Sunday, October 13, 2013

No racial slur? No problem

Paul Krugman earlier this week:
Lots of people have been referencing this Democracy Corps report on focus-group meetings with Republicans, and with good reason: [Democratic pollster Stan] Greenberg has basically provided a unified theory of the craziness that has enveloped American politics in the last few years. 
What the report makes clear is that the current Republican obsession with attacking programs that benefit Americans in need, ranging from food stamps to Obamacare, isn’t about some philosophical commitment to small government, still less worries about incentive effects and implicit marginal tax rates. It’s about anxiety over a changing America — the multiracial, multicultural society we’re becoming — and anger that Democrats are taking Their Money and giving it to Those People. In other words, it’s still race after all these years...Meanwhile, a key takeaway for us wonks is that none of the ostensible debates we’re having — say, the debate over rising disability rolls — can be taken at face value. Yes, we need to crunch the numbers, but in the end the other side doesn’t care about the evidence.
It's deeply hilarious that Krugman concludes his piece by claiming that the other side disregards evidence, when an actual read of the Democracy Corps report produces little to support its claims of racism/racial consciousness underpinning GOP opposition to Obama and big government. Indeed, what the report actually reveals, or at the very least strongly suggests, is that the ones with minimal regard for facts and/or prejudicial thinking are Krugman and Greenberg. This passage from page 5 is fairly illuminating, if not stunning:
We conduct homogeneous groups to replicate real life homogeneity where people can feel free to talk about their feelings and emotions. We think this is what people say around the water cooler or a family dinner. But for the first time for me, it felt like we were creating a safe space where Republican voters could express feelings freely -- and they did. 
We expected that in this comfortable setting or in their private written notes, some would make a racial reference or racist slur when talking about the African American President. None did. [emphasis mine]
Greenberg appears to think that Republicans are so driven by racial animus in their antipathy towards President Obama that the possibility one of his focus group participants would make a racial reference or slur about President Obama was not merely entertained but *expected*. Right away it's apparent what kind of game is being played. Greenberg continues:
They know that it is deeply non-PC and are conscious about how they are perceived. But focusing on that misses how central is race to the worldview of Republican voters. They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly "minority," and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority. Barack Obama and Obamacare is a racial flashpoint for many Evangelical and Tea Party voters.
The lack of explicit racial animus, in other words, is not going to deter Greenberg from advancing a race-based narrative. Indeed, the document's first page flatly states that "Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party." Now, if you're going to throw around those kinds of accusations, you better have the evidence to back it up. The supporting material, however, is thin at best.

Here is the word cloud supplied for focus group comments about President Obama:

See anything even vaguely racial there? And what does "kniving" mean? Is that perhaps anything like "conniving"?

This is the closest Greenberg comes to laying out racial animus as an animating element of Republican opposition to Obama:

Let's be clear here: questions regarding President Obama's religious views or citizenship are without foundation and wrong. However silly, repugnant or misguided some of these opinions are, however, they are not racial in nature. Xenophobic and anti-Muslim, yes, but not racist. If President Obama had the same mixed-race ancestry but was born and raised Barry Smith in Kansas to a father who was a plumber, would these same questions be raised? It's not apparent.

Let's move onto Greenberg's evidence for his contention that Republicans see government programs as a means of buying off support from racial minorities and that Obamacare is a "racial flashpoint." In the section starting on page 10 entitled "Big government and dependency Democrats: Obamacare," the report argues that the first strand of opposition to big government/Obamacare is "big programs, spending and regulations that undermine business" while the second is "a concern with intrusive government that invades their privacy, diminishes their rights and freedoms, and threatens the Constitution." 

The report then says this:
And the third is the most important and elicits the most passions among Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans -- that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency -- the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent. And on the horizon -- comprehensive immigration reform and Obamacare. Citizenship for 12 million illegals and tens of million getting free health care is the end of the road. 
These participants are very conscious of being white and valuing communities that are more likeminded; they freely describe these programs as meant to benefit minorities. This is about a Democratic Party expanding dependency among African Americans and Latinos, with electoral intent. This is why Obama and the Democrats are prevailing nationally and why the future of the Republic is so at risk. 
Serious stuff! The section includes 23 quotes from focus group participants meant support these conclusions. Here they are:

Of these 23 quotes, a grand total of one makes reference to goodies being provided to minorities ("every minority group wants to say they have the right to something"), while another discusses the legalization of illegal aliens. One other person, meanwhile, says that "The government's giving in to a minority," but giving in to a minority would seem a quite different claim than giving to minorities. This is ambiguous at best. 

