Monday, October 19, 2009

Those Carville/Greenberg focus groups 3

Continuing the discussion of the Democracy Corps examination of the conservative Republican base...here's the first part (in which I argued that this is a problem for Republicans, but not for the republic), and here's the second part (in which I asserted that what Carville and Greenberg are hearing is echoed from talk show hosts).

Before leaving the topic, however, I think I have to talk a bit about C/G's comments about race. C/G's first conclusion is that race is "beside the point" in the attitudes of the Republican conservative corps, and several commenters have bought that idea (here's TPM's item, and here's Political Wire), but their own focus groups tell a very different story -- in fact, race-based narratives seem, as I read it, to be critical to the world view expressed here.

First, here's the Democracy Corps summary:
Instead of focusing on these intense ideological divisions, the press and elites continue to look for a racial element that drives these voters’ beliefs – but they need to get over it. Conducted on the heels of Joe Wilson’s incendiary comments at the president’s joint session address, we gave these groups of older, white Republican base voters in Georgia full opportunity to bring race into their discussion – but it did not ever become a central element, and indeed, was almost beside the point.
But that's not what they report. What they report is a group that is highly race-conscience, a group that sees race as central to American politics, although certainly not a group that expressed explicit race hatred. One would think that people might start to understand that in an era in which some idiot in Louisiana could get national attention for refusing to marry people on explicitly racial grounds while loudly proclaiming that he's not a racist. So, let's see what C/G's focus groups are telling us.

1. They are acutely aware of charges of racism, and feel oppressed by those charges. While C/G do not report any of their focus groups repeated Glenn Beck's charges that Obama hates white people, or Newt's accusation that Justice Sotomayor is a racist, I think it's fair to say that intense awareness of (real and supposed) accusations of racism exist on the same dimension. The common denominator, here, is one of acting besieged by blacks and their allies, and seeing American politics as one of a fundamental conflict between blacks and their allies, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other hand. I don't think there's much of a point to arguing over whether to label that lens "racist" or not, but it surely means that race is not "beside the point."

2. I agree with those (I associate this with Glenn Greewald, but I don't have a citation at hand) who argue that the attacks on Bill Clinton from conservatives were at least as intense and vicious as the current attacks on Obama. However, I don't recall accusations that Clinton was only a figurehead for a shadowy conspiracy. Clinton could be accused of many things, and it is true that conservatives thought of him as a illegitimate usurper, but no one that I recall denied Clinton himself agency. That's not true with Obama's attackers:

I just think that Obama was molded and I think that he is being fed what he can and cannot do and what to do next and it seems like he is a puppet in this whole game. I don’t know who the people are behind him really but I don’t think it is him. I think it is somebody, I think he is just the figurehead… I think it is George Soros… I do too… Is he the guy with money?… Yes… They say follow the money.

I think he has a money person behind him that has planned this long before because he has gotten pushed into a position that is unbelievable for a community organizer…I come from Chicago so I know how he got there and I don’t like his tentacles into ACORN and everything else that are subsidiaries and it all goes back… He couldn’t do it by himself.

Since Clinton and Obama share similar biographies in many ways (obscure origins, elite education, new to the national scene), it's not much of a stretch to conclude that race is a reason for the difference. For these respondents, it apparently seems improbable that a black man "couldn't do it by himself," while as far as I can recall Clinton evoked no such concerns. As far as who the cabal Obama is fronting for really is, here's Andrew Sullivan's interpretation:
These people believe there is a hidden plot to destroy America, and it has something to do with black community organizations and Jewish money.
(Don't worry, Andrew -- I'm sure you're not left out; the "cosmopolitan" stereotypes evoked here are both Jewish and gay, so we're in it together).

3. Just an obvious point: C/G note that their focus groups also feel betrayed by the Republican Party, but miss the race-based explanation given by at least one respondent:
They’re so worried about pandering to the Hispanic vote that they’re going to alienate their base.
Note that here the base is defined in opposition to "the Hispanic vote." Is race really "beside the point?"


Well. I think there's a lot to sort out here. Democracy Corps finds a "clear sense of shared identity" among their focus group attendees. For C/G, that's based on a sense of being an oppressed minority, of holding special knowledge, and of having been called to action (although apparently that doesn't involve much, you know, action; they hear about Tea Parties rather than attending them). The core question here is to what extent this "shared identity" is about ideas, and to what extent it is about race. C/G dismiss race, but their own data shows that race is, indeed, an important factor in what this group sees as "us" and what they see as "them." Note that I said it's a factor: I can't know from the evidence they give us how important a factor it is, and I'm sure that it varies across individuals.

I also think there's a lot of work to be done understanding the relationship between these race-centered narratives and the source material, which as I've said is invariably going to be
Rush, Beck, Savage, and the rest of that crowd. Are those media types popular among this group because they evoke race talk that resonates with people who have a propensity for accepting it? Or are Rush & Co. using other frustrations (or, in many cases, honest and simple partisanship) to instill racial awareness where it previously didn't lurk? To put it way more bluntly than I should (because the truth is certainly much more murky than this will imply), are Rush & Co. teaching bigots who don't want to think of themselves as bigots a vocabulary to use to express their bigotry without feeling bad about it? Or are Rush & Co. teaching non-bigots to use racially-loaded language and concepts to explain politics?

One would certainly hope that, in 2009, conversation about these matters can progress beyond the racist/not racist stage; I feel like this should be all fairly obvious, but obviously quite a few people including Carville and Greenberg don't see it that way. No, the nation is not filled with a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth bigots who express a hatred of African Americans and would be Barack Obama's biggest fans if only his father had shared ethnic origins with his mother. But to conclude that it is Obama's supporters who need to "Get Over" race is myopic in the extreme. Raced-based narratives are, as Democracy Corps data show, central to the way that core conservatives talk about politics today, and there's no way to understand them and what they are saying without thinking about race.

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