Friday, August 13, 2010

Summarizing the Howler on Democrats and race

Since I've been writing a fair amount on the topic, I thought I would recap my understanding of Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby's position of late on the topic of race in American politics.

Somerby's outlook as expressed in his writing is heavily reminiscent of the press conventional wisdom about race and American politics circa 1992. That view assumed that white voters' fear and/or hostility to minorities, especially African-Americans, was fatally damaging the Democratic Party's electoral prospects. And that to reverse that trend, the Democrats at a minimum would have to distance themselves from black and Latino "special interest groups." It was a deeply flawed understanding of the realities of 1992. It's even less realistic in 2010.

Somerby in his 08/11/2010 column makes the remarkable admission that he basically doesn't know how to perceive racism and finds it a not very useful concept. If we take his word for it, one has to ask why he bothers to talk about race at all.

I can't see his position there as anything but disingenuous, if not downright cynical. Race and racism, especially white racism, are very real factors in American life and politics. Pollsters and social scientists find it challenging to identify racism in voting patterns. But "challenging" does not mean impossible and there has been a lot of valuable work done in that field. Somerby's postracial epistemology gives him an excuse to dismiss all of it: if racism isn't a valid category for understanding the behavior of American voters or politicians at all, any survey results exploring its effects are by definition meaningless.

Somerby's often-bitter polemics on the topic of race focus heavily on attacking liberals for criticizing what they understand to be manifestations of white racism among Republicans and conservatives. In this, he mirrors the attacks made by conservatives, even though Somerby packages them in "concern troll" trappings.

One of the most disturbing trends in American politics today is the increasing "mainstreaming" of ideas, claims and attitudes from hardcore far-right groups of the Patriot Militia variety.

And whether Somerby cares to recognize it or not, the Christian Right is a major influence in the Republican Party. These groups are not only pushing theocratic notions and weird conspiracy theories; some of them are inciting violence and promoting white racism and anti-Latino xenophobia. But these groups also use what to most people is quirky language. Without understanding something about their particular political vocabulary, you can't understand what they are promoting. For instance, when hardcore Christianists denounce the Dred Scott decision, if you think they are expressing anti-racist sentiments, you likely have completely missed their meaning. Somerby appears to be clueless about this whole very real aspect of American politics and today's Republican Party.

I'll give a few links here to a few of the more memorable work I've come across in recent times on white racism in American politics:

  • Nicholas Valentino and David Sears, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South" American Journal of Political Science 49:3 (July 2005). They concluded that what pretty much everyone involved with politics assumes is actually demonstrably true: that appeals to white racism among Southern white voters played a decisive role in the shift of national voting patterns to the Republican Party since the mid-1970s. More than one conclusion for Democratic Party strategy might be drawn from this. The notion that Democrats can simply not talk about white racism while the Republicans beat them over the head with it is not a reasonable one.
  • Spencer Piston, Political Behavior Online, "How Explicit Racial Prejudice Hurt Obama in the 2008 Election" 02/23/2010. Piston's conclusions could be used to make an argument for the Democrats downplaying race-related issues. But it's one of many examples of how racial prejudice in voting behavior can be studied. And a more reasonable application of his findings for Democrats would be that it's to their political advantage to stigmatize white racism and associate it with Republican-style Predator State governance.
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