The rest of the statements all seem like quite general claims that apply to all Americans rather than select minorities. Indeed, a woman in Roanoke complains that "I don't think they let us be responsible for ourselves," while one in Colorado Springs says "They want us to be dependent upon the government" and another Colorado Springs resident argues that "[Democrats] want us dependent on them." 

How does Greenberg or anyone else at Democracy Corps get the impression based on these quotes that the chief strand of GOP opposition is a belief is that government goodies are being used to buy minority votes? Does it not bother them that despite their contention that Obamacare marks a "racial flashpoint" that they cannot muster a single quote regarding Obamacare which references race? Are there other supporting quotes that they simply chose not to include? Can this really be considered sufficient support for the broad claims they make?

Perusing the rest of the report doesn't reveal a great deal of evidence to support the Greenberg/Democracy Corps claims either. While the report makes repeated references to self-consciousness on the part of GOP voters of being white ("the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities"; "they have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly 'minority'"; "these participants are very conscious of being white"), the evidence provided reveals this to be a tangential consideration at best.

Of the more than 200 quotes from Republican supporters found in the report, here are the only ones which reference a white self-consciousness:
It's a little bubble. So everybody -- it's like a Lake Wobegon. Everybody is above average. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes -- there's one library, one post office. Very homogeneous. (Evangelical man, Roanoke)
The context for this response is that the man was asked to describe the town he lives in. Given that some of the small towns in the Roanoke area -- and with his reference to one library and one post office, it would seem logical to conclude he hails from one of these towns rather than Roanoke proper -- are in fact overwhelmingly white (nearby Hollins, VA for example -- only 5.5 miles away -- is 90 percent white), this seems more like a statement of fact than revealing someone for whom being white is a big part of his worldview. At the very least it is inconclusive.

Another quote:
I think that [President Obama's] picture of the people in this room would be that we're all a bunch of racist, gun-clinging, flyover state, cowboy-hat wearing yokels. Because we didn't go to Harvard, and we're not from New York, and we're pretty white, we're pretty middle class. We like to go to church, we like our Bibles. And so we're just not him. We're not on his agenda. (Evangelical man, Roanoke)
Unfortunately we don't know what elicited this quote, with the only context provided being that "It is from this perspective (referencing the previous Lake Wobegon quote) that [Evangelicals] view President Obama." It is not difficult to imagine, however, that the participants were simply asked to describe how they think Obama sees them. And in light of President Obama's comments regarding rural Pennsylvanians, it's not obvious the man's speculation is ill-founded. Yet again it is unclear that being white is a central part of the respondent's worldview or simply his -- not entirely absurd -- perception of how he and others are viewed by those on the left.

The only other quote regarding white people found in the entire report is a quote from a moderate Republican who provides the response of "white 54 year old man in a business suit" when asked to describe her perception of the Republican Party.

That's it folks. That really is the sum total of the evidence presented to support the idea advanced by Democracy Corps that Republicans are self-conscious about being white in a country turning increasingly minority (literally not a single quote by Republicans mentions shifting demographics) where Democrats are using government programs to purchase minority support. They may hold some nonsensical views about President Obama personally, but the notion that, in the words of Paul Krugman "it's still race after all these years" is simply not supported.

One has little choice but to conclude that Krugman is either so lazy that he felt free to repeat the report's conclusions without reading it for himself, or did read it but was unpeturbed by both its lack of evidence to support its sweeping conclusions (ironic, given his charge that "the other side doesn't care about the evidence") and self-admitted prejudice towards its interview subjects. With accusations of racism/racial antagonism among the most serious that can be leveled in US politics, Krugman's decision to engage in such polemics with minimal supporting facts -- an apparent secondary consideration when advancing an agenda -- reflects extremely poor upon him.

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