Politics & Policy

Liberals Are Playing a Losing Game on Race

Nancy Pelosi
Some of them know their accusations are overstated, and their rhetoric could cost them politically.

Every day now, it seems, the given political argument descends into racial rhetoric. “I think race has something to do with [Republicans] not bringing up the immigration bill,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said this week. “I’ve heard them say to the Irish, ‘If it was just you, it would be easy.’” Later, her office had to admit she had heard no such thing and that her information came from unnamed Irish immigration activists. Oops.

Shouting “racism” in a crowded media has poisoned our political conversations and become a substitute for thought. Liberals hated such name-calling in the 1950s when some conservatives, such as the John Birch Society and other groups, smeared people they disagreed with as Communists. Now they can’t wait to label as racist conservatives such as Paul Ryan who point out (just as Democrats such as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and, yes, Barack Obama — have done) that poor cultural habits can play a role in perpetuating poverty in many inner cities.

#ad#Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine, is a staunch liberal but a thoughtful one. In a long essay in this week’s issue, he mournfully notes that race has “saturated” our political discourse: 

Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is both of these forms of paranoia are right.

Chait goes to great lengths to show a correlation between racial animus and conservatism, both historically and today. In some cases his arguments about some conservatives using “dog whistles” hold some water. At other times, his rhetorical bucket leaks everywhere: He assumes that welfare-state spending helps African Americans and so opposition to that spending is generally racial. But all too often welfare-state programs are obvious failures and the unintended consequence is a slowdown in social progress.

While conservatives will have disagreements with Chait’s article, the liberal criticism of it has been stinging. Joan Walsh, editor of Salon and an MSNBC contributor, calls his piece “poorly argued and slightly paranoid.”

She’s angry, for instance, that he points out how liberals fail to “acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power.” Chait notes that, for example, “MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation” built around racial “gotcha” moments. At its worst, the liberal use of racism as a political weapon, he says, has been used to support the claim that “any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism.” Chait admits that in the end this analysis “is completely insane. . . . Advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”

#page#His essay ends on a hopeful note for liberals, expressing the belief that a young generation of “liberals” will combine with a more diverse electorate to lower the racial temperature — because their coalition will have won politically. Indeed, “Democrats are reaping the benefits of our increased diversity,” Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics notes. “But,” he says, “they’re paying it back with an increasingly poor showing among whites.” It’s also quite possible the GOP can make inroads with Asians, as they are now over the issue of university quotas in California, or with business-oriented Hispanics as they climb the income ladder.

#ad#Chait isn’t the only liberal who is rethinking whether or not constant references to race in our political discourse are wise, even if only on practical grounds. A 2013 article in the journal Poetics by Sarah Sobieraj, a sociologist at Tufts University, and two of her colleagues, cited extensive research that found that it is because some conservatives fear being called racist that they gravitate to news outlets such as those of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and Glenn Beck. There they can get information assuring them such attacks are unfair.

Tom Jacobs of the liberal Pacific Standard summed up the Tufts findings thus: 

This research strongly suggests that labeling people as racists for their political views is counterproductive. Even if there is some truth there, admitting as much would destroy their self-image as well as their social standing. So that argument is a non-starter. All it does is drive people to the safe confines of friendly media, and help fuel the ongoing outrage machine.

That, in turn, generates more political donations, gives conservatives more grievance-driven talking points, and drives up their voter turnout.

Other liberal pundits agree. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones acknowledged that “it’s also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive.” 

In other words, labeling Paul Ryan as a racist for his remarks on inner cities or John Boehner as racist for delaying an immigration debate may make liberals feel virtuous, but it doesn’t get them very far politically. In the short term, at least, it hardens their conservative opponents and drives up the turnout that could cost them dearly at the polls in November.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.

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