Nov 1 2012

The Need to Decode GOP’s Coded Messages

The ink of racism can't be factchecked away

Lamenting the state of political writing, George Orwell once observed that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”: When there is “a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

In modern politics, of course, limited media time and attention spans make no allowance for florid language, so thinly veiled appeals to racism have become the “ink” of choice. Amid the national elections, the GOP machine has been one very busy cuttlefish indeed.

Mitt Romney filmed in secret at a fundraiser--Photo Credit: Mother Jones/Google Images

Mitt Romney filmed in secret at a fundraiser–Photo Credit: Mother Jones/Google Images

Most infamous is Mitt Romney’s off-the-cuff remark to millionaire donors in which he wrote off “those people”―or 47 percent of the populace―as victim-identified government dependents who audaciously feel “entitled” to luxuries like food, housing and healthcare (Mother Jones, 9/17/12).

But while some media outlets have diligently marked up their accuracy “report cards” or factchecked away at these sorts of supposed miscues, too few have appraised them for what they also are: coded signals to a conservative white base that is not only angry about the state of the economy, but embittered by the skin color of the man who delivers the State of the Union.

Many were surprised that Romney’s dismissive comment dismissed so many: While blacks and Latinos have long been otherized in conservative rhetoric as lazy welfare recipients sucking on the teat of the state, Romney’s arithmetic placed millions of white workers, seniors and students in the dependent victim category.

But as David Frum (Daily Beast, 9/18/12) pointed out, citing recent polling: “When you ask white Americans to estimate the black population of the United States, the answer averages out at nearly 30 percent. Ask them to estimate the Hispanic population, and the answer averages out at 22 percent.” Romney’s canvas may have been stretched large, but his over-whelmingly white base understood who was meant to be painted as parasitic.

Other apparently unhelpful or seemingly gauche GOP broadsides offer insight into this same toxic animus. Consider the title of one ambitious conservative billionaire’s pet project, proposed earlier this year, which overtly links contempt for Obama’s “otherness” with disdain for his economic policy: “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” The $10 million assault would have highlighted Obama’s past ties to the black minister Jeremiah Wright (New York Times, 6/17/12).

Racially tinged disregard is hardly the preserve of the party’s elite. At the GOP convention in Tampa, officials removed an attendee for pelting a black CNN camera operator with peanuts while declaring, “This is how we feed the animals” (Guardian, 8/29/12). Contextualizing the incident, Guardian columnist Gary Younge (9/9/12) pointed out the dismally low support of minorities for the GOP, noting that black support for the party was essentially at zero, and Latino enthusiasm falls well below the level needed for electability (32 percent versus 40 percent).

With heavy white support a reality of the GOP status quo and a prerequisite for any chance at victory, race-baiting infuses its messaging. Romney’s meticulously crafted welfare advertisement, which claimed that Obama had a “plan to gut welfare reform” so that “they just send you your welfare check,” offers a peerless illustration of coded hatred at work. Analyzing the spot, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein (8/27/12) first noted that the ad was “flatly false” and “puzzlingly anachronistic.” But then he pointed to research showing that the ad succeeds precisely where it’s designed to: in fueling racial resentment among those already inclined toward it.

“In modern politics,” Klein observed, “when a campaign begins doubling and tripling down on an unusual line of attack, it’s because it has reams of data showing the attack is working. What’s worrying is why this ad might be working.”

It is a worry that ought to be shared not only by a smattering of pundits and columnists, but by editorial offices and journalists’ bureaus across the country. Given what newsrooms already know about the GOP’s well-established “Southern Strategy” paradigm―and given what they ought to know about the power of language, codewords and human psychology―perfunctory and pro-forma factchecking charts don’t suffice.

In short, when a cuttlefish squirts out ink, journalists ought to cut through the ink―and follow the fish.