The ugly history of enforcement rhetoric in modern US politics winds its way from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, by way of Bill Clinton. It’s a history of cynical deception and manipulation based on racist fear and violent lust for domination and subjugation, conceived and championed by Republicans but all too often embraced by the slide-rule triangulations of Beltway Democrats preoccupied more with the engineerings of government power than the lives and struggles of the governed.
Richard Nixon knew exactly what he was doing when he ran his 1968 presidential campaign on the two philosophically inconsistent promises of enforcing law and order and stopping big government. Those tenets were never meant to be substantive or even rational. In fact, it was better for them to be jarringly irrational, because that was part of their acid-gut appeal, a Colbertian anti-intellectual assertion of primal fear over reason. In the midst of the 60s urban uprisings and race riots, these were smashface calls for white identity politics, explicitly designed to mobilize an emotionally volatile backlash against the Civil Rights movement and the imagined derailing of the 1950s White American Dream.
Nixon’s enforcement rhetoric (“tough on crime”, “law and order”) implicitly promised to crack down on brown people and put them back in their place at the bottom of society; while the attacks on “big government” generated false narratives that white magnanimity had gone too far and had resulted in dangerous hoardes of ungrateful welfare leeches who soaked up tax dollars, benefited from racial quotas, and gave nothing back to society. These constructs were, of course, not grounded in any sort of measurable reality. They were strictly drawn from the deep well of racism, built into the very foundation of this nation, seared into the psyche of every US American as solidly as the opening words of the Constitution.
As the renowned Republican strategist Lee Atwater put it in a 1981 interview with Bob Herbert on the so-called “Southern Strategy”:
By 1968 you can’t say “n—-r”. That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now […] because obviously sitting around saying “We want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—-r, n—-r!”
Not a particulary refined or elevated political strategy. But Nixon rode it to victory in 1968, as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 (“welfare queens”) and George H. W. Bush in 1988 (Willie Horton). The lesson that Washington DC’s professional class of electoral manipulators drew from these outcomes was that national politicians could always count on the racism of white America.
Thus the rise of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s and 90s. Rather than confront and expose the GOP’s debased demagoguery; rather than elevate national discourse by aggressively defending the strides of the Civil Rights movement and attacking racist fearmongering using a principled grown-up language based on human rights; rather than expand the dwindling electorate by reaching into disenfranchised communities who would respond well to a message of progressive populism, the Democratic Party ceded the debate to the most reactionary forces in US politics and adopted the discourse of coded racist narratives.
Bill Clinton won the presidency, ended “welfare as we know it”, ended “the era of big government”, doubled the prison population with mandatory minimums and an explosion of privatized prison construction, slapped NAFTA onto the continent unleashing new levels of unemployment, homelessness, and cross-border migration, and generally devastated countless communities of color.
~ ~ ~
Today, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party are apparently on the verge of tackling “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR) once and for all. How will the debate play out? Exactly which policies will and will not constitute CIR? What political ploys and marketing schemes are DC consultants, motivated primarily by the desire to notch a “win” on their resumes, whispering into the ears of Democratic politicians and mass media lackeys? What legislative package will eventually be passed into law? And what tangible effects will that law have on the lives and struggles of both worthy and “unworthy” members of our communities?
Those questions remain up in the air, and the answers that eventually fall into place will depend in part on the strength and adamancy with which people of conscience assert the voice and power of a mobilized and progressive civic society on the public debate as it unfolds.
As I see it, a fundamental starting point for embarking upon the path to CIR is rejecting the racially-coded enforcement rhetoric which has characterized a great deal of the xenophobic hysteria and racial hatred of our country’s reactionary anti-immigrant forces. I describe this rhetoric as the language of the Leviathan, in reference to Hobbesian political theory, because it reduces the rule of law to the most base human impulses of domination and subjugation, promulgating the submission of individual liberty to the draconian sovereignty of ruler and state by means of a unilateral monopoly on coercive violence.
Obviously every society requires laws, ethical norms, rules of social conduct. But law should elevate society rather than debase it, and the sleight of hand inherent in Nixonian enforcement rhetoric is the manner in which it truncates democratic dialogue and social progress by falsely representing a corrupt and outdated legal, intellectual, and moral framework as a legitimate foundation for reform, when in fact reform must begin with a new, revitalized framework. As the Clinton years demonstrated, liberals cannot adopt reactionary rhetoric as a political tactic and then expect anything other than reactionary social results.
Unfortunately, DC Dems are showing seedy signs of supineness, with “leading” liberal figures such as Senator Charles Schumer resorting to cartoonishly-cynical “get tough” posturing and even President Obama blurting loaded exhortations to “get to the back of the line”. What line? There’s no line, there’s never been one; it’s always been a rigged game. The first folks to be singled out to “get in line” were the Chinese. The vast majority of European folks who came to this country, whether in pursuit of genocidal land grabs or as penniless workers or both, faced no line. Only certain groups are berated with that barked order. Now descendants of those Europeans actually think they have a stronger claim to this continent than the indigenous people themselves.
~ ~ ~
When Democrats concede that the proper starting point is fear and revulsion of the Alien Other, they adopt the lens of xenophobia and feed the toxic environment in which race-based violence is bred. This stance is not productive nor is it rooted in truth. […]
“Go to the back of the line” is an intentionally punitive and domineering phrase. But instead of stroking our desire to dominate the new outsiders, we would benefit from a discussion on the many ways in which “the line” has broken down. From human trafficking rings in which foreign nationals are lured into exploitative US jobs, to foreign-born soldiers denied earned citizenship, the system is overwhelmed with a backlog of over 200,000 cases.
Even if rationalized as standard political posturing, any validation of language and ideas promoted by fringe elements that act violently to defend a “disappearing culture” from “illegals” cannot be excused. […] Who will give the Democrats a tough talk? Who will tell them that in order to rise above the well-entrenched practices of the Right, they will need to be daring, intelligent, and original? Who will assure them they possess the ability to be both honest and victorious?
Indeed those who spout the language of the Leviathan can never serve the cause of social progress, because their tongues are tied to the rigid despotism of the state rather than the rising aspirations of downtrodden communities.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he was disobeying a federal court injunction; his mainstream critics decried this “illegal” march and a majority of US public opinion disapproved of the action. But something strange happened after that march. The winds shifted. Hardened positions became more fluid. Even in white America, a flicker of self-doubt flashed across social consciousness. Openings appeared in the fabric of society and the impossible suddenly became possible. Addressing a nationally televised joint session of Congress two days after the first Selma march, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared:
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
It is said that a single tear rolled down Dr. King’s cheek when he heard that line on TV.
The Voting Rights Act passed 5 months later, not because Washington insiders hatched the right marketing scheme with the correct compromises, but because people grounded in a moral vision of social justice stood up, walked forward with heads held high, and didn’t back down in the face of the Leviathan.
Similar Posts (automatically generated):
- Boycotting Arizona by Jill April 27, 2010
- May 1st: March for Immigration Reform by Cara April 30, 2010
- Arizona Set to Pass Anti-Immigrant Legislation by Cara April 6, 2010
- What The Notorious BIG Can Tell Us About Race and Immigration by Jeremy September 24, 2009
- black girls like us by maia August 4, 2010