BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company, more from Ian Haney López on “Dog Whistle Politics.”
STRONG>IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Democrats have understood, even as early as 1970, race was going to be an effective wedge issue against them. And when the Democrats responded, they responded not by contesting that politics, but instead by embracing it. And this is part of the story of dog whistle politics. Republicans shift right and the Democrats have tracked rightward, following them. STRONG>ANNOUNCER:
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. We’re back with the scholar Ian Haney López talking about his important new book, “Dog Whistle Politics.” Last week he told us that racism is still very much a part of our society.
But more often than not today, it hides behind code words, with messages that manipulate deep prejudice to rouse hostility against minorities and the government and summon support for policies that make economic inequality even worse. This “racist strategy,” as López calls it, favors a devious plutocracy that bankrolls the dog whistlers and destroys everyone else beneath, no matter the color of their skin. Here’s some of what he said last time:
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Dog whistle politics doesn't come out of animus at all. It doesn't come out of some desire to hurt minorities. It comes out of a desire to win votes. And in that sense, I want to start using the term strategic racism. It's racism as a strategy. It's cold, it's calculating, it's considered, it's the decision to achieve one's one ends, here winning votes, by stirring racial animosity.
And here's a hard, difficult truth. Most racists are good people. They're not sick. They're not ruled by anger or raw emotion or hatred. They are complicated people reared in complicated societies. They're fully capable of generosity, of empathy, of real kindness. But because of the idea systems in which they're reared, they're also capable of dehumanizing others and occasionally of brutal violence. And that's an important truth. Most people are not racists out of some sort of a sickness of the soul. They're racist because of the society in which they operate.
BILL MOYERS: Ian Haney López is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the think tank Demos. Welcome back.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Thank you, I’m very glad to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Here we are, early in 2014, heading toward an election where every member of the House of Representatives will be elected, one-third of the Senate, and scores of governors. Can you hear the dog whistle even as we speak for this election?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: You absolutely hear the dog whistle. And I think the one that's getting the most attention, is food stamps. Why all the agitation around food stamps? For goodness sake, people are hungry. We're in the midst of a recession. There hasn't been a recovery for the broad middle. Why would we cut off stamps now?
We cut off food stamps because it's part of this old rhetoric that food stamps is for undeserving minorities, and that this is part of a symbol of government gone amok. That's one of the minor dog whistles. Here's the major one. ObamaCare. Ostensibly, this is about healthcare. But really, it's about Obama and government policy.
Now, Obama himself has been subject to a lot of dog whistling, that he's foreign born, not a citizen, a Muslim. What's happening with the term ObamaCare is all of these insinuations are being attached to a government policy. The most recent one: ObamaCare makes you lazy. Right? Now, ostensibly, this is because if you finally have health insurance, maybe you don't have to work that second job. But conservatives have turned it around and said this is about making you lazy. And lazy, of course, is one of these racial code words for minorities. So, every time they talk about the Affordable Care Act, they're going to use that term ObamaCare. And the subtext is, here comes a black man who exemplifies the way in which the federal government is now by and for minorities. Don't trust the federal government. Don't let this into your household. Vote for politicians who promise to rein in the federal government. When in fact, what they're going to do is give more tax cuts to the very rich.
BILL MOYERS: So what are the stakes here?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: The Republicans have a real stake in proving that government can't work. They need voters to be hostile to federal government. To see government as the enemy. Because that's the only way voters will support politics that actually give control of government back over to big money.
BILL MOYERS: So the flawed startup played right into that idea?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: The flawed startup played into it.
BILL MOYERS: Government doesn't work. Liberal governments--
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: --can't do it.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: More than that--
BILL MOYERS: Can't deliver.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: More than that. Obama's incompetent. That had been a conservative frame for a long time. But it was absurd. It just didn't seem to match up with this cool, composed and sophisticated, incredibly competent individual. But as soon as the government startup fumbled, that racial stereotype of incompetence could be attached to Obama again. And here's the other one that was attached. Remember Joe Wilson, when he interrupted Obama, he says, "You lie."
