The racist nature of the Republican Party’s most effective lies

America’s media could expose Romney’s pattern of pervasive lying, and the racist subtext that runs through much of it.

Mitt Romney Campaigns In Colorado
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made allegations against incumbent Obama that are false [GALLO/GETTY]

The following is what Mitt Romney now claims, as the centrepiece of his most recent efforts to make inroads in the all-important swing states. It is also a flat-out lie – and Romney knows it:

“On July 12th, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare cheque.”

That’s from a Romney ad that top Romney ad strategist, Ashley O’Connor, called “Our most effective ad”, saying “It’s new information”. False information, as it turns out, which fact-checkers have roundly criticised in no uncertain terms.  PolitiFact rated Romney’s claims as “pants on fire” lies, while the Washington Post’s fact checker gave the ad four Pinocchios – its highest rating for mendacity, and at the Annenberg Public Policy Centre agreed that Romney’s claims were false, stating bluntly, “A Mitt Romney TV ad claims the Obama administration has adopted ‘a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements’. The plan does neither of those things.”

The Romney campaign has pushed back hard, essentially saying, “take a hike, this is working for us”. The exact words, from O’Connor: ”Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” 

But it’s not just the fact-checkers and political reporters in general. Former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough weighed in as well:

“I’ve been looking for a week-and-a-half to try to figure out the basis of this welfare reform ad, I’ve scoured the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, I’ve scoured… the ad’s completely false. It’s just completely false.

“And I’m pretty stunned.”

Not only that, but Romney himself is on record requesting exactly the sorts of changes that Obama signed off on – only on a broader scale, applicable to all states, and signed into law, not just an executive order. In 2005, the Republican Governor’s association sent a letter to Congress on the subject of re-authorising so-called “welfare reform”, continuing the process along the lines that Republicans supported. It touched on several different issues, one of which was “state flexibility”, about which the governors wrote:

“The Senate bill provides states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programmes and effectively serve their low-income populations. Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programmes are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work.”

The letter was signed by four Republican candidates for president this cycle: Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry and, of course, Mitt Romney, who were all Republican governors at the time. They were making a traditional conservative states’ rights argument.

But now, when Obama has signed an executive order providing just this sort of flexibility (yet another example of his deeply-ingrained bipartisan instincts), Romney is turning everything on its head, portraying Obama’s willingness to go along with Republican ideas on “welfare reform” as the exact opposite: a divisive move to “gut” the process, return to the “bad old days”, and play to his base – which probably never even heard of the waivers until Romney started making an issue of them.

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This isn’t the only lie the Romney campaign has pushed and pushed hard – not by a long shot. But it is the most revealing, because of its clear racial subtext, as well as the Romney campaign’s in-your-face refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and its proud citing of the ads’ effectiveness.

Many media critics – and working journalists as well – have taken note of how the Romney campaign seems to have entered new territory in the boldness and pervasiveness of its lying, so much so that an open debate is breaking out about what can be done.

This has been the subject of several posts at the Press Think blog of NYU professor/leading media critic Jay Rosen, most recently, ”You’re not entitled to your own facts’ vs. That’s your opinion. Kiss my ad“.

There are two deeply troubling aspects to this debate: First, the assumption that nothing can be done about systematic lying is historically false. Second, the abstract nature of the argument distracts from the concrete, racist nature of Romney’s most effective lies.

The lie superhighway

In the piece just mentioned, Rosen highlights the widespread media perplexity about how to deal with massive campaign lying, but this perplexity is itself perplexing, since the media has already proven that it knows very well how to deal with campaign lying – a point that Media Matters’ Jamison Foser forcefully made in a column titled “Privileging the Lie” from September 2008.

Foser began by responding to the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, talking about the McCain campaign’s frequently-repeated false claim that Sarah Palin stopped the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” boondoggle, and explaining McCain’s success in steamrolling the truth with the claim that “the electorate doesn’t seem to penalise campaigns for deliberately distorting the record of their candidate and their opponent”. 

This claim is provably false, Foser pointed out: in the 2000 election, Gore’s propensity to lie, exaggerate and otherwise distort the truth was a major media story theme – one of the top two themes in coverage of Gore, according to a Pew Research Centre media analysis covering 2,400 stories between February and June 2000.

