Race, media and the 2012 election: What to do when the dog whistles fail
As someone who has just written an entire book about the ways modern media use race-baiting to attract and keep audiences, watching Tuesday's election results felt like seeing the world prove ideas I have been chewing on for more than a year.
The central concept of my book Race-Baiter -- that most people will reject overtly prejudiced ideas and stereotypical "code words" if you just discuss them openly -- seemed to play itself out in the election returns, as voters not only chose to re-elect a black president, but sent a record number of women to Congress and embraced laws allowing gay marriage not long after conservatives used completely opposite legislation to try bringing voters to the polls.
As always, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly articulated the fears and attitude of his audience Tuesday, even before news anchors were comfortable calling the election for President Obama. ""It's a changing country. ... It's not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it. And he ran on it."
O'Reilly added: "Whereby 20 years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney, the white establishment is now the minority....(It's) a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate between the two is going to give them things?"
This, of course, is a longstanding stereotype leveled against Democrats in general and this black president in particular. As I note in my book, it's the thought behind Newt Gingrich's dismissive "food stamp president" line in referring to the President, evoking fears that a black president wants to hand free government assistance to people of color who "want stuff" without working from the government.
It also robs Obama of any credit for his own success. The president isn't depicted as a politician talented enough to win re-election despite a sluggish economy and nagging unemployment numbers. In O'Reilly's world, he was elected because women and people of color want to be given things, marginalizing the "White establishment" in the process.
Surprisingly, bombastic conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was more subtle in talking about those messages today, using the word "traditional" to describe what was rejected by voters Tuesday: "Romney presented a picture... This is very frightening stuff to me. He presented a picture of the traditional view, the traditional roots, the traditional way things work in this country. And part of his campaign... There was an assumption, I think, that that's what most people were looking for and wanted a return to."
He added: "For many of us, the country's at a point where it's never been in our lifetimes economically. We figured we had one chance to stop this direction and reverse it, take it back to the traditional path of American greatness. It was rejected. That America is not desired. That America is not wanted."
But what does Limbaugh mean by the "traditional path of American greatness?" Later in his broadcast, he said "Mitt Romney and his family would have been the essence of exactly what this country needs. But what was Romney's recipe? Romney's recipe was the old standby: American route to success, hard work. That gets sneered at. I'm sorry. In a country of children where the option is Santa Claus or work, what wins?"
But I've never understood why conservative like Limbaugh would hold up Romney, born in wealth as the son of an auto executive and former governor, yet ignore the child of a single mother, eventually raised by his grandparents who worked from humble beginning to become president of the Harvard Law Review, a U.S. Senator and then president.
Why isn't that a story of taking the American route to success through hard work? Why is it assumed that, somehow, Obama didn't earn the achievements he's made?
Welcome to the world of code words. But this time around, they didn't quite work so well.
Not enough women were distracted from the harsh words about rape and abortion advanced by some GOP candidates. Not enough Hispanics were distracted from the hard-line stance on immigration advocated by many conservatives. And lots of people talked about what the code words meant when they heard them.
I got an email today from a reader who seemed to be a white person, concluding that "my values and my opinion about what is best for our country going forward is now in the minority."
But given that President Obama got just over 50 percent of the popular vote, I'm not sure that's entirely true.
What is true: O'Reilly and Limbaugh's "traditional" voters now have to really share power with other groups who have a different vision for how government should help all Americans.
Welcome to the world of real equality, where the dog whistles and code words don't work anymore.