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE WILSON: You lie.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Now, a lot of people said, well, that was a terrible breach of decorum. But very, but fewer people noted that's also an old stereotype, a stereotype of black mendacity, that you can't trust blacks, they're always lying and cheating and stealing.
Okay. That racial frame had very little traction, except after the startup. When it became one of the core themes that Republicans used to say, he promised you could keep your insurance, and now you've lost it. Obama lies. So these two old stereotypes of incompetence and of mendacity have been attached to Obama and have been attached to ObamaCare. So unfortunately, yes, the fumbled startup gave a lot of ammunition to this sort of dog whistling around Obama and the Affordable Care Act.
BILL MOYERS: What happens if you look at the tea party through the lens of dog whistling?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Two comments I want to say about this. First, I want to go back to this idea that most racists are good people. Because I think that this is incredibly important as we think about the tea party. Who are tea partiers? A lot of liberals have said terrible things about tea partiers, describing them as narrow-minded bigots, and whatnot. I think that's absurd. I think that tea partiers are, in a sense, they're us. They're our constituency. They’re Americans who are struggling, who are trying to figure what happened to their jobs, who are trying to figure out what to do about healthcare.
They're in trouble. They're really hurting like so many Americans. Now in order to understand what happened, the tea partiers have accepted the conservative line that what has happened in their lives is really the fault of minorities. So when you look at what animates the tea party, there are several different hatreds that are core to the tea party.
They hate welfare. Especially, or particularly welfare that's understood as going to minorities. Not social security, for instance, but rather food stamps. Next, they're obsessed about Muslims and Islam. And they really see this sort of threatening, this external threat in the form of the Middle East, but also ostensibly an internal threat of Muslims coming into the United States. For example, this is Kansas passing its law that there shan't be Sharia law in the courts of Kansas. Absurd, except that it triggers this racial fear. Next, they're deeply concerned about undocumented immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Finally, they hate President Obama. And Obama seems to combine both this sense of welfare, of being a Muslim, of being a brown foreign other, right?
So all of these fears that animate the tea party movement at the grassroots level, these are racial narratives. They're racial narratives that say to people, if you want to understand what went wrong in your life, if you want to understand what what went wrong in America, blame minorities.
BILL MOYERS: Sort of a bait-and-switch. You know, the issue's not really race, the issue is limited government.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Absolutely. So, think about what a lot of Republicans are actually doing in terms of their policies. In terms of their policies, they say they're for limited government. But in fact, what they're doing is giving over control of the regulatory state the corporations. They say they want to shrink the federal deficit, but in fact, they're spending massive amounts of money either in tax cuts for the very rich, or in big subsidies that go to corporations, for example the farm bill that was recently enacted.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Now, you can't get elected going to the American public and saying, I want to cut your funding for your schools, I want to cut funding for your social security, I want to cut your pensions. And I want to shower all that money on the very rich. You can't get elected that way.
But you can get elected going to the American public saying, we're in mortal danger as a country because something has gone terribly wrong with our society. We see it in religion, we see it around gender, we see it around abortion, we see it around same-sex marriage, and we certainly see it in terms of welfare and criminals and illegal aliens. That's the language that a very extreme wing of the conservative, of conservatives has been using to skew American politics, but also to take over the Republican party. Republicans from 30, 40 years ago, would not recognize what the party is today.
BILL MOYERS: It used to be that Democrats were the arch segregationists and racists and the dog whistlers and then that changed. And as you say, it’s no secret that since then Republicans have pandered on race in order to win votes.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: That’s right
BILL MOYERS: That’s the key to their strategy as you say –
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: That’s right. I mean, I think it’s important to understand-- so there’s another term for dog whistle politics, and that’s the Southern Strategy. That term was coined by a Republican Senator, Jacob Javitz from New York. And he coined it not to endorse it, but to condemn it. He said he saw what was happening with the Republican party in l963 and l964. And he says, you folks are pursuing a Southern Strategy. This is going to be disastrous for the party, it’s going to be disastrous for the country.
And indeed it has been. This use of race has allowed an extreme faction of conservatives, those most dedicated to the power of big money, to the power of corporations to not only hijack American democracy, but to hijack the Republican party. And that's what's so democratically destructive. We have a political party that is committed to gaining votes by increasing racial antagonism and racial fear.
