08/27/2012 08:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2012

Republicans Again Use Race, and It's Our Fault That It Still Works

Since forever, the Republican message has been, "Dems take your money and give it to black people." Doesn't change. Doesn't have to. It's our fault.

Since Forever

I am not young. I remember when Nixon campaigned with his racially divisive "Southern Strategy." Nixon campaigned on "crime" (fear of black people) and on the claim that Dmeocrats take "your" money and give it to black people. It worked.

It worked for Reagan, too, when he talked about "welfare queens" and "welfare Cadillacs." Here is part of a Reagan campaign stump speech:

She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.

(Please read what Terrance Heath has to say about welfare queens in "Romney and Ryan: The Right Kind of 'Welfare Queens'.")

H. W. Bush used the infamous Willie Horton ad. Watch it with the sound off.

Bush II beat back John McCain in the primaries by circulating stories that he had "fathered a black child" and perpetuating fear of "terrorists." (But correct me if I'm wrong, Bush II didn't appear to use race against Gore, instead preempting potential attacks on his own character and honesty by hammering Gore's "character" and making him out to be a liar -- both with the help of the media. His later use of "terrorists" [brown people] is another story entirely...)


So I'm going to go way out on a limb here. I predict that Republicans will use race and other terribly divisive tactics to distract us from the real situation: the draining of the wealth of 99 percent of us and the country for the benefit of an already-wealthy few -- in the 2014 campaign, the 2016 campaign, the 2018 campaign, the 2020 campaign, and every campaign after that. They will say that "Democrats take your money and give it to black people." They will campaign against "union thugs" and "union bosses" and say paying fair wages "hurts business" and we need to be more "business-friendly." They will say "government takes money out of the economy," and that helping each other "makes people dependent." They will say "cutting taxes increases government revenue." They will say a lot of nonsense, and their policies, when enacted, will always, always benefit an already-wealthy few at the expense of the rest of us, our economy, our country, and our planet.

They will say all kinds of stuff to keep We the People from seeing what is in front of our faces.

That is who they are, and that is what they do.

Unless we do something about it.

Look Where We Are, and Look at What Romney Is Doing

Look where we are: Deregulation pretty much destroyed the economy. Tax cuts have partially defunded the government's ability to empower and protect We the People. The 1 percent and their giant corporations get so much of the benefits of our economy now. The climate is obviously getting worse and worse, already risking crop failures, incredible heat waves, and terribly destructive storms. And with all this going on, one party blocks efforts to improve things so that they can campaign saying nothing is getting done. Yet with all that going on, so far the election is all coming down to billionaires spending hundreds of millions to run ads that say Obama is taking your money and giving it to black people.

Look what Romney is doing! He is running ads that come pretty close to the "welfare queen" messaging, pretty much saying that Democrats take your money and give it to black people. He is running ads about Medicare that pretty much say the same thing. And now he is even going "birther." Thomas Edsall explains today in The New York Times, in "Making the Election About Race":

The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.

... The racial overtones of Romney's welfare ads are relatively explicit. Romney's Medicare ads are a bit more subtle. ... Obamacare, described in the Romney ad as a "massive new government program that is not for you," would provide health coverage to a population of over 30 million that is not currently insured: 16.3 percent of this population is black; 30.7 percent is Hispanic; 5.2 percent is Asian-American; and 46.3 percent (less than half) is made up of non-Hispanic whites.

... The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of "blowing the dog whistle of racism" -- resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.

Once again, Republicans are saying, "Democrats take your money and give it to black people."

And just like they do every time it works, they take our money and give it to rich people instead.

It's Our Fault

Here's the thing: This is our fault. Fool me once, shame on you. We were fooled once, when Nixon did it, so shame on Nixon. But we were fooled a second time when Reagan did it. We were fooled again and again, and apparently we never caught on that this is what they do.

And if this is what they do, shouldn't we have taken steps after maybe the fifth or sixth or seventh or eighth time? This is our fault.

Why are Republicans still able to use race in their campaigns to deflect attention from their ongoing campaign to turn the wealth and management of our country over to the 1 percent? Because we have not organized ourselves to reach out to regular people around the country and help them understand what is happening to them. Instead we (progressives) have largely focused our energy on changing things through elections. But we have not done the hard work between elections to set the stage for elections. We have not been very good at reaching out to tens and tens of millions of regular people and helping them understand and appreciate how a progressive approach to solving our problems would benefit them.

I mean, a lot of us do get this and try. This is a big part of what Campaign for America's Future does -- or tries to do with the very limited resources it has. But a real national, between-elections, ongoing, decades-long campaign takes real resources, facilities, coordination, supplies, management, researchers, writers, talkers, technologists, and the rest. And that takes real money, the kind of money conservatives have been willing to put into such and such effort, and progressives have not.

Let's Finally Do Something About It

When are we going to recognize that this is what they do, and do something about it? They use race. They divide us. They make shit up and spend millions and millions on blasting their made-up shit into people's brains. Then they enrich the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us and use part of that to do it more. This is what they do. And very little is done to counter it. (Some say the problem is that "democracy does not have an advertising budget.")

What if we had started four years ago to get ready for this campaign of lies and division, knowing full well that they were going to use race and lies and the rest against We the People? What if we had started then to reach and educate millions and millions of working people, bring them together, help them see the bigger picture? What if we had reached out to millions of disaffected white voters and explained directly to them, in language that reaches them, with stories that resonate with them, so that they would be ready for it when they are told, "Democrats take your money and give it to black people," why believing it hurts them?

