Ghost Of Lee Atwater Haunts Midterm Elections

“It is not new to see antisemitism or overt racism in politics. What is new is after years … in which it was clear that to be credible in public life politicians had to reject prejudice, it’s now been normalized in ways that are really quite breathtaking.” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt

Violent crime, which fell during the height of COVID-19 pandemic, has returned to a level last seen in 2016. A majority of the perpetrators of violent crime are white. And undocumented immigrants are far less likely than native-born Americans to commit violent crimes.

Political ads flooding the airwaves, however, paint a starkly different and wildly misleading picture, “portraying chaos by depicting Black rioters and Hispanic immigrants illegally racing across the border,” the New York Times reports.

These ads aren’t really about crime or immigration, however. They’re about race.

The effort is especially pronounced in the effort to defeat candidates of color. In Wisconsin, opponents of Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, distributed a mailer in which the color of Barnes’s skin was darkened. Another ad brands Barnes as “different” and “dangerous” while flashing the images of three congress members of color, none of whom has campaigned with him.

In Georgia, images of gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams have been darkened by her opponent’s campaign.

It’s not just the candidates whose images are being darkened: an ad distributed in several House districts in New Mexico shows a barber with darkened hands, and suggests that he is a sex offender.

Research shows that people subconsciously associate darker skin with negative personality traits and crime. This bias is linked to deadly consequences like police shootings and substandard medical care. Responsible public servants should work to counteract it.

Instead, far too many are all to happy to exploit it for political gain.

Racism has always been present in American political campaigns, but the “Willie Horton” ads of the 1988 presidential campaign, have gone down in history as a low point. Horton, who was serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for murder, committed a vicious sexual assault in Maryland after he absconded from a weekend furlough. Candidate George H.W. Bush missed no opportunity to link Horton to his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Bush campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said: “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”

Photos of Dukakis paired with Horton’s mug shot flooded airwaves and mailboxes. Yet few in the Dukakis’ campaign or the media called out the obvious appeal to racism at the time. And that, in large part, was why it was so successful.

“The most important and underplayed lesson of the Horton message is that, in a racially divided society that aspires to equality, the injection of race into campaigns poses a great danger to democratic politics—so long as the injection of race takes place under cover,” political scientist Tali Mendelberg wrote in The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. “When a society has repudiated racism, yet racial conflict persists, candidates can win by playing the race card only through implicit racial appeals. The implicit nature of these appeals allows them to prime racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments while appearing not to do so. When an implicit appeal is rendered explicit—when other elites bring the racial meaning of the appeal to voters’ attention—it appears to violate the norm of racial equality. It then loses its ability to prime white voters’ racial predispositions.”

There is no question that many of the ads being used to stoke racial animosity “violate the norm of racial equality.” Politicians like Tommy Tuberville, who explicitly tarred all Black Americans as “criminals” and Marjorie Taylor Green, who invokes “Replacement Theory” conspiracy theory long promoted by white nationalists, seem to have dispensed with the “implicit” aspect of the strategy. By calling out racism, in all its forms, we can deflate the power of these repugnant appeals.

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