Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dog Whistle?

Background:  Karl Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads, has come out with a video that has been getting a lot of coverage this week.  Here it is -

Emily:  I call racist.  Thoughts?

Mandi:  Ok, so I had some thoughts before seeing the video, only going by a description, and I have other, slighty different thoughts after seeing the video.

First my instinct after reading the description is that that this isn't racist, it is simply out of the Rove playbook, which is to attack a candidate's strengths.  This seems like an attempt to do that.  However, as an attempt, it fails, because it is very hard to attack someone for being too cool.

As a person, and as a candidate, Obama is a hard one to caricature or grasp.  I've watched SNL and countless other comedians try to do it, and they fail miserably.  Something about him seems to elide comedic intent.  You can make fun of his policies, and things that he does, but something about the man himself is very had to make fun of.    Romney on the other hand, not so much:

After watching the video however, I can definitely see some racial intent as well.  The deep voice-over, the constant looping of the president dancing, singing, and drinking beer, as well as the almost subliminal flashes to Kanye West definitely add up to some stereotypes.  It is very hard to credit that such an effect was unintentional.  So racist?- possibly, with a leaning towards yes.

Emily:  I'm a firm believer that there has been a whole lot of racism against President Obama and his family - particularly since his taking office - that the press and other politicians have failed to call out.  I'm sure more of that theory of mine will come out as we talk about stuff on this blog, but for now, let me say that I feel like this ad is all about making a certain type of voter respond, primarily on racist tendencies.

I get what you're saying about Rove and Co generally, and I agree.  They do want to turn the thing that is your biggest asset against you, and undoubtedly, being likable to young people is one of the things the President has going for him.  But in this case, I think it's more cynical and sinister than that.

Yes: the music, the Kanye clips, but also the tone, and I think the entire line of "celebrity president" argument is at least partially a dog whistle on race.  The "cool" label is a clue to me, too - I doubt anybody near college age uses that word, it's our generation and up.  And though they frame the ad like it's aiming at college students:

A) I think those clips are all things college students like about Obama (hello, drinking beer?), and the music isn't something that would set them off; and

B) They add in this line: "85% moving back in with their parents." Now, it's unclear 85% of what - the unemployed college grads?  Or all college grads?  Because for a lot of grads they will move back home for the summer before they get set up for whatever they are doing next.  And I wonder if we're including college grads about to go to grad school.  But regardless of that, that line about moving back in with their parents is the give-away to me.  That makes it clear this is an ad aimed at parents, not kids.  I think it's aimed at lower- and middle-income white men who are 40+.  In an earlier generation the pundits would call it "Reagan Democrats."  And I think that like all the "he's different, he's not American, he's muslim" crap, this is about making President Obama the Other to voters.  And in this country, with our history - particularly with the recent history of the Republican Party - Other is often about race.

I actually think the part of the ad that's truly funny is the fact that they include the President killing that fly.  That must rate with somebody - some group of people actually get pissed off at that?  Whoever it is, it is NOT college students or young people.  I can't imagine anybody young not thinking that was cool.  See, there, I just aged myself.  Not thinking that was awesome?  Badass?  Anyway, there is no way the clip would be in there if it didn't piss somebody off, right?

Mandi:  I too was a little puzzled by the fly killing thing.  But as near as I can determine, while that was a pretty amazing feat (Karate Kid anyone?), it is also rather gross, because you just killed a fly with your bare hands.  So I guess they were going for a visceral disgust reaction to that.  But once again, I don't feel that it works as an ad that is supposed to make you feel negatively towards the President.  I have to think that some kid crafting a fan Youtube video of the President, it wouldn't turn out too much different than what has been presented here.

I do think you are right that it could turn off a certain type of older white male, but those guys are very unlikely to be Obama voters in the first place.  It doesn't hit enough of their concerns to send them rushing out to vote for the other guy either.  It does serve to remind them that yes, our President is black, but did it tip the scales into "scary blackness"?  Could it do so without turning the dog whistle into a regular whistle? Stay tuned...

Emily: Yay, you can edit now, too!  I think it's not even so much "scary blackness" that they're trying to elicit, as it is "he thinks he's so cool, he thinks he's better than me."  Which may work with guys who are "independent" (read: more libertarian than religious) of a certain age.

The Rs need big turnout from white male voters, and to try to turn as many white female voters as they can get their hands on, because they've alienated many hispanics and a lot of women.  They're trying to suppress the black, female, and young vote through voter law changes, but they need to get evangelicals to register and turn out, and they need to get Rs who are not at all excited about Romney (read: anyone making less than 100k/year) to get out and vote.  Rove cares because they could lose the House and lose ground in the Senate if R turnout is low.  Which is to say I don't think Rove cares about Romney.  And as  Grover Norquist recently said, all conservatives want is a Republican president who can sign his own name:

So I think they are trying to get the people who are R-inclined as riled up as possible.

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