BILL MOYERS: You write in your book that there was an important evolution in dog whistling under Democrats, including Bill Clinton. How so?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: So, Democrats have understood, they understood even as early as 1970, race was going to be an effective wedge issue against them. How did they decide to respond? Initally, they decided they’d just wait it out. They would distance themselves from minorities, they would try not to talk about race, and they thought that that would insulate them from these racially-provocative charges. That didn’t work. So then they decided they’d try something different. Rather than confront dog whistle politics, they thought they’d embrace it.
Now this isn't the same sort of egregious dog whistle politics of the Republicans. The Republicans early on realized that they could get elected with white votes alone and didn't feel a particular need to reach out to minorities. Democrats have a different sort of calculus. They look around and they say, we don't think minority voters have anywhere to go because the Republicans are so hostile to minority voters. So we can slap them down a little bit. We can demonize them a little bit. But as long as every so often we show that we value them, they'll continue to vote for us.
And so what you get under Democrats is a sort of moderated dog whistle politics. It's clearly trying to communicate to white voters, we too see minorities as a threat and we're going to protect you. And at the same time, it's saying to minorities, we value you and we want you to keep voting for us.
And so we see that in the person of Bill Clinton and his presidency. Yes, he distances himself from African Americans, for example, by criticizing Jesse Jackson. But even more, he embraces policies like ending welfare as we know it, or ramping up Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and converting it into a general war on crime that really played to dog whistle themes that said to white voters, hey, I'm a new Democrat. I too understand that minorities are a threat in your life because they're using welfare, and they're dangerous criminals and the state has been coddling them and we're going to crack down on them.
BILL MOYERS: But Ian, some people are going to respond by saying this is a monotone of theory here. That Bill Clinton was considered by many blacks to be the first black president. And they will also say, crime was a problem in the-- and not just black crime, but crime was a problem in the 70s and 80s. And you just can’t attribute all of that to race.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I don’t attribute all of it to race. But I want to but very clear. There aren't just two alternatives here, either it's all race or race has no effect whatsoever. In fact, what I'm saying is, yeah, there are complicated dynamics going on. But one of the central dynamics in American politics since the civil rights era, has been the use of cultural provocations-- primary among them race, but not exclusively --but the use of cultural provocations to try and advance a conservative agenda that favors tax cuts for the rich and that favors a deregulation of big industry.
In that context, Democrats had to decide how to respond. And when the Democrats responded, they responded not by contesting that politics, but instead by embracing it. And this is part of the story of dog whistle politics. Republicans shift right and the Democrats have tracked rightward, following them.
BILL MOYERS: You say you wrote this book to restore an interrupted future. Explain that.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Well, so I think that this is an incredibly important story. We have levels of wealth inequality today we haven’t seen in a hundred years. Okay, what was happening a hundred years ago? A hundred years ago, we had corporate titans who mainly controlled government.
What happened? Financial boom, financial collapse, the Great Depression and then the New Deal. And what was the New Deal? The New Deal was a sense that government shouldn’t be beholden to big money. That was incredibly popular.
I think the New Deal taught the country that we could progress if we were all in this together and if the government were really on the side of the broad middle class. That the government had an incredibly important role in structuring the economy, in structuring politics, in structuring society in a way that favored everybody.
And this was the New Deal, except it had a fatal flaw. The New Deal coalition depended in part on the Southern Democrats. And the Southern Democrats were, at this time, avowedly a white man’s party. And so the Southern Democrats extracted a compromise. They said they’ll support the New Deal but only if it has certain limitations. If it doesn’t help black farmers, it doesn’t help black servants, it doesn’t help farm workers in the southwest who are Mexican.
BILL MOYERS: If it helped whites.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: If it helped whites they’d support it. And it did help whites. And this is why the New Deal was so popular with whites. What happens? In l964, because of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson understands that a war on poverty to succeed should be extended to an effort to promote racial justice.
And he’s right. This is the dream we need to pursue. And yet, this creates a window of opportunity. It creates the possibility for Republicans to come in and to tell people, don’t support the New Deal. Don’t support liberalism. Because this isn’t about helping people like you. This is about helping them, underserving, lazy minorities.
