Like most multi-authored, focus-group tested strings of talking points, Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech had its share of good lines and clinkers. “The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the moon made permanent impressions on OUR souls and in our national psyche,” was one of its awkwarder moments. “When the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American” made for a much livelier, if not altogether grammatical, sound bite.
And yet it was inevitable that words that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a speech from a candidate of either party would be deconstructed as racist dog whistles. “That was below the belt…a bone thrown to the birthers out there,” MSNBC’s Ed Schultz complained. For that, Romney has no one to blame but himself.
Not only did he fail to repudiate his surrogates when they impugned Obama’s American bonafides, he alluded darkly to the president’s “very strange and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy” on numerous occasions himself during his long road to the nomination.
After the convention, Romney added super-charged Christianism to his severely conservative repertoire, sharing a platform with Pat Robertson and vowing that “I will not take God out of our platform…I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart”—for all the world as if Obama was bragging that he’d done all three. In his haste to lay the onus for the attacks on the Egyptian and Libyan embassies on Obama, he made himself sound like an Islamophobe–and worse still, like someone who believes that religious tolerance is not an American value, or at least not one worth talking about abroad. If anyone believed that Romney ever sought to be the president of all Americans, the videotapes that were secretly recorded in Boca Raton dispelled that illusion.
With Paul Ryan on his ticket, endorsements from powerful Evangelicalist allies, and a Koch and Adelson-funded ad blitz that obliquely but unmistakably accuses Obama of redistributing the nation’s wealth to undeserving minorities, Romney’s long-awaited Etch-a-Sketch moment, when he would reposition himself to appeal to undecided centrists, has come and gone. Instead, he is seemingly staking everything on the hope that enough white native-born Americans are as angry and alienated as he is. A lot of them are, but unfortunately for him, many of them blame people like him–wheelers and dealers in private equities, fat cats who shelter millions in Swiss and Cayman Island banks and get all kinds of other breaks on their taxes–for their problems. Beyond Guns and God, the Public Religion Research Institute report on white working class voters, makes for eye-opening reading. White working class Americans, for example, are no more likely “than white college-educated Americans….to say they consider themselves part of the Tea Party.”
And there’s this: “Low-income white working-class Americans and white working-class Americans who have received food stamps within the last two years were significantly less likely to support Romney, whose economic plan would reduce funding for government programs like food stamps.”
•White working-class Americans are somewhat divided on abortion. Half (50%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 45% who say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
•While half (50%) of white working-class Americans are opposed to allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, more than 4-in-10 (43%) favor same-sex marriage.
•Only 1-in-20 white working-class Americans say that either abortion (3%) or same-sex marriage (2%) is the most important issue to their vote. By contrast, a majority (53%) of white working-class Americans say the economy is their most important voting issue.
The above chart, which I pulled from Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, breaks down the two candidates’ white working class support geographically.
It’s ironic. A year ago, I sat in the National Press Club in Washington, DC as the white separatist National Policy Institute heralded the release of its newest paper, “The Majority Strategy: Why the GOP Must Win White America.” Its gist was that the Republican Party is already “effectively the White People’s Party.” If the GOP wants to win in 2012, it said, it needs to “reach in” to its majority base rather than “reach out” to minorities. I suspect the report’s authors have been as flabbergasted as I am to see how closely the GOP is hewing to their script. And I suspect that the Republicans are even more astounded that their scheme seems to be going so badly awry. “Seems” of course, is very much to the point. There are three debates yet to come, not to mention a month and a week of 24/7 news. A lot can happen. But for now, at least, it looks like Romney is flailing.
In The New Hate, I wrote about the role that the politics of hatred have played throughout the whole span of American history–from the Illuminati scare of 1798 to nativist Know Nothings, from anti-Papist and anti-Semitic populists in the 1890s to states rights segregationists in the ’50s and ’60s and anti-Jihadists today. Many politicians are tactical haters; they leverage the far rights’ most inflammatory memes when they’re campaigning but swiftly go back to their real business of protecting their donors’ interests once they’re safely elected. Still, their hypocrisy hardly mitigates their potential to do harm. Taking the long view as I do–and looking at the depth of Romney’s support in the South–I can’t but see in today’s hyper-polarized politics a reflection of divides that have existed in America since its inception—and that almost a century and a half after our Civil War, still threaten to break us apart, along some of the exact same geographic fault lines.
The authors of our Constitution, and especially its Bill of Rights, were creatures of the Enlightenment; they placed reason above revelation. But not all Americans—and not all Americanists—see the world as they did. “The President of the United States and his leftist minions” have been “undermining the pillars of American exceptionalism, attempting to bring down the shining city on the hill,” Representative Steve King thundered from the dais at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC on September 14. “But I know this,” he vowed. “We’re going to serve God and country, in that order.” In many ways, the election will tell us whether we are a secular or a Bible-based state—and whether e pluribus unum refers to everyone or just to white heterosexual Christian males.
In my darker moments, I worry that extremists have already co-opted so much of our national agenda that we’re all going to be losers anyway, no matter who wins in November. But when I realize how much hope they’ve vested in Barack Obama’s defeat, and how crushed and broken they’d be if he prevails–and when I allow myself to imagine that the fonts of resentment and irrationality might even be running dry in some critical precincts–I confess I do allow myself a tiny scintilla of hope.
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