The Party of Race

John Judis writes:

I mention the Bradley effect because I think, too, that McCain and Sarah Palin’s attack against Obama for advocating “spreading the wealth” and for “socialism” and for pronouncing the civil rights revolution a “tragedy” because it didn’t deal with the distribution of wealth is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe “spreading the wealth” as giving their money to blacks. It’s the latest version of Reagan’s “welfare queen” argument from 1980. It if it works, it won’t be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them. I don’t doubt that this argument will have some effect, but I suspect it’s too late and that worries about McCain and Republican handling of the economy will overshadow these concerns.

Ross Douthat replies:

I’m sure I’m displaying my immense naivete about the sinister machinations of Steve Schmidt and company here, but if I had John McCain’s disposable income I’d happily put up tens of thousands of dollars betting that the “don’t let Obama spread your wealth to shiftless blacks” ploy that Judis is describing has not once been a topic of conversation in any McCain strategy session throughout the whole “Joe the Plumber” phase of the campaign. (Though maybe it’s such a subtle strategy that even the strategists themselves don’t realize they’re employing it!)

Moreover, under the standard Judis is using, it seems as though any attack a conservative could possibly launch on a black Democrat’s liberalism is racially-charged by definition. Seriously – is there any attack McCain could launch against Obama at this point, whether policy-driven or personal, that couldn‘t be read, in some tortured fashion, as a racist appeal?

Well, obviously you could read just about anything as a coded racist appeal. And I think a case could be made that you’d be right to. The simple fact of the matter is that the politics of economic conservatism in the United States have a lot to do with the politics of race. I always think it’s worth recalling the practical constituency for libertarian economic policies as seen in the 1964 elections:


Now that’s not to say that the politics of American conservatism are exclusively about race. Lots and lots of people in places like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, etc. where there were no racial tensions in 1964 (no black people in those states) voted for Barry Goldwater. It just wasn’t a majority. And next week lots of people are going to vote for John McCain because they believe his opponent favors the murder of innocent unborn children, whereas a President McCain could plausibly appoint Supreme Court justices who would dramatically curtail said slaughter. There are lots of things in play. But voting behavior is very tied up with race and with attitudes about race even when it’s two white candidates facing off against each other.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a black candidate. And the crucial phrase in Judis’ argument is “if it works.” If McCain’s strategy works, he’s saying, it’ll be not because Americans are opposed to progressive income taxation or because Americans think refundable tax credits are welfare. It’ll be — if it works! — because Americans fear that Obama will take their money and give it to black people. But most likely it won’t work.