Both Democrats and Republicans may believe they have a vested interest in charging each other with “racism,” but the growing use of this epithet is contributing to the debasement of our political discourse.
Going into 2020, Democrats have at least two major problems—their policies, and impeachment. In the past, I’ve noted that proposals for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, student loan debt forgiveness, etc., frequently elicit favorable public approval ratings—until the voters begin to learn of the proposed programs’ implications—more spending, higher taxes, bigger government, loss of private insurance, the shift of the burden of repaying student loans from those who borrowed the money to the taxpayers in general, etc., etc., etc. Democratic presidential candidates may propose these programs to win support among the most hardcore liberals who will vote in the Democratic primaries, but whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination may then be saddled with a record of supporting programs less popular among those more likely to vote in general elections.
Impeachment, too, is a potential trap for the Democrats. Should the House fail to impeach the President, the hard core Democratic activists may become more apathetic and less likely to support Democrats running for office. They won’t become Republicans, of course, but they may stay home or “go fishing” on Election Day, 2020. But if the House impeaches the President, the GOP-dominated Senate will almost certainly acquit him. Moreover, the President’s support from his base will no doubt be strengthened by his ordeal, and his re-election chances thereby made easier.
So charging the President with “racism” becomes a way for the Democrats to divert public attention away from their policy proposals while simultaneously downplaying impeachment until they figure out what to do on that score. Moreover, they may be able to whip up enough enthusiasm among African American and Hispanic voters to boost their turnout and win the election in 2020.
Or maybe not.
President Trump may well be helped in two ways. First, charges that he’s a racist, based most recently on his attacks on Congressman Elijah Cummings and Cummings’s Maryland congressional district, will likely support and reinforce the determination of President Trump’s base to stand by him in 2020. As noted in previous columns, the President’s popularity is unusually low for someone presiding over so strong an economy, and the President has failed so far to expand his popularity beyond his hard core white male Christian Conservative supporters. If he cannot do so in the future, he must therefore arouse his base to turn out in greater numbers than last time. And nothing arouses his base more than direct attacks on the President, even if—and perhaps especially if—the President provokes those attacks himself. However much the Democrats may criticize President Trump’s attacks on illegal immigrants, the Squad, or Elijah Cummings and his constituents, the fact remains that what he says and what’s said in response have made no dent in his popularity to date. Perhaps nothing can.
Second, it should be kept in mind that while the most vocal charges of racism have been levied against the President, more subtle charges have been levied by Democrats against—other Democrats. For example, Senator Harris has said—perhaps disingenuously—that she does not believe Joe Biden is a racist. But she’s attacked him for his opposition to forced busing in the 1970s, as well as for his civility towards the white racists whom the South used to elect to the Senate. And AOC has criticized Speaker Pelosi for opposing “women of color” in the House of Representatives. These accusations, however veiled or implied, of racism levied by Democrats against each other will no doubt weaken the Democratic Party to the President’s benefit. It’s easy to imagine President Trump lapping it all up with profound amusement and satisfaction.
But politics aside, it must be emphasized that the use of “racism” to deflect any criticism debases and renders useless the term as a means of criticism. To be a “racist” once meant to believe one’s race was superior to others, and that a person’s race—if that race were considered inferior– meant he was irredeemably weak, lazy, greedy, selfish, stupid, or evil. Yet these days, to charge one with racism is frequently the way to express disagreement with views one dislikes, without having to think about the actual merits of those vies.
Two personal examples: I’ve occasionally been accused of racism for saying that in college admissions, as well as in the classroom everyone should be held to the same standards, without regard to race, gender, or any other extraneous characteristic—I’m not willing to consider white male privilege or its lack as a factor in admissions or grading. And some years ago, in response to a speech I gave suggesting the United States should encourage more diversification of economies in the Middle East by promoting free trade and free markets, another professor said my policy prescriptions were “racist” because they implied the superiority of western economic thought to whatever economic theories may currently be popular in the Middle East. In short, to charge someone with racism, or socialism, or communism, or fascism, or anti-Semitism is the lazy and dishonest way of trying to shut down debate on issues rather than probe for counterarguments’ strengths and weaknesses.
We have over 15 months to go before Election Day, 20/20. However filthy and depressing we may have considered the 2016 campaign to have been, there’s plenty of time for the 2020 campaign to reach or even exceed the depths of depravity reached four years ago. To the political junkie, the next 15 months will prove fascinating, but to everyone, junkie or not, they may prove unrelentingly discouraging as well, as everyone throws mud on everyone else, and thereby diminishes the vocabulary with which we can express reasoned opinions.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.