A story in the Columbia Journalism Review explained, “[R]esearchers found that a whopping 76 per cent of the coverage included one of two themes: that Gore lies and exaggerates or is marred by scandal. The most common theme about Bush, the study found, is that he is a ‘different kind of Republican’.”

The impact this had in November was huge: in exit polling, voters citing personal honesty as a top concern – the most-cited personal quality by a large margin – favoured Bush over Gore by a whopping 80-15 margin in exit polling.

Of course, the notion of Gore as a wild-eyed liar was itself a whopper of epic proportions. Gore never claimed he “invented the internet”, for example, only that he played a key policy role, which pioneering internet architects have said is true.

In September 2000, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn wrote a public statement defending Gore’s role and reputation, saying, among other things, “As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high-speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship.”

Thus Gore’s marque “lie” of the 2000 campaign was actually the truth – though the media never seemed to notice.

But regardless of the terrible reporting in this case – possibly the only way such a real-life experiment could have been run – the record clearly shows that presenting a candidate as a habitual liar definitely does have an effect. The press is not powerless to deal with the pattern of systematic lying and deceit – it only has to sharpen the basic reporting skill of recognising when lies are being told… and when it’s being sold a bill of goods.

Hence, all the handwringing that Rosen refers to is itself based on a pants-on-fire lie – the lie of media powerlessness. The real press weakness is that – thanks largely to decades of right-wing intimidation – it will never go after a Republican for systematic lying the way it went after Gore for imaginary and invented lies. If the press were to go after a Republican, it would certainly face intense right-wing push-back, but the impact of such reporting would be real and substantial.

The proliferation of falsity

What’s more, if the American press has any interest at all in defending the reality-based Enlightenment tradition on which America was founded, this is a fight it should welcome. As Foser explained, there are three ways the media can cover false political claims: They can ignore it, they can adopt it as the basis of their reporting, or they can centre their reporting on the spreading of falsehood. Foser is clear about which option is best:

“The first option privileges the lie by allowing a candidate to run around saying things that are not true – but at least it does not help spread the lie further.

“The second option – even if it includes mention of the fact that the claim is false – privileges the lie a great deal by helping the candidate spread the false claims…

“The third option punishes the falsehood. If you think the media’s job is to bring their readers and viewers the truth, this is obviously the best of the three options.”

In the 2000 election cycle, the press adopted the third option with respect to Gore. The only problem was, there were no actual falsehoods involved. What’s more, the falsehoods alleged were mostly divorced from any policy.

Gore’s comment about his role in advocating for creation of the internet was typical: The comment was made once, not in a campaign context, and was never connected to any policy matter during the campaign. This was a far cry from the McCain campaign’s repeated lies about Sarah Palin and the “Bridge to Nowhere”, or the Romney campaign’s high-profile welfare lies today.

If the media is serious about adopting Foser’s third option, and doing the job of bringing people the truth, then it’s important to not just get the right lie, but also to provide context for understanding it, to explain how it connects with everything else – past, present, and future.

This brings us to the second problem with the insider debate about reporting on Romney’s lies: While many seem to be struggling with the problem of Romney’s lies in the abstract – Rosen calls it “the post-truth campaign” – there’s something terribly concrete going on here that cries out for a much higher level of urgent attention, if not outrage.

That is the fact that Romney’s lying seeks to divide America, primarily along the lines of race. His welfare lie works in concert with other racial lies as well – such as the voter fraud myth used to justify voter-suppression laws in numerous GOP-dominated states. And, of course, Romney tries to cover his tracks with a classic example of projection – throwing out the accusation that Obama is the one trying to divide America.

The racism involved is not subtle, for those with any sense of history… or politics. This is neatly laid out in a story by Ron Fournier (distinctively not a member of the “liberal media”) at the National JournalWhy (and How) Romney is Playing the Race Card“:

“Why ignore fact-checkers? First, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama. Second, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats. This information comes from senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.

