The Politics of Symbolism

On Rush, racism, Richard Nixon, and the "real America"

It is ironic that conservative commentators, led by radio personality Rush Limbaugh, dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama as a racist act at the very moment several Republicans are hunting for votes using racially charged rhetoric about “real Americans.” These commentators argue that Democrats invented symbolic politics this cycle—and that a voter who is drawn to the symbolism of an Obama presidency is a racist—while tacitly absolving the McCain-Palin of its efforts to court those voters who fear a black urbanite in the White House.

Limbaugh hung his attack on a portion of Powell’s endorsement of Obama on Sunday’s Meet the Press, in which he described the Democratic nominee as a “transformational figure.” On his radio show the following day, Limbaugh concluded that “this was all about Powell and race,” explaining to a caller, “Transformational simply means we’re finally going to get over our days of slavery and a majority of people would elect a black guy president, that’s what transformational is.” Apparently, that’s the same as being racist.

“I can’t read the mind of Colin Powell, but I know Rush isn’t crazy,” chimed in National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez. Bewilderingly, Lopez went on to suggest that Obama stole his “change” theme from Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity and therefore differs from McCain the Maverick solely in skin color. Through an analysis of the Obama endorsements and other celebratory features in African-American magazines—Vibe, Ebony, Essence, and Black Enterprise among them—she constructs a flimsy argument that Obama supporters have made the race about race.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks made much less convoluted charges of racism against the McCain-Palin campaign and their allies. “The GOP code isn’t hard to crack,” she writes:

There’s the America that might vote for Obama (a suspect America populated by people with liberal notions, big-city ways and, no doubt, dark skin), and then there’s the “real” America, where people live in small towns, believe in God and country, and are … well … white.”

Brooks is referring, of course, to the flood of “real America” rhetoric first delivered by Sarah Palin at a North Carolina fundraiser last week. “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit,” she said, “and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic … pro-America areas of this great nation.” North Carolina congressman Robin Hayes added his two cents: “Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God.”

Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann then added fuel to the fire by calling for media investigations of members of Congress to establish whether they are “pro-American” or “anti-American.” Palin subsequently apologized for her remarks (as did Bachmann; Hayes didn’t apologize, but rather issued a statement saying his own comments “came out completely the wrong way”). None of this stopped John McCain, however, from declaring that “western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God-loving, most patriotic part of America.”

On its face, such rhetoric may seem to have more to do with Reds than blacks: there’s a loud echo of McCarthyism in it, especially in Bachmann’s remarks. But the Republican strategy of pitting rural whites against urban “elites” and minorities comes courtesy not of McCarthy, but rather of George Wallace, the Alabama governor—and racist demagogue—who ran for president in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Richard Nixon, who needed the votes of Southerners and middle-class Wallace voters outside the region in order to win the White House, brought that rhetoric into the mainstream of the Republican Party.

The ghost of George Wallace surfaced explicitly in this campaign when Congressman John Lewis suggested that violent outbursts at Palin’s rallies were reminiscent of the violence engendered by the Alabama governor. But the debate over the extent to which the antagonism at recent GOP events resembles the Klan violence Wallace inspired obscures the much more fundamental legacy McCain and Palin inherited from Wallace through Nixon. (Diane McWhorter touched on this larger legacy in a nice piece for Slate last week.)

Wallace’s 1968 campaign came within a hair’s breadth of denying Nixon victory, built on strong appeal to middle-class whites outside the South. His supporters were cast as “working men” with a tremendous “love of country,” while their adversaries were pointy-headed liberals, Washington bureaucrats, and elites who wanted to give welfare to African-Americans at the expense, they claimed, of hard-working whites.

The cultural showdown Nixon strategized was, like McCain/Palin’s incarnation of it, geographically coded: the black-allied elites were on the coasts, while “real Americans” were in the middle. And they were very definitely in the South, a region that many Americans were ashamed of just a few years earlier as scenes of horrific anti-black violence flooded their televisions. But anti-civil rights backlash spread to places like Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, and Detroit, and was made even more bitter by an economic squeeze on middle-class whites.

Nixon thus adopted an agenda, designed to appeal to angry whites, that included opposition to busing and a crackdown on “crime.” (Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage and Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies have terrific accounts of these developments.) And he started singing the virtues of a place newly named “Middle America.” Indeed, the very notion of a “middle America” that is “more American” than other parts of the country is an invention of Nixon’s divisive politics.

Of course, there have been reports that McCain himself vetoed efforts to revive the Jeremiah Wright candidacy because of his discomfort with racially divisive politics. But the history of the rhetoric his campaign is using rightly makes some observers queasy. Indeed, McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer got way too close for comfort when she recently described the “part of [Virginia] that’s more Southern in nature” as “the real Virginia,” echoing the demeaning remarks Senator George Allen made in 2006 to an Indian-American born in Northern Virginia. The appearance of racism, of course, helped to cost Allen his seat. It remains to be seen what it will cost the McCain campaign.

In the same column in which she decries the McCain campaign’s “real America” rhetoric as racially implicative, Rosa Brooks also rejects the notion that the “real America” looks like the one the Republicans mythologize. “About 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas, not small towns,” she writes. “A third of us are ethnic and racial minorities, but that’s changing: Already, nearly 45% of children under 5 are minorities…. That’s the real America: a land of change and perpetual renewal. Let’s stand up for it.”

Nicholas Kristof echoes this sentiment by placing a potential Obama victory in an international context. He opens his New York Times column yesterday by relaying a conversation with a Chinese friend who is incredulous that a black person could be elected as a U.S. president, since she thought “blacks were janitors and laborers.” When Kristof explains that Obama will become president only if a lot of white people vote for him, she exclaims, “Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!”

But Kristof closes his column tentatively: “Look, Mr. Obama’s skin color is a bad reason to vote for him or against him. Substance should always trump symbolism.” But this week should have us asking: Given that the GOP is once again flirting with ugly symbolic politics, is it wrong for voters to embrace a “transformational” candidate who might help bring them to an end? Is it “all about race” if a voter factors what a candidate symbolizes into his or her voting decision? Is it as morally condemnable to select Obama because he represents an end to the legacy of slavery and segregation as it is for a voter to choose McCain in order to keep a black urbanite out of the White House?

For Rush Limbaugh and the writers of National Review, apparently the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” For the rest of us, history should make that answer a lot more complicated.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.