Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Depth of Karl Rove's Contempt for Conservatives

Talking Points Memo flags a Karl Rove piece for baiting Barack Obama with racial stereotypes in referring to Obama as "lazy" and as "trash-talking" while playing "pick-up basketball in Harvard Yard." A lot of conservative commentators are experimenting with ways to tar (as in "tar and feather") Obama with racial stereotypes while making a token effort to appear color-blind. Jonah Goldberg vaguely suggests that "certain segments of American political life will become completely unhinged" if Obama loses. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and Michelle Malkin were quick to agree. Of course, everybody in his conservative audience knows that Goldberg means African-Americans. However, Goldberg can still hide behind the fig leaf of his calculated vagueness to deny any racial meaning to his insinuation.

The question for Goldberg and other right-wingers as they think about how to demagogue Obama is which racial insinuation or combination of racial insinuations is going to work to push undecided voters to vote against Obama because he's black. There are some voters (my mom for instance) who would absolutely refuse to vote for Obama because he's black. But there are millions of white voters who might hold Obama's blackness against him but would have concerns about the war, the economy, religion, Bush administration incompetence, and other issues. One of the things that makes undecided voters undecided is that they haven't figured out which of these concerns would have priority when they make their voting decisions in November. In their efforts to "help" undecided independents and weak Republicans come to a Republican vote, conservatives are trying to make Obama's blackness more visible as a factor in voting against Obama.

As a conservative commentator, Karl Rove works at much greater cultural depth than Goldberg's straight-forward appeal to stereotypes of African-Americans as a violent group. Of course, Rove wouldn't mind if his own employment of stereotypes stimulated his readers to think poorly of Obama in a straight-forward way. But it's even more important for Rove to get black activists and white liberals to respond by complaining about his racism, being "outraged," and demanding "apologies." Rove's right-wing and conservative-leaning readers may have a "general" sense of racial hostility toward blacks, but nothing kicks in their identification as conservatives more than watching Al Sharpton or Chuck Shumer criticize racism on television. White liberals generally don't understand the extent to which Karl Rove and Ann Coulter manipulate liberals into helping them lock in their political identification of conservatives. Even if everyday conservatives only have a vague unease about Obama because he's African-American, they'll start being contemptuous if conservative propogandists can effectively associate Obama with the civil rights activists and liberals they really hate.

This is why Rove placed his Obama "trash-talking" in Harvard Yard and why Rove emphasizes that Obama won the college towns and "white wine drinkers" of New Hampshire. Rove wants to associate Obama with the "liberal elites" which the right-wing associates with Harvard, white wine, lattes, and bri. In racial terms, Rove is stereotyping Obama as the kind of ambitious, upwardly mobile, black person who social conservatives have particularly distrusted ever since the end of slavery. But once again, Rove isn't stopping there. He's also associating Obama with his stereotypes of white liberals as a way to reinforce and lock in conservative antipathy to Obama's candidacy.

This is a point where it is interesting to ask whether people like Goldberg, Reynolds, Malkin, and Rove are racist or not. Focusing on Rove for a second, I personally would have more respect for Rove if he were a racist. If Rove were a racist, he would be operating at some level of repugnant honesty in his insinuations concerning Obama and black people in general. In this sense, Rove's comments about Obama's "laziness" and "trash-talking" would be ways to convince conservatives of racial views that Rove himself holds. People like Trent Lott, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh would be "honest racists" in this way.

But, say Rove is not a racist. Then, his target of his contempt would be conservatives rather than black people. Like any swindler or con artist, Rove would be viewing conservatives as "marks"--as stupid, naive people who can be easily manipulated into doing Rove's will if he plays with their cultural stereotypes. If Rove is not a racist, he would be a con artist in racial stereotypes instead, someone working to serve big money interests by manipulating his targets into voting Republican on racial grounds. It's worth repeating that Rove doesn't have to be a racist to practice the politics of racism any more than he has to be homophobic to engage in the politics of homophobia. Instead, he might view "race" as a set of cultural symbols that he can use to manipulate large sets of voters into voting for conservative Republicans. Of course, Rove would be even more of an enemy of racial equality and reconciliation if he treats "race" as a business rather than a belief. But the primary target of Rove's disgust and contempt would not be black people, it would be the conservatives he's manipulating. Obviously, Rove also has a low opinion of the white liberals and civil rights leadership he wants to "enrage." He finds them, or us, easy to manipulate. But he would have a special contempt for the conservatives he's jerking around. He must really hate them and get some sort of sick pleasure out of moving their emotions around like they are pawns on a chess board.

Obviously, I don't have a window into the soul of Karl Rove. Who would really want that? But my sense from his op-ed writing is that Rove is much more of an entrepreneur in the politics of racism than a racist himself. I think this would also be the same with Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Reynolds as well. In this way they would be honest when they say they're not racists. To the contrary, the people who really disgust Rove and the right-wing demagogues are the conservatives they're in the business of manipulating.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"A series of comments from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, her husband and her supporters are spurring a racial backlash and adding a divisive edge to the presidential primary as the candidates head south to heavily African-American South Carolina."

So Hillary believes she can use race as a wedge issue in South Carolina. Outrage?