Mark Naison: How the GOP's Racially Coded Rhetoric Hurts the Nation and May Lose the Election

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]

When John McCain nominated Sarah Palin for Vice President, many political hands viewed this choice as a brilliant strategy to woo working class voters away from the Democrats. Palin's "tough girl" persona and take no prisoners approach to political leadership, coupled with an appealing aura of domesticity flowing from her role as a "hockey mom" and mother of five children, seemed to recast the Republican Party, which had presided over the largest give away to the rich in American history, as the Party of the common people. Palin has emphasized her populist credentials at every opportunity, telling adoring crowds, in carefully chosen campaign stops, that she is speaking for "Joe Sixpack" and surrounding herself with symbols of blue collar Americana like country music star Hank Williams Jr.

Because of Palin's charisma, and ability to excite the Republican based in the midwest and the South, who had initially been somewhat cool to his candidacy, John McCain has decided to use Palinesque rhetoric to enhance his own blue collar credentials, which need some burnishing after it was revealed that he owned 7 houses . In his final debate with Barack Obama, McCain made at least 20 references to man he called "Joe The Plumber," who, he claimed, would be severely penalized under Barack Obama's tax plan because he worked hard all his life and made enough money to buy the company he worked for. That the person he referred to, Joe Weltenbacher, turned out, upon investigation, to have no plumbing license and lack the capital to buy a port-o-san, much less a plumbing company, didn't faze McCain strategists. The repeated invocation of the figure "Joe The Plumber," showed that John McCain had the interests of the American working class at heart.

But what working class?

In a nation where the majority of workers are neither blue collar, white, nor male, repeated references to "Joe Sixpack" and "Joe the Plumber," are more exclusionary than inclusive. The white, muscular, gun toting, Nascar-watching, workers that McCain Palin rhetoric glorify as the heart, soul and conscience of America are a shrinking portion of the American workforce, dwarfed in number by the waitresses, nurses, secretaries, sales clerks, teachers and home health aids, of all racial backgrounds, who are overwhelmingly female, and the truck drivers, factory workers, construction workers ( including plumbers) who are Latino, Black, Asian, and South Asian

In a growing portion of the United States, the toughest, most dangerous work is being done by women and recent immigrants. Go to slaughterhouses and chicken processing plants, textile mils and commercial farms, hospitals and construction sites, warehouses and taxi barns. You'll see a lot of Jose's Oscar's and Maria's, Omar's Khalil's. and Karima's, Betty Lou's and Joan's. What you won't see is a lot of white guys named Joe.

By ignoring this reality in their choice of rhetorical symbols, Republican strategists hurt themselves in two ways. First, they make it seem as though non white and women workers ( Jose the Plumber, and Joan Sixpack) are less important to Republicans than white men, a message which the former groups seem to be taking to heart.. The latest polls show a majority of women, and over 70's of Latinos favoring the Obama/Biden ticket, a calculus which seems destined to produce a Democratic victory.

But secondly, these coded racial messages have helped incite a level of xenophobia and racial hostility at Republican rallies have not been seen in a Presidential election since the George Wallace campaigns of thee 60's. Threats and racial slurs directed at Obama supporters, the parading of openly racist symbols like monkeys and nooses, and chants of "terrorist" and "kill him" when Obama's name have appeared with stunning regularity at Republican presidential gatherings, even after John McCain has denounced such behavior, and are being echoed by a deluge of racially based images of what an Obama presidency would men for America that are being circulated on the internet.

In equating the interests of all American workers with those of white native born men, John McCain, and especially Sarah Palin, have unleashed some of the darkest impulses in the American character in a way that has not only damaged their candidacy, but has strained the social fabric to the breaking point.

Let us hope that American voters will see folly of their strategy, and defeat them so roundly at the polls that their racially coded approach will be permanently consigned to the dustbin of history.

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