“Furthermore, a senior GOP pollster said he has shared with the Romney camp surveys showing that white working-class voters who backed Obama in 2008 have moved to Romney in recent weeks ‘almost certainly because of the welfare ad. We’re talking a (percentage) point or two, but that could be significant’.”

The race for voters

There is nothing new about this. Republicans have been doing this consciously and systematically ever since Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 – and they stumbled into it inadvertently four years earlier, when Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won only his own home state, and five Deep South states, four of which Democrat Adlai Stevenson carried just eight years earlier, while winning a total of just three more Southern and border states.

The almost total reversal of the electoral maps between 1956 and 1964 proved prophetic of what was eventually to come. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained in a then-anonymous interview in the early 1980s:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

This is the historical context behind Romney’s welfare lie, and much more of modern Republicanism as well. The Tea Party movement – the motivational spine of today’s GOP – is a direct descendent of this racist political strategy, despite numerous (arguably honest, if naïve) protestations that its members are “not racists”, sometimes even using language echoing the disingenuous 1960s claim that “some of my best friends are black”.

But this rebuttal, centred on self-reported conscious individual attitudes, misses the very point that Atwater highlights – the political appeal of cutting taxes and cutting government derives from two connected reasons: its racist appeal and its deniability as a racist appeal.

This isn’t spit-in-your-face racism, but it’s still racist in its impact and implications – and for good reason. It comes out of an ideology steeped in racist attitudes for over 200 years. The idea that there’s suddenly no racist connection is belied by recent polling data, as well centuries of history, both of which ought to be included in reporting that follows Foser’s third option of calling out political lies.

Roots in the south

In fact, as Robin Einhorn makes clear in her book American Taxation, American Slavery, the anti-tax “small government” tradition in American politics comes directly out of the Southern slaveholding system, which always opposed a vibrant public sphere and popular control over matters of government taxation and spending.

Both of these were potential threats to the power of wealthy slave owners, and were commonplace in Northern colonies like Massachusetts, where the Boston Tea Party took place with a very different agenda: the agenda of representation and democratic self-determination rather than taxation per se.

 Fault Lines – Politics, Religion and the Tea Party

While the slave-holding South practiced a variation of feudal politics commonly practiced for millennia, the more prosperous and forward-looking North invented something new, specifically American and genuinely exceptional: the high-tax, increasingly industrialised north developed the American System of public infrastructure investment, tariff protections and a centralised banking system, which I wrote about in my early August column, “What Romney’s Lies are Trying to Hide“.

It was conceived as a way to strengthen national bonds, across regional and occupational divisions, as well as strengthening the national economy as a whole. It’s this American System, first fully articulated by Henry Clay, which forms the political foundation for Obama’s policy proposals, and trying to label them as Marxist radicalism instead merely repeats the long history of Southern slave-owning elite misrepresenting Northern politics to advance their own narrow interests and make them seem broadly popular.

The Republican demonisation of Obama today is thus historically a piece with the Southern demonisation of Martin Luther King, Jr as a “Communist dupe”.

Quite the opposite of today’s Tea Party movement, the American System was a true ideological descendent of the original Boston Tea Party, conceived in direct opposition to the British System of laissez-faire capitalism, and dedicated to giving the American people control over their long-term economic and political destiny.

As I wrote in that earlier column, Obama may be too much of a laissez-faire neo-liberal to be a true son of Henry Clay, but he still retains crucial elements of Clay’s vision, not least a desire to bind warring interests together, and to invest in America as a whole. But Obama’s opponents – Mitt Romney now first among them – are still bitterly opposed to Clay’s vision of national unity and prosperity based on strong public institutions that facilitate individual success and private enterprise.

A press that truly sought to inform the public would make all this plain. It would thus give us the “great debate” about the future of America that many had expected, particularly when Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate. It would also lead to a landslide Republican defeat, because what the GOP actually stands for is incredibly unpopular, particularly once its intentions and history are made plain. 

And that, in part, is why the press America actually has will never come close to doing its job, any more than it did during the run-up to the Iraq War. But even a few baby steps in the right direction could prove crucial in determining the election in November. Moreover, if racist lies come to carry a consequence, that will help to shut them down. Why would any self-respecting journalist not want to see that happen?

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.