I finally read the Jonathan Chait race piece you’ve all been complaining about. I agree, it was stupid. It’s a both-sides-do-it take on racial polarization in American politics that Elias Isquith nails:
This conceit is baked into the entire piece, but it’s most obvious when Chait writes about Lee Atwater’s infamous quote about how conservative politicians went from shouting disgusting racial slurs in the 1950s to abstract talk of tax cuts in the 1980s not because they realized white supremacy was wrong but because they knew that changing social norms would make running a winning campaign on explicit racism impossible. Liberals sometimes lean a bit too much on the Atwater quote; it’s becoming a bit of a cliché to see it in a lefty’s treatise on conservative racism; but it’s widely passed around not only because it’s damning to hear one of the chief GOP operatives of his time cop to relying on racism to win votes but also because it explains the way racial resentment has been subsumed into right-wing economics. Chait mostly affirms such an interpretation of Atwater’s remarks, and yet, because he’s writing a piece from high on the mountaintop, intended to explain to those blinded by ideology on both sides what’s really going on, he ends up writing one of the most regrettable couple of sentences I’ve ever read. “Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be,” he says, “it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”
Here’s the standard liberal blogger story (the one I believe, at least) of the last 40 years of American politics: Republicans used southern white opposition to civil rights to gain power and then used this power to make our Galtians richer and more powerful. So no, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist and that’s exactly why Republicans had to use dog whistles to get voters to support tax cuts for the rich. If tax cuts for the rich were explicitly racist, they would have already been popular and no dog whistles would have been necessary.
Isquith goes on to tie Chait’s article in with Jay Rosen’s idea of establishment journalism’s View from Nowhere, “a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer”. I think that’s right. And viewlessness is particularly useless when it comes to analyzing politics. It ain’t beanbag and tut-tutting at both sides neither informs the reader nor chastens either side. Moreover, political messages are heavily coded, and taking them at open-minded context-free face value is futile at best.
Most readers of New York magazine, where Chait’s article appeared, vote Democrat. And the same is true of most other media purveyors of view-from-nowhere “both sides do it” nonsense. Too many liberals like the idea of considering both sides, of thinking that you can win arguments and elections with fair-minded rhetoric and “objective facts”.
Update. A good description of Atwater’s quote from different-church-lady:
Which also speaks to the heart behind Atwater’s quote — there’s a clear sense of “Hey, I may not be racist, but if leveraging the racism that’s out there is going to get us elected then that’s just how it is.”
When you hear the actual audio of that interview, what’s chilling is how technical he’s being — he’s just discussing how the game is played with the same kind of intellectual isolation of a football coach discussing the choice between the 3-4 or the 4-3 defense. Racism is just another X on chalkboard that you can run patterns with.