Actor Robert Redford recently gave an interview in which he proclaimed his belief that rightist opposition to President Barack Obama was based in part on racism. “[T]here is probably some racism involved, which is really awful,” the actor surmised. Then he added, “It’s not just racism...”
Redford’s formulation is not unusual. In fact, is a rather common diagnosis of leftist figures regarding opposition to the president’s policies. Unfortunately, the accusations further widen a political divide in the United States.
Certainly there are racists, but they are surely a minority. Their exact number is unknown, but they do exist, and probably will so for all of eternity. In fact, thoughts of superiority regarding one’s own kind, and inferiority of the other, are all too common in history. Still, in our modern society, racism—properly understood—is clearly taboo. In fact, American society has evolved dramatically since the 1960s in this regard.
All said, the racists are a shame to either of the two major political ideologies in this country. Neither liberals nor conservatives would claim them.
Back to Redford’s belief: Rightists are racist; therefore, they oppose the black President Barack Obama, whose policies are similar to most run-of-the-mill leftist political figures in the United States dating back decades.
The very Caucasian Bill and Hillary Clinton pushed a national health care program, much like President Obama. Was their opposition rooted in racism? Hardly. It was based instead on thoughtful philosophical differences.
That same very Caucasian Clinton administration sought and enacted large tax hikes, much like President Obama. Caucasian figures such as Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry also expressed their desire for certain tax hikes. Was rightist opposition to these ideas rooted in racism?
One could continue, but the common thread between each of the figures mentioned above is not the amount of melanin in each politician’s skin, but rather a common political philosophy.
On the contrary, these same rightists—supposedly largely or all racist—have stridently supported the ascension of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court while leftists, the very defenders all things downtrodden, stood in opposition. Were these leftists racist?
In Ohio, rightists nominated for Governor one Ken Blackwell, and voted for him in favor of white candidates like Jim Petro and Ted Strickland. Sure, some center-right voters favored Petro in the primary, but it was the Ohio left that voted for Strickland instead of Blackwell in 2006. Were Democratic voters motivated by racism?
In both cases, they surely did not. One can grant them the benefit of the doubt on this count because Democratic voters tend to be left-wing in their politics; therefore, they should be expected to oppose candidates who espouse rightist ideologies.
Sadly, rightists are not granted this benefit of the doubt. And it poisons the political environment. After all, how can one expect to have a fair dialogue with a group of people who presume to know your innermost thoughts and have deemed them to be sinister?
When Redford and other leftist figures fall into this default diagnosis of the opposition, they are guilty of what they accuse their opponents. It could come from sincere conviction, but it could also come from a position of strategic political calculation. After all, if you own a huge swath of votes from a particular group, what more effective way of maintaining your hold on that vote than to paint ideological opponents as malicious in their intent against said group?
This tendency is intellectually vapid and lazy. It is simpler to follow a narrative than it is to consider a point-by-point policy argument contrary to your own. It is easier to go back to the playbook than it is to win an argument on merits.
The Affordable Care Act debate comes to mind. Opponents of the law are said to be racist because the face of the law is a president who happens to have more melanin in his skin than previous presidents. It couldn’t be because the law is bad in itself—never! Instead, the standing argument in favor of the law seems to be its legality. Commentator and politician alike have proclaimed in recent months that Congress passed the bill, the president signed it, The Court upheld it, and the president was reelected; therefore, go to hell. It’s the “law of the land.”
Of course, legality is not synonymous with good policy.
Plus, this argument is weak. If followed in other circumstances—say, around the new year of 2013—it might have gone like so: Congress passed the Bush tax cuts, Bush signed them, there was no legal challenge, and Bush was reelected; so back off. It’s the law of the land.
That should strike one as a sorry and desperate substitution for an actual defense of the merits of the law. Similarly would be the use of the racism defense. ACA opponents are racist; therefore, it must remain. These are not the arguments of intellectual giants; they are the last resort of the intellectually small.