01/16/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2012

Why Are GOP Contenders Reviving Racist Rhetoric?

As Gary Younge points out in this week's Nation, racism in GOP campaign rhetoric has returned with a pungency we haven't seen for decades. In Iowa two weeks ago Rick Santorum stated that he didn't "want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money." Soon after, Gingrich one-upped him on the trail in New Hampshire by declaring his bold intention to "go to the NAACP convention and explain to the African-American community why they should demand paychecks... [instead of] food stamps."

Far from having advanced toward a postracial society, we appear to be heading back to what we might call the era of high racism in the Republican Party -- the time period, say, from Goldwater to Atwater. In recent decades prominent Republicans sought to distance themselves from the racial legacy of the party. As historian Gary Gerstle has shown, George W. Bush was personally committed to his own vision of multiculturalism and racial reconciliation, and Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman apologized to the NAACP for the very Southern Strategy that brought conservatives to national power. Condi Rice meanwhile sought to justify the Iraq War by associating it with the American Civil Rights Movement.To be sure the policies pursued by Republicans (and Democrats as well) in the last two decades have been disastrous for Black and Latino communities, but race was deployed less openly as a political identification than it had for Republicans in prior decades.

Why then are national Republicans returning to overt racial demonization on the campaign trail in 2012? In the context of the Great Recession, Republican contenders have a tough time peddling the salutary effects of the free market. With Americans across demographic categories suffering its results, optimistic appeals to the promise of social mobility fall on increasingly deaf ears. Arguments in favor of Republican-inspired policies require extra force -- a potent narrative that depicts choices starkly between freedom and submission. In this context, the battle has been defined as the state versus the market, with the state associated with a black president depicted as dangerous socialist. The extraordinarily pro-Wall Street sympathies of Obama matter little here, because the narrative is emplotted through familiar themes that have been rearranged and enhanced.

In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, conservative rhetoric consistently depicted an unholy alliance of invasive state elites above and criminal, parasitic blacks below against a virtuous middle of hardworking white Americans. This was the language of Goldwaterites, of Nixon, and of Reagan. As a black Democratic president Obama represents both of these poles- - a nightmare of the modern Right imaginary that has played a major part in the emergence of the Tea Party. As I have argued elsewhere, the last significant instance of the Right's deployment of a menacing black face for political purposes was Lee Atwater's use of convicted rapist "Willie" Horton. There as here, blackness was linked to criminality to discredit a Democratic opponent. The difference is that in the 1988 Bush campaign "liberalism" was meant to evoke fears of a white president, unleashing black criminals on a vulnerable nation. For the contemporary Right, "socialism" is meant to evoke fears of a black president unleashing a criminal state on a vulnerable nation. In the former, the state enabled unchecked black aggression, whereas in the latter blackness enables unchecked state aggression.

Republican contenders realize that they have little to gain in attempting to appeal to either black or racially moderate white voters. As political scientists Michael Tesler and David O. Sears demonstrated in their book Obama's Race, the 2008 election more severely polarized the electorate in terms of racial attitudes than any presidential election on record. And as GOP strategists well know, this polarization has only intensified in the intervening years. Republican campaigns, cognizant of the white racial unease to be harvested among GOP caucus and primary voters, and requiring greater justification for their antiregulatory, anti-tax, and anti-spending policies, will continue to avail themselves of a rhetoric that racializes poverty and ties it to the specter of a menacing state.