He asserts this throughout the 41-minute interview and he might even believe it, which would go some distance toward explaining why 88% of Romney voters could be white yet most in the party react indignantly to any suggestion that the Republican platform is designed to pander to racists.

Yet that is not the most relevant quote to the current day.  At the 10’25” mark in the interview, Atwater — speaking, remember, in 1981 after Ronald Reagan took back the South from the Southern president Jimmy Carter — says:

I think race, as such, is going to dissolve as an issue but you are gonna have the race question in the sense of, on one side you’re gonna have a guy who’s a millionaire and he’s got something in common with the guy who’s making ten thousand bucks a year.  He’s bustin’ his ass and he’s putting into the system.  He’s paying taxes.  And somebody else is not doing anything and taking out of the system.  You know, those two guys, the George Wallace voter and the millionaire have something in common.  And I’ll tell you something else, statistically, as the number of non-producers in the system moves towards 50%, that makes [for] more and more polarity.  To where that drives the Wallace guy and the traditional Republican closer and closer together as they become threatened, as their taxes go up and inflation goes up, because of the non-productive side of society.

Here is the antecedent of Romney’s 47%, presented explicitly as a continuation of the ‘race question’ which is now taboo to talk about.  Elsewhere in the interview (at the 17’50” mark, if you’re checking) Atwater has explained that the millionaire is the traditional Southern country club Republican — assumed, of course, to be white — and the George Wallace voter making ten thousand bucks a year is the white blue-collar worker who, up to that point, had tended to vote for the Democrats but, as Atwater puts it, “was the one most threatened by blacks and, quote, racist” and — as I mentioned in this recent post about immigration — would be pulled over to the Republican party by Reagan.  So here is Atwater making the point Herbert, Rosenthal et al believed he was making above but doing it in language that Romney actually used.


The mention of George Wallace is instructive.  In the South, the Democrats used to be the white segregationist party but first Kennedy and then Johnson supported black civil rights legislation, triggering a realignment that was catalyzed by the ‘Southern strategy’ discussed above.  George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama and a die-hard segregationist (at least until a late-life conversion), ran for president numerous times, but most consequentially in 1968 when he swept the South as a third-party candidate.  This was the last year that any serious candidate affiliated with the Democratic party ran on a racist platform because there just weren’t enough votes in it to win the presidency.  Perhaps Mitt Romney will turn out to be the Republican George Wallace and we will look back, as we do Wallace, and marvel that anyone believing such things could also believe he had a claim on the highest office in the land.  Or, perhaps, as Atwater would have it, the Republicans will simply learn to find new and more abstract language for their old ideas.


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