11/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain, Palin: Demonizing the Poor

Bill Ayers is a Terrorist.
ACORN is a terrorist.
Barack Obama is a...


John McCain's new "Who is Barack Obama" ad pushes the boundaries of American gutter politics to new lows, even beyond the infamous "swiftboating" of John Kerry four years ago.

The ad focuses on Obama's connections with ACORN in Chicago. The worried narrator tells us:

What did ACORN Chicago engage in? Bullying banks. Intimidation tactics. Disruption of business. ACORN forced banks to issue risky home loans. The same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we are in today.

This is so absurd it almost defies belief, but this is the garbage that McCain is shoveling, so let's see if we can take out some trash. ACORN is a national community organizing group that works with the very poor, and has been doing so since 1970. Organizing really poor people is difficult work, notoriously hard to sustain. ACORN is almost alone in staying at it. ACORN certainly has its critics, as does any organization that has been politically active for 38 years. But its track record is also impressive in many ways. ACORN is one of the very very few political resources the truly poor in America have.

Notice, for example, that Obama himself rarely talks about the poor. He talks about the middle class. Incessantly. After each debate the Obama campaign released a video noting that McCain had failed to address the middle class. Did either candidate even say the word "poor"? There were only two candidates in this election who actually talked about poor people: John Edwards and Mike Huckabee. But that is another story.

The idea that ACORN has victimized banks into making risky home loans and is therefore somehow responsible for the current financial crisis is something we might justifiably refer to as a big lie - a statement that is so extreme as to be beyond the bounds of rational discussion, and thus difficult to reply to in conventional political terms.

Who is at fault? THE POOR. Of course! They forced those nice bankers to write all those mortgages at usurious rates! Probably forced them into those golden parachutes as well. Bolsheviks all!

McCain, Obama, Palin, Biden, and virtually every other American politician have been speaking in the last weeks of how to protect Main Street from Wall Street. Now McCain would have us believe we need to protect "Wall Street from Skid Row!

Then the ad turns to allegations that ACORN engages in "massive voter fraud." And concludes by alleging that Obama is using "ACORN front groups" (note the Communist association).

Republican accusations of ACORN "voter fraud" have become standard fare in recent elections. The story behind this lie is this: ACORN hires people do to voter registration among the poor. This is in keeping with ACORN's general approach: they hire poor people to work with poor people. Those hired are paid for each registered voter. There is a temptation for the people doing the work to paid their lists with phony names to get a little extra meal money.

There is a legitimate basis for criticizing this practice, and some progressives have done so. But do keep in mind that there is overwhelming data that shows that the poor in the US vote in very low numbers. The barriers they face are many and diverse. (If you are interested in pursuing this, a good place to start is Piven and Cloward's book, "Why Americans Don't Vote").

ACORN is well aware of the potential downside of their approach, and tries to filter out phony registration forms. Often times, it has been ACORN itself who has identified the phony names and had them pulled from the voter rolls. But what happens when they miss some? The phony forms will most likely get tossed out. If they don't, there will be a phony name on the voting list that no one can vote under. No one will be able to show up at the poll and produce an ID showing that they are the phony person, living at the phony address, and vote. The only one cheated is ACORN, which ends up paying their activists for work they didn't do.

THERE IS NO "VOTER FRAUD" HERE. Certainly not "massive." Josh Marshall explains all this in detail on Talking Points Memo.

Where this leaves the realm of farce and enters the realm of actually dangerous is how this whole ACORN lie dovetails with the William Ayers lie - the idea being peddled relentlessly by Sarah Palin that Obama somehow has a secret, long and profound connection to Ayers and 1960s "terrorists." At first that was Palin's football, but in recent days McCain is playing this one too.

"Who is Barack Obama?" (McCain ad, McCain in person).
"This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America." (Sarah Palin)
"He's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." (Sarah Palin)

While we're at it, why not demonize those who work with the poor? Remember the Republican convention? "He's a community organizer!" (Sarah Palin)

Electorally, I don't think any of this is going to work. Maybe in a more typical political environment, but the global financial collapse we are in the midst of is hardly that. No, I think Palin and McCain are just digging themselves deeper into a hole. The problem will come after November 4, when a significant sector of Americans wakes up and believe,s actually believes, that their country is being taken over by terrorists! Socialists! UnAmericans! Poor people! This, I think, is quite dangerous.