What if we did this between elections, and kept doing it after elections, and explained and reinforced the concepts of democracy so that people's understanding and appreciation of democracy and what it really means increased year after year after year?

What if we had started doing this eight years ago? Twelve years ago? After Nixon's election? What if we had started to dedicate a percentage of progressive-aligned funding and organizing toward a centrally organized, well-funded campaign of reaching regular people and explaining the harm conservatives are doing, and the benefits to them of democracy and a We-the-People approach to our mutual problems?

How well would their campaign of racism and lies and division work if we had done that? How well will it work if we do it?

What would it have done for the goals of environmentalists if we had put serious money into a coordinated, values-based approach that helped people understand and appreciate the meaning and benefits to them of truly honoring We-the-People, we-are-in-this-together democracy over the prevailing corporate/conservative, Randian, you-should-be-on-your-own ideology?

What would it have done for the goals of labor unions if we had used this approach?

What would it have done for the goals of consumer attorneys if we had used this approach?

What would it have done for the goals of Medicare-for-all advocates if we had used this approach?

And what could it do for all of these if we started today?

A Fight-Back Strategy

Research & Development, and Action: What we need is a major, coordinated, funded, national project dedicated to researching the ways the 1 percent manipulate us, and developing strategics for overcoming them. This project also needs a national action arm that takes the research and strategies out to the country and continues this work for as long as it takes.

Just think about this; think about changing your orientation from election-cycle to outside-the election-cycle, ongoing, as-long-as-it-takes strategies. And mostly, please help and continue to help fund organizations that work outside elections to help make these changes, so that progressive candidates and policy initiatives have fertile ground in which to do well!

Of course, this kind of work is a big part of what Campaign for America's Future does -- or tries to do with the very limited resources it has. And this is not self-promotion; there are a number of other organizations that are seriously working on this kind of approach: the Center for American Progress, the National Council of La Raza, the Economic Policy Institute, Media Matters, the Center for Community Change, Progressive Congress, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, People for the American Way, and so many other organizations that are working in their own way to help. (I'll add them as they read this and write to yell at me for leaving them out.)

There is a (somewhat out-of-date) page on funding progressive infrastructure here and a (somewhat out-of-date) list of progressive infrastructure organizations here.

We really need for progressives to understand this need, and the difference between this and election campaign contributions. Think about it and help spread the word. Help fund it, and help others understand this need. We can beat back the conservative machine by building a machine of our own that is strong enough to do the job. This takes money.

And to keep that machine answerable to us, we have to fund it democratically, with each of us stepping up and contributing what we can. It has to be lots of people giving small and medium amounts, not depending on a few large donors. Any organization or candidate is going to dance with the ones that brung 'em, so we have to bring them to the dance together.


A dollar donated to an effort like this now is like a dollar donated again and again to each and every progressive issue campaign and candidate from now on, except that the dollar is amplified. This is because doing the work now makes elections and policy battles so much easier and less expensive.

Conservatives have developed a "brand," and their candidates and policy initiatives ride that brand like a surfer surfs a wave. They just hop on the wave and attach themselves or their issue. So much of the things we have to spend so much money on are already covered by their infrastructure of like-minded organizations, so for each candidate and policy initiative they have to spend so much less! All of their candidates are helped by the central branding effort.

Progressive-oriented candidates and policy initiatives start almost from scratch, and so it is tremendously expensive to get them elected or passed. We have to raise tremendous sums to do the things that conservatives have ready to go. And each of our candidates has to raise that money, on their own, just to overcome the things conservatives already have in place -- for all of them. One dollar spent on a core branding effort could have the same effect for all of our candidates and policy initiatives as the more-than-one-dollar spent for each candidate or policy initiative at election time to overcome it.

So help out, OK?

P.S. Here is a talk I gave on this subject in 2004, titled "On Our Own?" that talked about how the corporate right works between elections to market their ideology, and suggesting that we should try a similar outside-the-election-cycle approach.

Here is a talk I gave to an education organization in 2007, titled "We're All in This Together," that described how the right uses the Overton Window to move public attitudes:

What can we, as supporters of public education, do about this?

The supporters of public education must join with their natural allies -- the trial lawyers and the environmentalists and reproductive rights organizations and others and begin to talk to the public with a COMMON message that says WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER because we are a COMMUNITY. Only after people come to understand and appreciate this philosophy of community again, will they begin to understand and appreciate the value of public schools.

... The Right pushes an ugly message that we are each on our own, out for ourselves to get what we can, in a dog-eat-dog world. But in truth, we are really ARE all in this together, not only as being on the receiving end of similar attacks, but also because we can work together to help each other. We can work to counter the Right's message by restoring the public's understanding and appreciation of COMMUNITY and the value of responsible government.

How can we do this?

As I'm sure you know, frame and message development and testing are complex and require skilled professionals. Messaging efforts on behalf of public education will have the greatest effect if linked to broad frames that are developed across sectors, frames that support the value of community and government. And the messaging that supports these values will be most effective if it is delivered by multiple voices, third-party voices that are not strongly identified with public education and other interest groups. It must be coordinated with a long-term strategy.

A version of this post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF.

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