Election 2012: The Negativity Crusade

Tired of the silly season in politics? Get ready for the mean season.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Onetime candidate Newt Gingrich’s descent into labeling Obama the “food stamp president” was the most obvious deployment of the race card, at least until recently. The Republican claim that Obama is undermining work requirements tied to welfare reform is the newest blend of distortion and the politics of racial resentment. 

As former President Bill Clinton explained in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the Obama administration was responding to requests for waivers of requirements from Republican governors and did so in such a way that, to quote Clinton, “the requirement was for more work, not less.” As Clinton put it: “The claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true.”

Nonetheless, Republicans have decided to double down on this claim. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and other congressional Republicans are strategizing to keep the issue alive. They’ve called for a vote to prevent Obama-administration regulation waivers from going forward.

I don’t think the issue here is a principled concern with the purity of Clinton-era welfare reform. The issue is Republicans’ attempt to focus on an issue in such a way that it keeps a certain slice of angry white voters in the GOP electoral column by playing on long-standing racial stereotypes, fears and resentments. Raising this phony welfare allegation is just the first salvo in what is likely to be a barrage of Lee Atwater-style skullduggery.

None of us should be surprised, although in 2012 this approach is particularly disappointing. The temptation for a candidate like Romney to play the race card is potentially understandable, when so many other tactics are not working. After all, one suspects that there are a declining number of people who still feel like the Manassas, Va., woman who shared her feelings about the Obamas during a National Public Radio broadcast: “I just don’t like him. I don’t like to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.”

Yes, we do still have people like this in America. In nontrivial numbers, in fact. But I doubt they can muster a winning coalition in American national politics today, and they do not represent the future of America.

As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said of Republicans’ prospects: “The demographics race we’re losing badly … We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” But that doesn’t mean we won’t see another round of political ads aimed at exploiting remaining negative racial attitudes and resentments in the electorate.

So, my friends, put on your political trench coat, keep an eye on factcheck.org‘s ratings of who is doing the most lying, and get out a DVD of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for inspiration. Before this campaign ends, we’re likely to be awash in altogether too much negativity, lies and none-too-subtle race-baiting politics. The truly mean season, I fear, is about to begin.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

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