And that narrative works. And it works in a way-- not just in a way that this has hurt minorities. But it works in a way that this has led to a systematic dismantling of the New Deal. So that now, 50 years after that politics started we have levels of wealth inequality we haven’t seen since before the Great Depression, right?
When I say that dog whistle politics is about pursuing a dream that’s been interrupted, what we’re trying to recover is FDR and a Second Bill of Rights. What we’re trying to recover is New Deal liberalism. But now a New Deal liberalism that isn’t divided by race. We need to understand that the middle class is not a term that should have a racial signifier.
And that when we get rid of that signifier, when we understand that everybody of every race is a member of the middle class or should have the opportunity to become a member of the middle class, only then will we be at a political place where we can actually pull government back onto our side and we can defeat this sort of negative politics that keeps so many people voting to give control of the government over to the very wealthy.
BILL MOYERS: Where do Latinos show up in this equation, you for example?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I consider myself Latino and a person of color. But we should be clear, roughly half of all Latinos think they're white. Now how does this play out in terms of dog whistle politics? In very surprising ways. On the one hand, for the last decade, going back even further, but especially for the last decade, anti-Latino campaigning, dog whistling, has been a very powerful part of conservative politics. All the rhetoric about illegal aliens, all of the rhetoric even that Mitt Romney used about self-deportation--
BILL MOYERS: Self-deportation.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Right. So you see that this has been really powerful in getting a lot of Republicans elected in House elections all over the country. It's been powerful even in Republican national politics. Now, there's also a sense that Republicans lost in 2012 partly because Mitt Romney did so poorly among Latinos.
So this has led to Republican operatives, especially at the national level, saying, we need to change our politics around immigration. We need to change our politics around Latinos. This opens up an interesting possibility. Not that they'll end dog whistle politics, but that they'll adjust it in a way that includes many Latinos who already think of themselves as white.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Think about the census numbers. The census tells us that in 2010, the United States is almost 65 percent white. But it also tells us that whites will be a minority of the country in 2045. But that's only if Latinos aren't included as white. If instead you include Latinos as white, then in 2045, whites will be 72 percent of the population. Or in other words, rather than being a minority in 2045, they'll be 7 percent more of the population than they are today.
BILL MOYERS: So how would it play out? What would be the signal if you wanted to reach those Latinos who consider themselves white and are in the majority?
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I'm not sure what the signal will be. But we should be clear that within immigrant communities, there's always a heterogeneity of views. And there's-- as each generation gets established, there's always a segment of the population that looks with resentment on the new arrivals, that says, these people are holding our community down.
Maybe they're darker, maybe they're less well-educated, they're certainly poorer, we really need to restrict immigration. Because only by restricting immigration can we show that we're actually now part of the American mainstream. So, ironically, I would expect an effort to reach out to Latinos and to Asian communities, not by liberal reforms of immigration, but actually by toning down some of the hostile rhetoric. But at the same time, promising to restrict immigration.
BILL MOYERS: The Latino vote seems to be portable between the two parties, as I'm sure you know--
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think that’s exactly right. So this is where I say dog whistle politics is going to evolve. Now, a lot of Democratic strategists are looking at these numbers. They're saying the Latino population's increasing, they're saying the Asian population's increasing. Then they're saying, we don't need to worry about dog whistle politics anymore. Demography's going to solve this for us. Let's just hang tight. 2012 showed us the good news, Barack Obama could win, even though there was a 20 percent deficit in terms of white voters, 20 percent more voted for Romney than Obama, but Obama won the White House anyway. Let's not worry about this.
That's a recipe for disaster. Because dog whistling is going to evolve. And if it has to evolve in a way that brings in certain portions of the Latino population, certain portions of the Asian population, that's what it's likely to do. Unless we start addressing this within minority communities, but also in terms of national politics, we should expect these sorts of racial provocations to continue to define our politics for the next decade, two decades, three decades.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” Ian Haney López, thank you very much for joining me.
IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, there’s an excerpt from Ian Haney López’s superb book “Dog Whistle Politics.” It will anger, inform, and make you want to read more.
That’s at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.